Erich Leinsdorf, 81, a Conductor of Intelligence and Utility, Is DeadBy BERNARD HOLLAND
Published: Sunday, September 12, 1993, in The New York Times
Erich Leinsdorf, a conductor whose abrasive intelligence and deep musical learning served as a conscience for two generations of conductors, died yesterday at a hospital in Zurich. He was 81 years old and lived in Zurich and Sarasota, Fla., and until recently also had a home in Manhattan.
The cause was cancer, his family said.
Mr. Leinsdorf's utilitarian stage manner and his disdain of dramatic effects for their own sake stood out as a not-so-silent rebuke to his colleagues in this most glamorous of all musical jobs.
In addition, Mr. Leinsdorf -- in rehearsal, in the press and in his valuable book on conducting, "The Composer's Advocate" -- never tired of pointing out gaps in culture among musicians, faulty editing among music publishers and errors in judgment or acts of ignorance among his fellow conductors. He rarely named his victims, but his messages and their targets were often clear. Moreover, he usually had the solid grasp of facts to support his contentions.
His long career continued until early this year, when his health deteriorated. After conducting the New York Philharmonic in January, he was forced to cancel performances the next month.
Help From Toscanini
Mr. Leinsdorf moved to this country from Vienna in 1937. Helped by the recommendation of Arturo Toscanini, whom he had been assisting at the Salzburg Festival, Mr. Leinsdorf made his conducting debut at the Metropolitan Opera a year later with "Die Walkure." He was 25 years old at the time. A year later he was made overseer of the Met's German repertory, and his contentious style -- in particular an insistence on textual accuracy and more rehearsal -- won him no friends among singers like Lauritz Melchior and Kirsten Flagstad. Backed by management, he remained at the Met until 1943.
At the New York City Opera, where he became music director in 1956, Mr. Leinsdorf's demanding policies in matters of repertory and preparation made him further enemies, and he left a year later.
His searches for permanent employment turned mostly to orchestras. After the briefest of tenures at the Cleveland Orchestra during World War II, Mr. Leinsdorf took over the Rochester Philharmonic and stayed for nine years. During that period, he and the orchestra made a series of admired low-budget recordings that brought Rochester to the music world's attention.
Mr. Leinsdorf's last and most prestigious music directorship was at the Boston Symphony, where he replaced Charles Munch in 1962. No contrast in style could have been sharper: Munch had viewed conducting mystically, as a kind of priesthood; Mr. Leinsdorf's policy was to make performances work in the clearest and most rational way.
Observers both in and out of the orchestra could not deny the benefits of Mr. Leinsdorf's discipline, but there were some who were hostile to what they perceived as an objectivity that could hardly be called heartwarming. Perhaps his principal achievements with the Boston Symphony were not in Boston but at the Tanglewood Music Festival, where he presided over the orchestra's summer season in the Berkshires.
There Mr. Leinsdorf introduced 32 works, including Benjamin Britten's "War Requiem," and began a Prokofiev cycle. He also worked closely with Tanglewood's conducting students.
The administrative and social burdens of the music director's job became increasingly onerous to him, however, and not enjoying total enthusiasm from the press, he stepped down after the 1968-69 season. "Only six years earlier," he remarked at the time, "I had been overjoyed at being asked to a position considered one of the most prestigious in my profession, and now I could only hope to get out with my health intact."
Subsequently, Mr. Leinsdorf found happiness as a guest conductor, touring the world's major orchestras, working with them for several weeks at a time and avoiding the burdens of a permanent position. Although his performances were rarely dramatic or even rousing, he brought to music a kind of rectitude that at its best provided an antidote for orchestra musicians and listeners used to flamboyant and often empty conductorial salesmanship.
One American orchestra manager a few years ago responded to musicians' grumblings over Mr. Leinsdorf's rehearsal manner by saying that he was "good for my orchestra." And so he probably was.
Played for Webern
Erich Leinsdorf was born in Vienna on Feb. 4, 1912, to Ludwig Julius and Charlotte Loebl Leinsdorf. His father, an amateur pianist, died when Mr. Leinsdorf was 3 years old. Mr. Leinsdorf was already a good pianist by age 7. As a teen-ager he studied the cello, musical theory and composition at the University of Vienna and at the city's Music Academy. He was a rehearsal pianist for Anton Webern when that most ascetic of composers was conductor of a chorus known as the Singverein der Sozialdemokratischen Kunstelle; there he made his professional piano debut in a performance of "Les Noces" by Stravinsky.
Aside from the early Rochester recordings, Mr. Leinsdorf recorded extensively for the RCA label, including full operas, all the Mozart symphonies, other items from the standard repertory, and modern works by Elliott Carter, Alberto Ginastera and others.
Mr. Leinsdorf's first marriage, to Anne Frohnknecht, ended in divorce. He is survived by his wife of 25 years, the former Vera Graf, and five children from his first marriage: David I. of Crested Butte, Col., Gregor J. of Manhattan, Joshua F. of Atlantic Highlands, N.J., Deborah Hester Reik of Hartford, Jennifer G. Belok of Belmont, Mass., and 10 grandchildren.
A version of this obituary; biography appeared in print on Sunday, September 12, 1993, on section 1 page 58 of the New York edition.
These interviews were recorded in
Chicago on March 19, 1983, and December 15, 1986. Portions were
used (along with
recordings) on WNIB in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1997
and 1999. The first interview was transcribed and published in Wagner News in June of 1984.
It was re-edited along with the second interview which was
transcribed and posted on this website in 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.