90th anniversary interviews: Eugene Ormandy

Eugene Ormandy (Gramophone, April 1970)Eugene Ormandy (Gramophone, April 1970)

To celebrate Gramophone's 90th anniversary this month we are reprinting a series of classic interviews from the Gramophone archive. We continue with Eugene Ormandy, who spoke to Alan Blyth for Gramophone in April 1970...

Chubby, jovial, his perfect middle-European manners hardly touched by rougher Western shores, Eugene Ormandy greets you as if you were for that moment the most important person in his life. Nothing is too much trouble for him to remember and among the memories are some that are touching, some that are amusing, some that are indiscreet – his charming wife Gretel just able to prevent him going too far in a comment about an orchestra, which had better remain nameless, whose players did not command the technique this perfectionist required. At 70 – but looking at least 10 years younger (and I flatter not) – Ormandy can afford to smile at his own and others' foibles, to relax in the knowledge that his career will not falter or fail. 

He is a self-made musician, born with the silver-spoon of talent, not wealth, in his mouth. His father was an impoverished dentist who sometimes did not have the fare to walk from Buda to Pest. He dearly wanted to be a musician himself and determined that his first-born should be a boy and become a violinist. Luckily enough both wishes came true. His father had the young Eugene playing the violin when he was just two and at five he entered the Budapest Royal Academy of Music. Ormandy said he had no real childhood as others experienced it but one day he did go out to play soccer in secret – only living to rue the day. Five other hefty youngsters sat on him so heavily that the little boy's hip was broken, an injury that bothers him to this day. His father wanted him to have a balanced education so he went to ordinary lessons while studying the violin, first at school, then at university where he took a degree in philiosphy. He was about to study for a doctorate in the same subject when he was hurried off to Vienna as a violinist and he never did finish his thesis. 

His music studies consisted of violin lessons with Hubay, then the idol of all Hungarian musicians, and theory with Leo Weiner, and later with Kodály, who assured Ormandy that he had no talent for composition but should stick to the fiddle. 'When Kodály came to the US four years ago, I thanked him for his good advice. Still as a teacher he was better than anyone, as well as being underrated as a composer.' 

Ormandy also knew Bartók, and he remembers very clearly going to one of Bartók's concerts as a boy. 'He played Mikrokosmos and some other pieces, I recall. The hall was not more than an eighth full. I thought how rude it was for people to ignore him in this way and went back-stage to tell him so. His reply was significant: 'I'm 30 years ahead of my time – and I know it.' 

In 1921, when Ormandy was 22, he was whisked away to America by two spurious managers who promised him great things. Nothing in fact happened and he found himself almost destitute in a strange country. 'I was told that I must give two recitals and, if the reviews were any good, I might get somewhere. But those recitals would have cost, at that time, 3000 dollars to promote and I hadn't even 3000 pennies. So I decided I better look for some work. I got a job on the last desk of the orchestra in a New York cinema. We played for about 50 minutes by ourselves then we accompanied the ballet, after which the film began and we gave way to an organist. Five days after joining I was promoted concert-master. Eight months later one of the conductors fell ill and I had to step in at very short notice. I had been to a conductor's class in Budapest but I'd never been on the podium. But I got through Tchaikovsky's Fourth, Till Eulenspiegel and Coppélia (for the ballet company) without a score. Half-an-hour after the concert I was made third conductor and that's how my real career began, though I didn't realise it at the time. At first, I turned down the offer, convinced my real vocation was as a violinist. Then they offered me 25 dollars more a week. Money talked and I changed my mind. In the meantime I had been offered the job of concert-master – leader you call it – with the New York Philharmonic but Mengelberg couldn't care less what happened to me in the intervening months before I was due to take up the appointment; so I never did take up that option.' 

Ormandy stayed for four-and-a-half years with the cinema orchestra before taking over the CBS Radio Orchestra. 'That was hard work – sometimes as many as three programmes in one day, but I've always been a glutton for punishment. Besides that, I used to attend all the rehearsals of Mengelberg and Furtwängler that I could manage. Then came Toscanini. He became my god in five seconds – and has remained my inspiration ever since. Whenever I could I sneaked into a box while he was rehearsing and his music-making was a real eye-opener. He could make an orchestra change at will from being a German one for the Viennese classics, to a French one for Ibéria. He had a unique gift for balance and colour. I don't recall anyone who heard him in those days who did not come under his spell.' 

And it was Toscanini who the young Ormandy replaced when the elder conductor was ill at two Philadelphia concerts in 1931. Then the conductor (Verbrughen) of the Minneapolis Symphony fell ill and Ormandy was again called in – and he stayed when it was clear Verbrughen would not recover sufficiently from a stroke to conduct again. Ormandy says that he was lucky to 'sneak in through the back door because there was such a dearth of conductors at that time', but that is probably his becoming modesty. At any rate, the directors of the Philadelphia Orchestra had no doubt that it was Ormandy they wanted when Stokowski departed in 1936. 

He says that today there are only four players left from the Stokowski era, and they will retire very soon. The rest have been hand-picked by him – and he rightly calls them 'my children'. The sound that he has always sought is based on homogeneity of all sections and of the instruments within each section. 'To achieve that I think it's essential to have all the players on one level and not tiered as happens in most cases on this side of the Atlantic.' 

And then, unbidden, he gave me his own personal credo. 'I try to follow Toscanini without copying him. Every time I walk on the platform – and this is no empty phras – I consider that my life depends on that one performance, whether it's in Philadelphia, London or Kalamazoo. Of course, that doesn't mean I'm always at my best, or that what comes across is everything I should like, but I'm always trying. And your musicians are some of the most helpful in achieving what I want. If you ask them to play this way or that, they respond immediately. I find I have a British orchestra with me in five minutes – and that's not something you find everywhere.' 

His aim of homogeneity is not always easy to encompass in the recording studio. 'So often in the studio, players are so widely spaced out, but I always insist that the players should listen to each other – they know the music as well as I do. In Philadelphia we record in the ballroom above the town hall, and I've been very lucky there in my producers – and you must have a first-class producer with whom you can discuss balance beforehand. At CBS Thomas Frost knew exactly what I wanted. Now we have gone over to RCA, we have Peter Dellheim – an excellent musician.' 

He talked with enthusiasm about the early days of recording large works. 'I think I made the first recordings of the Bruckner Seventh and Mahler Second. The Mahler was made at an actual performance – it was too expensive in those days to go into the studio. Alma Mahler was a lifelong friend and when she listened to that performance again she assured me that this was how her husband wanted the symphony to sound. When I did a performance of the Eighth in 1948 in the Hollywood Bowl, she came to all the rehearsals – we had 20,000 people in the audience at the actual performance. 

'My favourites among my early records for RCA? Oh, I think I like the Schumann Second Symphony we made round 1937-8 and the Pathétique is good too. Of my recent records, I think you'll like the Mahler First, including the Blumine movement and my new Bruckner Seventh. We also did an Elijah last spring with Tom Krause, Shirley Verrett and Richard Lewis among the singers. Richard is a great friend of ours – I think my wife and I were the only outsiders at his wedding three or four years ago.' 

When Ormandy first went to America he brought over his family. One brother, Martin, is still first cello in the New York Philharmonic, and another brother is a successful orthopaedic surgeon. Ormandy's first wife was harpist, the only woman, in the New York Philharmonic during the Toscanini era, and that's how as a young man he came into contact with the great man. He and his second wife have a lovely home at Monterey in Massachusetts, where he enjoys swimming. He likes to read too – 'all the latest books on music as well as Shakespeare, which I learnt as a boy in a Hungarian translation by one of the leading Hungarian writers. There's nothing better to take your mind away from work after 18 hours of music than an act of King Lear.' 

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