Born: December 19, 1888 - Budapest, Hungary
Died: November 15, 1963 - New York City, New York, USA
The eminent Hungarian-born American conductor Frederick Martin “Fritz” (actually: Frygyes) Reiner, was born in Budapest, Hungary to a secular Jewish family that resided in the Pest area of the city. Reiner pursued the study of piano (with Thoman), piano pedagogy, and composition (with Koessler) at the Royal Academy of Music (Franz Liszt Academy) in Budapest. During his last two years there his piano teacher was the young Béla Bartók. Concurrently, at his father’s urging, he also took courses in jurisprudence at the University of Budapest.
In 1909 Fritz Reiner made his debut in Budapest conducting Carmen. In 1910-1911 he conducted at the Laibach Landestheater. He was conductor of the Volksoper in Budapest (1911-1914) and of the Court (later State) Opera in Dresden (1914-1921), where he worked closely with Richard Strauss. He also conducted in Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna, Rome, and Barcelona.
Fritz Reiner moved to the USA in 1922 to take the post of Principal Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. He remained there until 1931, having become a naturalized citizen in 1928. In 1931 he became a professor of conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where his pupils included Leonard Bernstein and Lukas Foss. In 1936-1937 he made guest appearances at London's Covent Garden; between 1935 and 1938 he was a guest conductor at the San Francisco Opera. He was Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra from 1938 to 1948 and made a few recordings with them for Columbia Records.
In 1947, Fritz Reiner appeared on camera in the film Carnegie Hall, in which he conducted the New York Philharmonic Orchestra as they accompanied violinist Jascha Heifetz in an abbreviated version of the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto. Years later, Heifetz and Reiner recorded the full Tchaikovsky concerto for RCA Victor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. From 1948 to 1953, he was at the Metropolitan Opera in New Yor, where he conducted a historic production of Strauss's Salome in 1949, with the Bulgarian soprano Ljuba Welitsch in the title role, and the American premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress in 1951. He also conducted and made a recording of the famous 1952 Metropolitan Opera production of Georges Bizet's Carmen, starring Rise Stevens. The production was telecast on closed circuit television that year. At the time of his death he was preparing the Met's new production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.
Even though his music-making had been American-focused since his arrival in Cincinnati, Fritz Reiner became active in Europe after World War II. When he became Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, he had a completely international reputation. He achieved the peak of his success as a conductor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, which he served as music director from 1953 to 1962, and which he brought up to the point of impeccably fine performance in both Classical and modern music. His striving for perfection created for him the reputation of a ruthless master of the orchestra; he was given to explosions of temper, but musicians and critics agreed that it was because of his uncompromising drive toward the optimum of orchestral playing that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra achieved a very high rank among American symphonic organizations. Those ten year are best-remembered today through the many landmark, stereophonic recordings he made in Chicago's Orchestra Hall for RCA Victor from 1954 to 1962. His last concerts in Chicago were in the spring of 1963.
Fritz Reiner’s last recording, released in a special Reader's Digest boxed set, was a performance of Johannes Brahms' Fourth Symphony, recorded with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London's Kingsway Hall. This recording was later reissued on LP by Quintessence and on CD by Chesky. He also appeared with members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a series of telecasts on Chicago's WGN-TV in 1953-1954, and a later series of nationally-syndicated programs called “Music from Chicago”. Some of these performances have been issued on DVD.
Fritz Reiner was especially noted as an interpreter of Strauss and B. Bartók and was often seen as a modernist in his musical taste; he and his compatriot Joseph Szigeti convinced Serge Koussevitzky to commission the Concerto for Orchestra from B. Bartók In reality, he had a very wide repertorire and was known to admire Mozart's music above all else. His conducting technique was defined by its precision and economy, in the manner of Arthur Nikisch and Arturo Toscanini. It typically employed quite small gestures - it has been said that the beat indicated by the tip of his baton could be contained in the area of a postage stamp - although from the perspective of the players it was extremely expressive. The response he drew from orchestras was one of astonishing richness, brilliance, and clarity of texture. Igor Stravinsky called the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Reiner "the most precise and flexible orchestra in the world"; it was more often than not achieved with tactics that bordered on the personally abusive. Chicago musicians have spoken of Reiner's autocratic methods; trumpeter Adolph Herseth told National Public Radio that Reiner often tested him and other musicians.
Fritz Reiner was a National Patron of Delta Omicron, an international professional music fraternity. He was married three times (one of them was a daughter of Etelka Gerster) and fathered three daughters, a third daughter out of wedlock. In his last years Reiner's health deteriorated as a result of a major heart attack he suffered in October 1960. He died in New York City at the age of 74.
R. Potter: Fritz Reiner, Conductor, Teacher, Musical Innovator (dissertation, Northwestern University, 1980)
Philip Hart: Fritz Reiner: A Biography (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1994)
Kenneth Morgan: Fritz Reiner: Maestro & Martinet (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2005):