Sir Georg Solti, KBE (21 October 1912 – 5 September 1997) was a 31-time Grammy Award winning, world-renowned Hungarian-British orchestral and operatic conductor.
Solti was born György Stern
, where he learned the piano
and studied at the Franz Liszt Academy of Music
. His father Germanized young György's given name to Georg and changed his family name to Solti, to shield his son from antisemitism
. By 1935 he was gaining recognition as a conductor, and made his debut at the Budapest Opera
in 1938 with The Marriage of Figaro
. In 1939, with German
invasion imminent, he fled Hungary
because of his Jewish
ancestry, and moved to Switzerland
, where he continued a career as a pianist but had limited opportunities to develop his conducting.
After the war, Solti was music director of the Bavarian State Orchestra in Munich and the Frankfurt Opera. In 1951 he made his debut at the Salzburg Festival conducting Mozart's Idomeneo.
In 1960 Solti signed a three-year contract (effective in 1962) to be music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, having guest conducted the orchestra in winter concerts in downtown Los Angeles, during the summer at the Hollywood Bowl, and in other Southern California concerts. The orchestra had hoped that Solti would lead the orchestra when it moved into its new home at the still-to-be-completed Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and he even began to appoint musicians to the orchestra. However, Solti abruptly resigned the position in 1961 without officially taking the post after learning that the Philharmonic board of directors failed to consult him before naming then 26 year-old Zubin Mehta to be assistant conductor of the orchestra. Mehta was subsequently named as music director in Solti's place.
In 1961 Solti became music director at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, serving in that capacity until 1971. There, Solti's bald head and demanding rehearsal style earned him the nickname, "The Screaming Skull" (after the film of the same name). He thereafter spent much of his time in Britain and the United States.
His first marriage to Hedi Oechsli, in 1946, ended in divorce. His second marriage was to Valerie Pitts, a British television presenter whom he met when she was sent to interview him. They had two daughters, Gabrielle and Claudia. In 1972 he was naturalised as a United Kingdom citizen. He had been awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire (KBE) in 1971, and was known as Sir Georg Solti after his naturalisation.
Solti was a great supporter and mentor to many young musicians, including the Hungarian soprano Sylvia Sass, with whom he recorded Mozart's "Don Giovanni" and Bartok's "Bluebeard's Castle." In addition, in 1994, Solti directed the "Solti Orchestral Project" at Carnegie Hall, a training workshop for young American musicians.
Solti was music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra
(CSO) from 1969 until 1991, when he was made the first and only Music Director Laureate in that orchestra's history. Before Solti took over as the CSO's music director, CSO violinist Victor Aitay described Solti's work style as follows:
"Usually conductors are relaxed at rehearsals and tense at the concerts. Solti is the reverse. He is very tense at rehearsals, which makes us concentrate, but relaxed during the performance, which is a great asset to the orchestra.
In total, Solti conducted 999 performances with the CSO. His 1000th performance was scheduled to be in October 1997, around the time of his 85th birthday. The City of Chicago renamed the block of East Adams Street adjacent to Symphony Center as "Sir Georg Solti Place" in his memory.
Solti consolidated the reputation of the CSO as one of the great orchestras of the world, while reiteratively reminding everyone how much he owed to the pioneering work of Fritz Reiner, who never toured the orchestra abroad. Solti took the CSO on its first tour to Europe in 1971.
Solti's recordings with the CSO included the complete symphonies of Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Anton Bruckner, and Gustav Mahler. Solti recorded complete operas with the CSO as well, including:
Solti was as enthusiastic making music in the recording studio as in the opera house or concert hall. He developed a long and productive partnership with the legendary producer John Culshaw
. Products of this partnership included the first ever complete studio recording of Wagner
's Der Ring des Nibelungen
with the Vienna Philharmonic
(VPO). No less distinguished and equally groundbreaking were his studio recordings of the operas of Richard Strauss
, which, like his Wagner recordings, have been remastered and released on CD
where they are still praised for their musicianship and expert production values. His performances and recordings of works by Giuseppe Verdi
, Gustav Mahler
and Béla Bartók
were also widely admired. In addition to his recordings with the CSO, Solti recorded other repertoire with orchestras such as the London Philharmonic Orchestra
and the Vienna Philharmonic
, such as the two symphonies of Edward Elgar
, selected symphonies of Tchaikovsky
, William Walton
's Belshazzar's Feast
, Michael Tippett
's Symphony No. 4
, and the Da Ponte/Mozart operas.
In addition, Solti collaborated with Dudley Moore to create a 1991 television series, Orchestra!, which was designed to introduce audiences to the symphony orchestra.
Recordings with the Chicago Symphony
- Bartok, Concerto for Orchestra (1981)
- Bartok, Dance Suite (1981)
- Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique
- Beethoven, complete Symphonies #1 - 9
- Beethoven, Piano Concertos #1 - 5 /w Ashkenazy
- Brahms, Symphonies #1-4
- Mahler, complete Symphonies #1 - 9
- Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina Prelude (1998)
- Mussorgsky (orchestrated by Shostakovich), Songs and Dances of Death with Sergei Aleksashkin (1998)
- Shostakovich, Symphony No. 15 (1998)
- Strauss, Also Sprach Zarathustra and other tone poems
- Stravinsky, Rite of Spring
- Tchaikovsky, Swan Lake, excerpts (1987)
- Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 5 (1987)
- Tchaikovsky, Symphony No. 6 "Pathetique"
- Wagner, Der fliegende Hollander Overture (1976)
- Wagner, Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg Overture (1972)
- Wagner, Tannhaeuser Overture (1977)
- Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, Prelude and Liebestod (1977)
In addition to his tenure in Chicago, Solti was music director of the Orchestre de Paris
from 1972 until 1975. From 1979 until 1983 he was principal conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra
. During this time with the London Philharmonic he performed and recorded many works by Elgar including the two symphonies, the Violin Concerto with Kyung Wha Chung and the Cello Concerto with Julian Lloyd Webber
. For the 50th anniversary of the United Nations
, Solti formed the World Orchestra for Peace, which consisted of musicians from 47 orchestras around the world.
Solti continued to add new works to his repertoire in the latter days of his career, voicing particular enthusiasm for the music of Dmitri Shostakovich, whom he admitted he failed to appreciate fully during the composer's lifetime. His commercial recordings of Shostakovich symphonies included Nos. 1 (Concertgebouw Orchestra), 5 (VPO), 8, 9 (twice : VPO & Carnegie Hall Project),10, 13 and 15 (all CSO).
Solti never truly retired, and his sudden death in 1997 meant several years of planned performances and recording projects would never be realized. According to his last wish, Solti rests in Hungarian soil. After a state funeral, he was placed beside the remains of Bartók: his one-time tutor and mentor. After Solti's death, his widow and daughters began the Solti Foundation to assist young musicians. In 2002 a website dedicated to Solti was launched, under the instigation of Lady Solti.
Solti co-wrote his memoirs with Harvey Sachs, published in the UK under the title Solti on Solti,, Memoirs in the USA, and Emlékeim in Hungary, and the book appeared in the month after his death. His life has also been documented in a film by Peter Maniura entitled Sir Georg Solti: The Making of a Maestro.
In September 2007 as a tribute on the 10th anniversary of Solti's death, a recording of his last concert was released on Decca, a performance with the Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich of Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5.
Awards and recognition
- Sonning Award (1992; Denmark)
- Sir Georg Solti holds the record for having received the most Grammy awards. He personally won 31 Grammys, including the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and is listed for 38 Grammys (6 went to the engineer and 1 to a soloist); he was nominated an additional 74 times before his death in 1997.
- In 2007 his widow Valerie, Lady Solti was made a Cultural Ambassador of Hungary, an honorary title granted by the Hungarian state.