FRITZ REINER/1888-1963

FRITZ REINER/1888-1963

By Roger Dettmer

December 1963

Fritz Reiner, music director of the Chicago Symphony from 1953 to 1962, and its musical adviser last season, died on November 15 in New York of pneumonia, one month and four days short of his 75th birthday.

The formerly stocky, bull-necked maestro, known throughout the world for his exacting performance standards, “vest-pocket” beat, and stinging wit, lived to be ranked among the foremost senior citizens of the international music community. Impartial observers were persuaded, notably by his achievements in Chicago, to rank him with Leopold Stokowski, Otto Klemperer, Pierre Monteux, and the late Bruno Walter among the exalted. As an orchestra builder, his reputation was challenged only by Stokowski and the late Artur Rodzinski, briefly Chicago’s resident conductor in 1947-48.

First in Cincinnati (1922-31), later in Pittsburgh (1938-48), and finally in Chicago, where he had been named “honored guest conductor” last May, Reiner was faced at the outset with dis-spirited personal and low performance standards. In each case he rebuilt the orchestra to international eminence. In Chicago, the capstone of his career, he fashioned one of the world’s half-dozen supreme symphony orchestras.

Never, during his half-century career as conductor, did Reiner choose to fraternize or socialize with players under his direction, thereby earning a formidable reputation for stern, on occasion withering, discipline. Remoteness from the ·rank and file, however, enabled him to achieve those standards demanded by an incredibly keen musical ear—ruthlessly, if need be.

He was a despot by general agreement, but many (including former players) have argued reasonably on his behalf that less than despotism would have encouraged insubordination. Reiner never felt it necessary to be liked so long as he was respected. Any scattered cries at this time of “Sic semper tyrannis” will be drowned in a sea of voices calling out “Ave atque vale.”

He was born Frijus (later Fritz) Reiner in Budapest on December 19, 1888, the only son of a prosperous, socially active Hungarian merchant, Ignatz Reiner. An early interest in the piano, coupled with a phenomenal memory, led to his enrollment in the Budapest Academy of Music in 1898; three years later, at the age of 13, he played in his first public concert. His teachers were Hans Koessler (composition and conducting), Istvan Thoman (piano), and subsequently Thoman’s austere young successor, Bela Bartók, who signed Reiner’s diploma in 1909.

During his final years at the Academy, Reiner also studied law at the university at his father’s insistence. When the latter died, however, in 1909, young Frijus gave his full attention to music, securing a post as coach and repetiteur with the Budapest Komische Oper for the 1909 season. The following year, he moved to Laibach (now Ljubljana, Yugoslavia) as a principal conductor of the provincial opera there.

His Slovenian success earned him an invitation to join the Budapest Volksoper as full conductor in 1911. He remained there for three years. His major professional breakthrough was an offer early in 1914 to become royal court conductor at Dresden, where he conducted opera and concerts by the Saxon State Orchestra until 1922.

Throughout World War I he worked in Dresden, on occasion guest conducting in Berlin, Hamburg, Vienna and Rome. During this period, he formed a friendship with Richard Strauss that endured until the composer’s death in 1949. When, however, in 1921 the Dresden Opera refused to grant him leave to conduct in Rome and Barcelona, Reiner quit his post, though it guaranteed him a lifetime contract. News of his European successes traveled the ocean, and it was Reiner’s second wife (then visiting in Italy) who heard that Cincinnati was interested in him to succeed Eugene Ysayë on the podium. In Majorca, he received a wire from her, and embarked at once for the United States.

Reiner’s Cincinnati career was stormy and storied from the outset, what with his mailed-fist discipline, free hand to make programs and alter personnel, fully developed expressive gift, and pioneering spirit in music by his contemporaries. He gave the first American performances of much of Bartók’s music (then considered unendurably avant-garde), and was a proselyte on behalf of Debussy, Ravel, Respighi and especially Stravinsky in the United States. He became a United States citizen in 1929.

Two events conspired at the time, however, to separate Reiner and Cincinnati. First, the orchestra passed from the private control of Mrs. Charles Phelps Taft (who had engaged Reiner) to the Institute of Fine Arts, archly conservative at the outset. Secondly, Reiner’s marriage ended in well-publicized divorce proceedings. After the final decree was granted in 1930, Reiner married Carlotta (née Charlotte) Irwin, then resident ingénue with Cincinnati’s celebrated Stuart Walker players.

In 1931, at an invitation from the Curtis Institute of Music, Fritz and Carlotta Reiner moved to Philadelphia, where he became head of the school’s orchestra department. In addition, he guest conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra regularly, organized a corollary opera season in 1934-35, made appearances at Hollywood Bowl, at Covent Garden in London (1936-37), with the San Francisco Opera (1936-38), and in most of Europe’s musical capitals.

Insiders still insist that Reiner accepted the Curtis post in hopes of succeeding Stokowski (a predecessor in Cincinnati) as conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra; and that he quit the City of Brotherly Love in 1938 because the post went, instead, to Eugene Ormandy. Whatever Reiner’s motives, his Curtis conducting classes were the strictest, most selective, and most celebrated in the United States. Among pupils later to gain national fame were Leonard Bernstein and Walter Hendl. In 1938, just when Philadelphia chose Ormandy rather than Reiner to spell Stokowski, Pittsburgh invited him to take over its orchestra, conducted from 1898 to 1904 by Victor Herbert, revived in 1927, but latterly fallen upon dark days. Perhaps hoping to build in western Pennsylvania what eastern Pennsylvania denied him, Reiner accepted.

He gathered about him key men from his Cincinnati days, and went to work in the fall of 1938. When he left Pittsburgh a decade later, Reiner had built one of the nation’s foremost orchestras; and he elected to leave only when budgetary considerations threatened a cut in personnel (from 90 to 85 players) and season length (from 28 to 25 weeks). During his Pittsburgh decade, he was a regular guest conductor of major orchestras in this country and abroad, and, beginning in 1941, an annual leader of the N.B.C. Symphony at Toscanin’s invitation.

From the confluence of the Monogahela and Allegheny rivers, Reiner moved to the banks of the Hudson at Edward Johnson’s invitation, to become head of the Metropolitan Opera’s German wing.

His Met debut, on February 4, 1949, was reported by knowledgeable elders to have been the most eventful since Toscanini’s in the same house 40 years earlier. The opera as “Salome,” by his friend and mentor Richard Strauss and the leading singer was Ljuba Welitsch, a sensation in her own right. But the star that night was Reiner, and the whole house knew it. During the next five seasons, he was to produce historic revivals of Strauss’ “Elektra” and Verdi’s Falstaff,” to conduct Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” and ‘Don Giovanni,” Strauss’ “Rosenkavalier” and Bizet’s “Carmen” with especial insight and finesse.

The idyll on 39th Street was short-lived, however, after Rudolf Bing’s appointment as general manager in 1950. Tempers flared between the two men, both upper-middleclass Austro-Hungarians, particularly when Bing engaged other, less distinguished, less capable conductors for specialties of the Reiner repertory. Therefore, when a revolution within the Chicago Symphony’s governing body spelled doom for struggling Rafael Kubelik, Reiner was ready to be approached. In December, 1952, his appointment as music director of the Chicago Symphony was announced, effective the following September.

The rest is glorious Chicago history, yet not without squalls and contretemps.

The enduring of these was Reiner’s decision, after arrangements had been completed, to veto a prestigious tour of Europe and Asia Minor set for the summer of 1959. Although he had taken the orchestra on an enormously successful tour of eastern-seaboard citadels just a few months earlier, the city never quite forgave him until his first serious illness one and a half years later.

Unquestionably stung by the city’s continuing resentment, Reiner returned in late September, 1960, ready to work with renewed vigor and redoubled interest. Then, on the morning of October 6, just days before the start of his eighth (and the orchestra’s 70th) season, he was·stricken. Not until December did Chicago learn that he had suffered heart failure, which in turn triggered a “serious circulatory collapse.” Not until March 31, 1961, was he sufficiently recovered to conduct the final five pairs of Orchestra Hall subscription concerts, and to record in moderation.

Official announcements in early summer, 1961, informed the city that Reiner would conduct only ten weeks of the 1961-62 season, and no more than two weeks at a stretch—the balance to be assumed by guest conductors and his second-in-command, Walter Hendl.

He recovered sufficiently, however, to make records in London last winter, to conduct six weeks of Chicago concerts in the spring, and to record two Haydn symphonies in New York this past September. Evidently things were made up between Bing and Reiner, because he was in the midst of preparations for a Metropolitan revival of Wagner’s “Götterdämmerung,” when “bronchitis” sidelined him on November 10.

Reiner had been scheduled since last winter to return to Chicago on December 19—his 75th birthday—for the first of four weeks of concerts with the Chicago Symphony.

Shortly thereafter, word leaked west that he had spent the first ten days of July, 1961, in the hospital at Wesport, Connecticut, near his beloved country estate, “Rambleside,” and that he might expect hospital confinement in future perhaps as often as one week out of every month.

Reiner is survived by his widow and by two daughters from his first marriage.

Editor’s note: Fritz Reiner’s last published interview, “Return of Reiner,” by Jay S. Harrison, appeared in MUSICAL AMERICA, October, 1963. 


The following is the eulogy delivered by William Schuman, president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, at the funeral of Fritz Reiner on November 18.

“Example,” according to Albert Schweitzer, “is everything.” “Example is everything.” Nowhere in the myriad activities of man is example so clearly the all-embracing criterion as in teaching. All great artists by the very nature of their functioning are teachers. Teachers because their role is to interpret, to reveal, to illumine. Yet it is rare indeed that we think of the artist of superb gifts as other than virtuoso performer. Fritz Reiner, to be sure, was the virtuoso performer. But he was ever the teacher. He taught not in the classroom alone. He taught all who performed in his orchestra, all who heard him, all who saw him. Fritz was the teacher of us all through every facet of his astonishing mastery of the art he practiced. Yet these demonstrable attributes were the end result of the true example of his life in art: a complete and total commitment of self—of all his intellectual and emotional resources to the art that was his life. Example, indeed, is everything.

Can the qualities of a man ever fully be revealed in words? I think not. But key words come to mind when one thinks of Fritz Reiner. The first is respect. This master enjoyed the respect of all. He won it through a lifelong work of thought and action. Respect for his superb craftsmanship was the most obvious: that revolutionary conducting technique with its economy of means—the turn of the wrist, the direction of the eye—the sound elicited through gestures contained within the modest proportions of the body sphere. Respect, too, for the cool objectivity which enabled him to stand aside and evaluate—an objectivity of such high discipline that it was at his beck and call to serve subjective convictions. Convictions he had about every measure of every work he performed. Cool objectivity, yes—but as the tool to insure the warm result so deeply felt. Respect for his dedication to the new music of his time, especially to that of his own generation. Respect for his programs over the years, which included virtually all the major works new to our century. Respect for his scholarship and his true sense of the flow of music’s history. Respect for his awareness of music’s constant need for nourishment at the source and his response to the composers of his day.

Another key word is courage. Always the courage of his convictions in standards of performance, in choice of repertory and in his personal beliefs. And to the end the physical courage to go on—knowing that it might take its toll. Let us not be deceived: beneath this cool objectivity which we have noted was a deep passion for making music, and for him making music was life.

And a third key word is devotion; the devotion of the artist to his art; the devotion his dedication evoked in others. And for Fritz, the strains of professional life were eased and his personal life enriched beyond measure by the devotion of his wife Carlotta, truly his helpmate for more than 30 years.

“It is not the critic,” said Theodore Roosevelt, “who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena . . . who strives valiantly . . . who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause who ... knows in the end the triumph of high achievement; so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

Words of Shakespeare and Learned Hand:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task has done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.

That is the nature of all things;
though, little as we may like to
acknowledge it, it is irrelevant to
their value and their significance; for
permanence as such has neither value
nor significance. All that will then
matter will be all that matters now,
and what matters now is what are the
wages we do take home. Those are
what we choose to make them; we
can fix our pay; the splendor and the
tragedy of life lie just in that. Values
are ultimate, they admit of no reduction
below themselves.

Our tribute here today is one of affection and gratitude. We are grateful for his full and productive life; grateful for the privilege of our association with so pre-eminent an artist. And for us, his friends and colleagues—his pupils—his example will endure. His unassailable standards will ever guide all of us. As the years unfold, he will be with us through that special wonder of human life—”the immortality of continuing influence.” —WILLIAM SCHUMAN


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