Fritz Reiner

(19 December 1888 - 15 November 1963)

The Hungarian-born conductor Fritz Reiner was one of the leading orchestral conductors of the major American orchestras in the early to mid-1900s. He was notorious for his sadistic behaviour towards his orchestra members but appreciated for the high level of performance from his orchestras. He made many recordings with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Fritz Reiner was born Reiner Frigyes on 19 December 1888 in Budapest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He came from a secular Jewish family that spoke both German and Hungarian. Reiner began playing the piano at the age of six, and immediately showed much musical promise. With his mother’s encouragement, he entered the Franz Liszt Academy at the age of 10. There he gained a general music education in addition to piano and composition studies. His teachers included Béla Bartók and Leo Weiner, who also taught Georg Solti and Janos Starker.

Reiner’s first professional job came in 1908 as the répétiteur at the German Comic Opera in Budapest. He was then appointed co-conductor at the Laibach (German name for what was later to become Ljubljana) Opera with Václav Talich. Reiner conducted 57 performances between October 1910 and March 1911. At this point, his name was Germanized to Frederik Reiner. During this period, Reiner met the first of his three wives, Elca Jelacin. In the autumn of 1911, Reiner left Laibach for the private opera and ballet company The Budapest Népopera. He remained there for three seasons, during which time he successfully conducted about 25 different operas per season. The repertoire consisted primarily of German, French and Italian operas, though they were sung almost entirely in German.

In late 1914, Reiner was appointed co-conductor with Hermann Kutzschbach at the Königliches oper Dresden (Dresden Royal Opera), also known as the Semperoper, at the Königliche Hoftheater Dresden (Royal Court Theatre of Dresden), following in the footsteps of Carl Maria von Weber and Richard Wagner. Upon his appointment in Dresden, he became known as Fritz Reiner. Also considered for this position were Karl Muck and Felix Weingartner, but it is not certain whether or not they actually declined the position.

While in Dresden, Reiner not only conducted operas, but also gained experience as an orchestral conductor. He was appointed Royal Court Conductor in 1915 and also became the conductor of the Staatskapelle Dresden.

During this period, he conducted approximately 536 performances, fifty different operas by thirty composers, 14 new productions and four world premieres and some Dresden premieres. A huge fan of Strauss, Reiner had much contact with him and attended many of his performances. Among the Dresden premieres were Richard Strauss’ Die Frau ohne Schatten and the Alpine Symphony.

Reiner had a major affair in Dresden around 1914, with the opera singer Berta Gerster-Gardini. He and his wife were divorced in the summer of 1916. While he remained in Dresden, his wife and their two daughters returned to Laibach. The documentation and correspondence that survives from this situation is a precursor to the evil personality that would later emerge with orchestras. Reiner married Gerster-Gardini in 1922.

Reiner’s German period came to an end in the early 1920s. World War I was over and Imperial Germany was no more, resulting in many complicated reorganizations within the Dresden Opera. The Königliche Hoftheater Dresden was renamed the Sächsische Staatstheater, though Reiner was not appointed General Music Director. Instead, the position remained open. It seems that not only was he unpopular with the orchestra and its administration, but they also wanted a German conductor. Fritz Busch was added to the conducting staff, alongside Reiner, but Busch began receiving more and more priority with the symphonic programmes. During the 1921-22 season, the Semperoper would invite guest conductors to take Reiner’s place, leading to his resignation in 1921. He accepted positions in Rome and Barcelona before being offered the position of conductor at the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra.

Reiner arrived in Cincinnati in 1922 to conduct an orchestra in the middle of a reorganization. From 1895 to 1907, the orchestra had been led by Frank van de Stucken. After three seasons of silence, Leopold Stokowski filled the position from 1909 to 1912, followed by Eugène Ysaÿe. The orchestra survived mostly due to private donors, particularly Charles Phelps and Anna Sinton Taft.

While Reiner tried to stay on the orchestra’s good side when he began, he quickly began to show his sadistic side. Not only did he insult and humiliate the players, and enjoy it, he also replaced one third of the orchestra in his first season, followed by 15% and 29% in the next seasons. Following the end of his four-year contract in Cincinnati, which had begun in 1923-24, the orchestra refused to give him contracts for more than a year at a time.

Not everything was bad, however. Reiner was a particularly innovative programmer and champion of new works. He introduced the orchestra to an array of contemporary works from composers such as Respighi, Dupré, Roger Sessions, Ernest Bloch, Bartok, Busoni, Glazunov, Milhaud, Hindemith, Honegger, Kodály, Weill, Gershwin, Ravel, Richard Strauss, Hugo Wolf, Arthur Bliss, Copland, Bruckner, Mahler, Stravinsky, Holst and Mussorgsky.

Despite the increase in the orchestra’s level and his innovative programming, Reiner’s relationship with the orchestra’s board had deteriorated greatly. As with his position in Dresden, this also coincided with the failure of his marriage. After having suspected her husband of having affairs, she filed for divorce due to ‘cruelty’. It turns out, Reiner was having an affair with Carlotta Irwin of the Stuart Walker Players. The divorce was granted in February 1930 and Reiner was remarried in April 1930. Upon hearing of his second divorce and third marriage, the orchestra and board had had enough.

Reiner left Cincinnati in the spring of 1931, moving to Philadelphia with Carlotta. He gained employment in the fall at the Curtis Institute of Music, though he decided to live in New York. His duties at the school included conducting the student orchestra and teaching conducting to a select group of students which included Leonard Bernstein, Lucas Foss and Boris Goldovsky. He led the symphony in concerts with CBS radio and in the Metropolitan Opera house in 1937.

Meanwhile, he continued to search for an orchestra position. He guest-conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Chicago Symphony in their summer seasons, but never in the main season. In 1938, Reiner was asked to resign from the Curtis Institute.

Reiner was hired, along with Otto Klemperer, Eugene Goossens, Carlos Chavez and George Enescu to conduct two pairs of concerts with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in 1937, during a reorganization. While Klemperer was first offered the Music Director position, he declined and the position was given to Reiner in the 1938-39 season.

He experienced much frustration in Pittsburgh, as the orchestra was poor and did not have any wealthy financial backers. In addition, the orchestra’s hall had poor acoustics. He set out improving the orchestra, replacing more than half of the members in the first season.

Reiner made his first commercial recording in 1938 with musicians from the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall with engineers from RCA Victor. However, the name of the orchestra and conductor were omitted. His first serious recordings came in 1940 with a recording contract with Columbia Records. He recorded many of Wagner’s works with the Pittsburgh Symphony. They were also among the first to use Columbia’s new 33 1/3 RPM microgroove recording process. With the Pittsburgh Symphony, he gave many premieres, including by his student Morton Gould and by composers such as Lucas Foss, Arnold Schoenberg, William Schuman and Igor Stravinsky. In addition to this, he commissioned and premiered an arrangement of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In 1946, he made the first recording of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, a work he helped to commission. In fact, he convinced  Koussevitzky to commission the work.

Reiner received national recognition as the conductor of the Ford Symphony Orchestra during broadcasts of the Ford Sunday Evening Hour.

Reiner left Pittsburgh at the end of the 1947-48 season. He focused on the Metropolitan Opera, guest conducting and recording before becoming the Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. With RCA Victor, they recorded some of the first stereophonic reel-to-reel tapes. They also performed in many radio and television broadcasts. Many of the recordings from the CSO and Reiner are still considered superior to this day.

He held the position of Music Director for nine seasons, becoming Musical Advisor in the 1962-3 season. Due to failing health, he was not able to continue working. He died in New York City on 15 November 1963. While many musicians attended his funeral, none of the musicians from his former orchestras were in attendance. Reiner was certainly a prime example of a fantastic musician but a disagreeable person.

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