Fritz Reiner: A Marriage of Talent and Terror

Fritz Reiner

People were afraid of Fritz Reiner. Talented people, self-assured people, decent people. He was notorious for finding a small crack in your confidence and opening it wide. But he was also known for something else.

Fritz Reiner was not just a sadist, but a genius. One of the greatest conductors ever and the man who took the Chicago Symphony, from 1953 to 1962, and fashioned a legend. According to Igor Stravinsky, Reiner “made the Chicago  Symphony into the most precise and flexible orchestra in the world.”

For those who want individuals to be neatly categorized as all good or all bad, Reiner is confounding: both a great artist and a questionable human. He brings to mind Toscanini’s comment about the composer Richard Strauss: “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again.”

Fritz Reiner was a conductor who had virtually no flaws, however flawed he was personally. His repertoire ranged from the light music of Johann Strauss, Jr. and Richard Rogers’ musical theater Carousel, to the gravity of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Equally at home in the German, Russian, and French repertoire, he played music from Bach to Bartok and much in between. But the road was hard for those musicians who joined him on his artistic quests: demanding if you were on his good side, career-threatening if you were not.

According to Gunther Schuller, who played principal horn under Reiner at the Metropolitan Opera:

He clearly had a sadistic streak in him, and truly enjoyed making musicians uncomfortable, making them squirm, humiliating them. He was the type (who)… inflicted his particular sadistic gratifications in a coolly clinical, perfectly controlled manner, a type we have seen many times in films caricaturing Prussian or Nazi officers and the like… With Reiner I clearly sensed that he was deriving a certain emotional and intellectual pleasure from torturing his victims… (He was a person who) would not only deliver his stinging sarcasm in utter calculated calm, but would also pursue his victim until the person broke, it being symptomatic of this type of verbal sadist that he can easily sense a weakling who is unable to stand up to the abuse; this type of sadist hunts down his prey until the kill has been accomplished.*

Fritz Reiner by John Jensen:

Fritz Reiner by John Jensen: http://www.Johnjensen.co.uk

Reiner’s twin capacity to inflict discomfort and create staggering musical moments combined in the surgical precision of his approach to his musicians. Through his movements and his words, the conductor was able to inflect the musical line or inflict personal pain as he chose.

Reiner took a minimalist approach to the use of his baton, in what came to be called a “vest pocket beat.” As Philip Farkas (principal horn for most of Reiner’s CSO tenure) recalled:

He conducted with everything he had, not only with his hands. I recall he’d be looking at the first violins, so we’d get only a profile. A big brass entrance would come in. He’d suddenly turn his head and, still directing his hands toward the violins, would look at us and puff out his cheeks right on the beat, which was a real demonstration of when the winds should come in. Then, if we’d had that attack he gave us with his cheeks, if he wanted a crescendo, his eyebrows would go slowly higher. While still working with the first violins, he might kick out in back of him and bring in the violas with his foot**

Clearly, Reiner knew his business and knew what he could achieve by talent and by intimidation, as Farkas illustrated in recalling Reiner’s first rehearsal with the CSO as its new Music Director:

We’d had a long number of years of lax discipline and too many guest conductors. The men were good, it was a good orchestra, but undisciplined and far from being a cohesive group. So Reiner took over and tore that orchestra apart. In a two-hour rehearsal he pulled us apart and put us together again — literally — and in the course of doing it actually fired one of the men. He said, “I don’t accept that kind of playing in my orchestra.” We thought, “Gee, you haven’t even got the orchestra yet, it’s only an hour or so.” But it was his orchestra, he had a contract to prove it. Anyhow, he took us apart and we needed it, we all knew that. And when he put it back together and we went straight through Ein Heldenleben (by Richard Strauss) the last hour of rehearsal, it was a revelation. There we had it, and we knew we had it, but we couldn’t do it until he came along. When he did it, it was great. But, as I say, he was rough. He spared no mercy on us at all. As he went out the door after the rehearsal, he was the only calm one. The rest of us were ringing wet. As he went out the door, one of our wags in the orchestra, (the violinist) Royal Johnson, said, “Well, not much of a conductor, but an awfully nice fellow!”***

Reiner’s reputation had preceded him. Indeed, one attributed feature of his almost demonic musicianship was the ability to give every player the feeling that he and he alone was being watched by the conductor at every moment. Perhaps it was that quality that accounts for the following CSO story, also involving Royal Johnson. Johnson was seated on stage — on the aisle that led to the stage door. At an early rehearsal in Reiner’s tenure, Johnson got up as Reiner moved past him to the podium and walked very quietly just behind the conductor, peering over his shoulder. What he observed was an apparent surgical scar that Reiner had on the back of his neck, something other musicians had already commented on. Johnson quickly returned to his seat before Reiner noticed anything unusual. The violinist turned to his stand-mate and said, “You know, that’s not his original head!”

For Gunther Schuller, Adolph (Bud) Herseth (the CSO’s legendary principal trumpet), and many others, the key to survival under these conditions, was to stand up to the conductor — to look Reiner in the eyes as he stared you down and to keep playing well, no matter how many times he might ask you to repeat a phrase in order to “test” you. Reiner claimed that he wanted musicians he could rely on, who he could depend upon “in the trenches.” If you passed his tests and didn’t break, he usually left you alone thereafter. But, it was a day before strong musicians’ committees and contracts that protected the players. The conductor did, indeed, have your professional life and livelihood in his hands.

Could he have achieved what he wanted without being ruthless? Theoretically, the answer is, of course. But, at a human level, our strengths are frequently also our weaknesses. His ability to lead and his unyielding dominance were probably inextricably intermingled.

The cost of Reiner’s achievement was doubtless a high one. But often, it must be admitted, that combination of talent and terror led to something special. Never more than on a CSO tour concert in 1958. Philip Farkas relates the story:

As time went along on this Boston concert, it was obvious that we had a “no-hitter” going. Tension was mounting — there hadn’t been the slightest flaw, no scratch. Intermission came, and we said, “Jeez, what’s going on? We’re playing even better than usual.” So at the end of the concert — nobody had scratched a note anywhere during the entire concert. We were all aware of this, and very excited about it. When we went off stage after the applause had stopped, Reiner was there shaking everybody’s hand, tears streaming down his face. “All my life I’ve waited for this moment: a perfect concert. The only one I’ve ever experienced.” And it was, so far as I know. I came out the door, and there was (Arthur) Fiedler (conductor of the Boston Pops): “You’re not men — you’re gods,” he said.****

Gods? You can find out for yourself. Sony has just issued every recording the CSO made with Reiner for RCA:
Fritz Reiner — Chicago Symphony Orchestra: The Complete RCA Recordings.

Reiner complete

Special thanks to John Jensen for permission to use his Reiner caricature. Other excellent images can be found at: http://www.johnjensen.co.uk/

*Gunther Schuller, Gunther Schuller: A Life In Pursuit of Music and Beauty (Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2011), 378.

**Hillyer, Stephen C., ed. “The Podium” 2, no. 2, (Country Club Hills, IL: The Fritz Reiner Society, 1978), Reiner Symposium in Bloomington, IN, March 11, 1978, 12.

***Hillyer, “The Podium,” 12.

****Hillyer, “The Podium” 3, 1979, 22.

22 thoughts on “Fritz Reiner: A Marriage of Talent and Terror

  1. Reminds me of my narcissistic late father — highly financially successful but an enormous failure as a human being. Me? I would always rather be a success in the latter than the former.

    Thanks, as always, for food for thought. 🙂

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  2. Thank you, Dr. Stein!

    I always enjoy your writing and this time you opened my eyes to Fritz Reiner!

    Fascinating subject. A feast to read about.

    Jayne Osborne

    On Fri, Oct 11, 2013 at 5:00 PM, Dr. Gerald Stein – Blogging About

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  3. What a terrifying and fascinating personality! It brought to mind Alfred Hitchcock. (I recently watched the Hitchcock 2012 movie with Anthony Hopkins and Scarlett Johansson.)

    It makes me wonder: Is being a genius a genetic flaw that comes with a negative personality side effect?

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    • I am no expert on genius, but certainly (as Lord Acton said), power tends to corrupt. Extraordinarily talented people often are permitted license to behave badly, though Reiner went well beyond most conductors of his time in this department. Unfortunately, we don’t know very much about how he was raised; certainly nothing that might explain his apparent sadism. Perhaps, as you’ve implied, it was simply something in his nature.

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  4. Well, he wasn’t there to make friends! Job assigned, job completed. Well done, maestro.

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  5. As a musician I must take exception with this article. Why has technical perfection been assumed to be the primary ideal of orchestral music? In a perverse way did this not give Reiner and other tyrant conductors carte blanche to pursue that perfection by any means necessary with their musicians? Yes of course ensemble tightness is important, flexibility quite impressive, but at what cost, to what interpretive end? In my opinion conductors like Reiner, Szell, Toscanini excelled in this area yet beyond the sheen of consistancy there is not much substance. They each referred to the composer’s scores and markings in a disturbingly fundamentalist fashion we now take for granted as the ‘right’ way to perform the various masterpieces. This aesthetic also conveniently dovetailed with the prominance of recording and touring where consistancy was a must.

    Being moved to tears by a “perfect” concert (without any mistakes) seems quite infantile. Are the interpretations of Furtwangler as well as his humanity less deserving of praise, less worthy of justifying cruel behavior (which in his case seems unneeded)?

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    • As someone who esteems conductors like Furtwängler, I can understand your position. However, I do think that Reiner, Szell, and Toscanini also had much to offer in the way of interpretation, even if they are less to my personal taste than Furtwängler in many areas of the repertoire. Other CSO members to whom I’ve spoken have said that the Boston concert Farkas mentioned was about more than technique, although that is certainly not what the anecdote itself suggests. In any case, thanks for thoughts on the matter.

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      • Spencer Warren Warren

        Reiner was much more expressive than Toscanini (who on occasion was expressive) and especially the mechanical Szell. Listen more carefully.

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      • Thanks for the advice, but I’ll offer a friendly suggestion, too. If you listen to the Toscanini “live” performances from the mid-30s, both with the BBC Symphony and the New York Philharmonic, I find a remarkable flexibility and nuance of expression, at least equal to anything Reiner left us from Chicago. The Brahms #4 comes to mind in the case of those Toscanini recordings. But, in any case, we have different opinions, and as the old saw tells us, that’s what makes a horse race. Thanks for you comment.

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  6. One should not forget that Fritz Reiner is not here to defend himself. The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred in their bones.

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  7. Michael Schaffer

    Have you listened to some of Toscanini’s rehearsal outbursts? There are several documented on tape (you can find a few on Youtube).
    They can get pretty drastic. And once he snaps, he tends to go on and on and on. To me, that doesn’t sound like a man just insisting on the best possible results who gets frustrated once in a while and who then vents that frustration in strong language. That is just normal. Who doesn’t know what that can be like?
    No, to me, it sounds like a really sick man who allows himself to subject his helpless subordinates to his abuse. It sounds like a man who has no more control over himself, who flies into a blind rage.
    But then what do I know? I am not a psychologist. But – you are! So what do you think?

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  8. Short of doing more research on Toscanini than I’m prepared to do right now, the best I can do is relate what Gunther Schuller says, a man who worked with both Reiner and Toscanini: “…Toscanini… was not a mean, nasty man, not even particularly arrogant. Off the podium Toscanini was, so one heard continually, a typically kind, proud family man, quite normal in his behavior and relations with those around him. But on the podium, driven by his obsession with perfection, he simply could not control himself. How often I witnessed his impulsive explosions in rehearsals — screaming in withering scatological Italian — when the playing he was berating had, in fact, been perfectly fine, or when the object of his wrath had only committed some obviously inadvertent and minor error. We all learned that Toscanini’s temper tantrums would pass quickly, like a brief summer storm, and that he had meant nothing personal with his outbursts.” Probably not normal by today’s standards then, but not so “dangerous” (Schuller’s word) and sadistic as Reiner. This, by the way, comes from the same section of Schuller’s excellent book as I quoted within my essay.

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    • Michael Schaffer

      Thanks. I understand that you can not give a professional opinion just based on a few moments of recorded outbursts. It is true though that some psychotic people actually come across as totally “normal” and “nice” most of the time – until something suddenly triggers a psychotic outburst or episode -, is it not? Or is that just a cliché?

      That Schuller book sounds like interesting reading – I have read parts of his “Compleat Conductor” with its very meticulous analyses of various interpretations of a variety of repertoire pieces.

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      • Thank you, Mr. Schaffer. Indeed, any diagnosis should only be rendered after a thorough, face-to-face evaluation. Our chances of that with Toscanini are not great! I haven’t seen any people who “snapped” and became psychotic in an abrupt and permanent way, although one certainly hears of those who commit “crimes of passion” during episodes of emotional dyscontrol. I think some of the great conductors of 70 years ago probably need to be understood in terms of the license they were given for domineering, rude, and sometimes heartless behavior. There are still “big personalities” in the conducting ranks today, as you know. The fact that we don’t have the tyrants of yesteryear probably has more to do with the fact that it is no longer permitted, than any fundamental change in the kind of people who command great orchestras.

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  9. Dr. S, betcha never thought this blog would be one of your most widely commented upon! 🙂

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  10. Harry, I’ve given up trying to figure which posts will be most popular. Some of the things I like best seem to die in the water, while others resonate in a way that I didn’t expect. I am finding a few music outlets for those that I write about classical music, which probably accounts for some of the interest in this one. Many thanks for your continuing interest!

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  11. I’ve read these anecdotes in other places and am again disturbed rereading them. I’ve also read the bio of Reiner. A “perfect” concert because no one scratched any notes? Wow, if that is what music was about to him, I am so glad those days are long gone. Our orchestras today play very very well, and conductors know they can’t away with that kind of authoritarian behavior. So, his approach probably wasn’t necessary then. No one can deny his results, however. I am a huge fan of all the old recordings!

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    • Sorry that you were disturbed, but many had not read them. Of course, you are right that they are not new. The group of those who played under Reiner is an ever smaller number. It has been interesting talking with some of the players who were on stage in Boston that day. Some have no recollection of the concert. Some remember it being overwhelming, and not only because all the notes were there. His cruelty surely wasn’t necessary, but his authority was. As you say, “no one can deny his results.” I agree absolutely. Yet, again, I have met a few people who were not convinced by his music-making. As we both know, I’m sure, there are always differences of opinion.

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