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The Joy of Life - A Tribute to Sir Georg Solti
JMI Event 14 April 2005
An account by Malcolm Miller

Forty students will be granted scholarships for JMI music courses this year thanks to the success of a memorable event last April, ‘The Joy of Life, A Tribute to Sir Georg Solti’. An invited audience of music lovers, friends of JMI and distinguished entrepreneurs in the Arts, were treated to an inspiring visit to the home of the great conductor, guided by the hostess Lady Valerie Solti, JMI Vice-President, followed by a film show at the home of Sir Sydney and Lady Lipworth, JMI Joint Chairman, presented by the eminent film personalities Humphrey Burton and Rodney Greenberg.

Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997) was a charismatic conductor with a legendary reputation. His international career covered a string of major directorships, of the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (1946-52), Frankfurt Opera (1952-61), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden (1961-71), and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1969-1991), and leading opera houses and orchestras the world over. Many, like myself, recall the thrill of his magnetic presence on the podium, whether in his famous performances of Wagner’s Ring cycle, or during the Proms where the Albert Hall seemed to focus around his electric direction of large orchestral forces. One such occasion was the momentous Shostakovich Symphony No.8 performance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra during the ‘farewell’ tour that marked Solti’s retirement after more than thirty years with the orchestra.

How did Sir Georg Solti forge such a remarkable career, and whence did his musical vigour, zest and energy emanate? His success story is also a tale of remarkable tenacity, related eloquently in his autobiography Solti on Solti (Chatto & Windus, 1997), where he describes being blessed by a Guardian Angel throughout his life. Solti’s ‘guardian angel’ seemed present too with us too on our journey of discovery, reliving moments of his career, enjoying a world of music enriched by a magical aura.

After light refreshments in the airy reception room overlooking the garden, our gathering were invited by Lady Solti downstairs to Sir Georg’s studio, a large, quiet room at garden level, adorned with memorabilia. Valerie Solti explained that the studio had been built in 1927 for a Polish artist married to an Englishwoman, and that it had been this very room that had attracted Solti to the house. “He would come down here every morning and sit and read through his scores. He always said you had to be really prepared for an orchestra.” For ardent admirers, the chance to step into the studio in which the Maestro studied his scores, where he rehearsed on his Steinway grand pianos with leading singers and soloists, and where he developed his visionary and powerful interpretations, promised to be an encounter of almost religious intensity. In the event it was an exhilarating as well as fascinating experience and one which I would like to recall and describe as fully as possible.

On display was a selection of the maestro’s musical scores, notable as they were larger than life-size, perhaps a meter in length, and brightly marked up with red pencil, showing Solti’s ideas on tempi phrasing and cues for instruments. As Solti explains in his autobiography, he gradually changed his method of study: early on if he was preparing a work already familiar, he would study his marked up scores, then listen to recordings and study his markings. Later on he decided to have new scores made up in large scale especially to see without glasses, and listen to works afresh and put in entirely new markings. Malcolm Singer, composer and conductor, examined some of the precise details within (photo); the scores could form valuable material for musicologists researching interpretations by great conductors. Amongst his library were also some interesting first editions, including Mozart’s ‘La Clemenza di Tito’ and Requiem vocal score. Lady Solti pointed out in particular a large score of Bach’s St John Passion, the last great work he mastered in his latter years, having never conducted it early on. She reminisced that he would call her down to listen to this or that ‘marvellous bit’, though she was too busy editing his autobiography.

A significant presence in the room was Rodin’s bust of Gustav Mahler that stood near the window. Lady Solti described how their two young daughters, Gabrielle and Claudia, born when Sir Georg was already in his late fifties, would come in and pat the bust with the greeting ‘Good morning Gustav’. “Although he was very disciplined, he always allowed the children in”. On the far side of the room were several attractive drawings of famous Hungarian musicians and teachers. One was of Leo Weiner, the great Hungarian-Jewish composer and teacher, recalled fondly by many students of the Budapest Academy where Solti studied. Next to it were portraits of Dohnanyi (whose grandson Christoph was Solti’s assistant with the Chicago SO) and the composer Kodaly.

Dominating the centre of the room were Solti’s two Steinway grand pianos. The smaller, chosen personally from the Steinway Hamburg factory, was Solti’s first ever purchase after the war, when he had been appointed General Music Director of the Bavarian State Opera. The larger concert grand was acquired during a concert visit to Bologna , and had belonged to the great pianist Michelangeli. Lady Solti arranged for its delivery in time for Solti’s birthday. She tied a pink ribbon to it and called Solti to the studio - and recalled with a smile how for several minutes he had simply not noticed anything new! Fortunately both pianos are still in use by promising young artists for rehearsal and recording.

Perhaps the most moving personal memorabilia were the letters and postcards from Solti’s parents in Budapest . Many members of Solti’s family perished in Russia in the East, and his father died during the war of diabetes. In his autobiography, Solti describes how he made his debut conducting at Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, at the Budapest Opera on 11 March 1938 , the very day of the Austrian Anschluss. It turned out to be the last opera he conducted in Hungary , forced to leave because of the approaching years of darkness. He recalled his father crying at the Budapest station when he left: “The sight of his tears …have haunted me every since. I was never to see him again.”. With luck he found lodgings in Zurich with the opera singer Max Hirzel who needed coaching. Lady Solti read out one of the postcards from this period, filled with tiny handwriting, from Solti’s parents in Budapest to their twenty five-year-old son, with warnings from his father that ‘the lakes are cold’, advice about how to preserve shoes, at that time a luxury, and to practise a lot since he might win ‘second prize’ in the Geneva piano competition. Solti in fact won first prize, and in one of the films we saw later he described how he was so nervous that he forgot how to begin the fugue in Beethoven’s Op 110, in the warm-up prior to the competition, and went on stage in a panic. Still, his guardian angel was there to ensure a major professional breath-through.

Before we left this hallowed space there was just time to admire a display that symbolized Solti’s achievements: on one shelf near the garden stood a display of his unique collection of 33 Grammy Awards, the largest collection any single recording artist has ever received.

Solti’s formidable recording career (he made an astonishing three hundred recordings!) was the subject of the first of the films shown in the presentation at the elegant home of Sir Sydney and Lady Lipworth. The extract shown was from a 1987 film on his 75 th birthday to mark forty-five years recording with Decca, for whom he pioneered stereo recording of Wagner’s Ring in 1958. We saw some wonderful clips of Solti conducting the recording sessions, powerful and full of tension. The film was presented by one Valerie Pitts, then a young film maker, and her first BBC interview in 1964 with the Maestro was to result in their enduring relationship, as Solti put in his autobiography “I think we both fell in love within minutes… We very soon decided that we wanted to live together”. In the film Solti added, with a glint in his eye “…I was separated and Valerie was married… the most immoral one could be!” – and the couple married in 1967.

“A wonderful artist, conductor, accompanist and teacher” was how Humphrey Burton , author and film producer, described Sir Georg Solti in his introduction to the film presentations which ensued. It was enthralling to see early footage of Solti conducting Der Rosenkavalier on Richard Strauss’s 85 th birthday, and later, the memorable account of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1996, which was to be his last Prom. Several clips showed how accomplished a pianist Solti was, notably an extract from a 1981 BBC1 series called ‘Behind the Scenes’, repeated on BBC2, in which Rodney Greenberg had filmed Solti at his studio in Elsworthy Road, talking about his life and practising Mozart's G minor Piano Quartet for the first time in 40 years specially for this programme, with three young string players. In another film, made by Humphrey Burton, Solti was seen at the piano painstakingly rehearsing a Richard Strauss song with Dame Kiri Te Kanawa.

One of the remarkable highlights was a film showing Solti revisiting the Liszt Academy , Budapest , where he played a piano piece of his own he had composed as a student. The extract, here receiving its public premiere, was from a BBC Omnibus programme, directed by Peter Maniura, planned to celebrate Solti's 85th birthday in 1997, and broadcast instead in tribute three weeks after he died. Earlier, r eflecting on Solti’s relationship with Hungary , Valerie recalled that "He was often asked why he did not work in Hungary . The history was that he was forced to leave in 1938, then when he wanted to go back they prevented him and so he asked ‘how many times do they have to throw me out?’.” Solti had conducted Bartok’s Missa Profana for the important concert to mark his return to Budapest . The work quotes a famous Hungarian tale about a family whose hunter-sons leave home, are transformed into enchanted stags, who can only drink pure mountain water and whose antlers grow so long they cannot return home. “That was Solti”, remarked Lady Solti. “Like the stags, and his compatriot Bartok, who went to America , he could only drink ‘from clean water’; he had gone too far away and was too big to return home…” . Yet clearly Solti himself did feel he had returned, as he says in the last lines of his autobiography, “As I stood in the afternoon sunshine, surrounded by the graves of my ancestors…overlooking Lake Balaton , I felt for the first time in sixty years a sense of belonging. I realized that Hungary was becoming part of Europe again, the boundaries had disappeared. The stag had returned home; his antlers had been able to pass through the door, because during his absence the doorway had become taller and wider”. Yet, as we watched another moving extract of the Omnibus film in which Solti visited his grandparents’ graves in Balaton , Hungary , Valerie poignantly described how “something happened during that filming; it was as if he had finally come home…and five weeks later he died. His ashes are scattered there in Hungary .”

‘Who can step into his shoes?’ was the question posed by Rodney Greenberg in a Jewish Chronicle appreciation soon after Solti died. His answer seemed to reflect Solti’s own sense of humour, for he pointed out that he was wearing one of three pairs of the Maestro’s shoes given to him by Lady Solti. It was a delightful note on which to end an evening dedicated to the ‘Joy of Life’, an unique insight into Solti’s charismatic genius and joie de vivre. The official Solti website, www.georgsolti.com, includes a quote from the last pages of Solti’s autobiography: “My life is the clearest proof that if you have talent, determination and luck, you will make it in the end. My motto is ‘Never Give Up’”. The Maestro would surely have supported and rejoiced in the musical aims of this JMI Tribute, namely to enable and encourage enthusiastic young musicians to learn more about the art of music in all its expressions.


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