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.