The Szell Shell
For no small reason, the name George Szell has come to be synonymous with The Cleveland Orchestra: it was under Szell’s direction that the orchestra reached new heights of international acclaim as a first-rate ensemble. The impressive concerts that brought the orchestra such esteem, however, were only the final products of an arduous and often tense creative process. As any player of Szell’s orchestra would attest, the conductor had an uncompromising ear grounded in a strong understanding of acoustics and sound technologies. Not even professional decorum precluded his implacable pursuit for the orchestra he envisioned. The first years of his tenure were marked by upsetting personnel changes and strained professional relations. As concertmaster Daniel Majeski attested, if a performance venue compromised the maestro’s methodical seating arrangement, then Szell, aware of the acoustic ramifications, simply refused to perform. Similarly, Majeski describes the director’s audition process as a “scavenger hunt”; Szell was less concerned with artistic conviction than with an aptness to execute a sound he had already conceptualized.
It comes as no surprise that among the revolutionary changes brought to The Cleveland Orchestra under Szell was an acoustical overhaul of Severance Hall. One can only imagine the frustration the hall’s previous subpar acoustics must have caused Szell during the first twelve years of his tenure. The hall’s heavy drapery and carpeting were variables of massive acoustical consequence that, for once, were largely out of the conductor’s control. Szell’s insistence, however, would soon see results. In 1949, the board of trustees commissioned an audit of the hall’s acoustical state by physicist Clifford M. Swan, who reported that, indeed, the carpeting and heavy curtains countervailed resonance.
The steep price tag of $25,000 for necessary improvements saw to it that the matter was silenced until 1953, when Philadelphia Orchestra Conductor Leopold Stokowski relayed his experiences of a two-week intensive with The Cleveland Orchestra in a letter to Szell. “I only wish you had a hall with acoustics worthy of your great art…In the hall the music was dry and half-dead sounding,” he wrote. Perhaps it was that an outside voice of international acclaim had corroborated Szell’s complaints; or that in the four short years since Swan’s study, The Cleveland Orchestra had already multiplied its renown. In any case, it became increasingly obvious that a first-rate orchestra’s talent was outgrowing its dated performance venue; and the Musical Arts Association demonstrated an inclination to pursue improvements.
The board of trustees employed the expertise of Case Institute of Technology Professor Robert Shankland, whose study of Severance Hall’s acoustics initiated an ongoing collaboration with Princeton University Professor Albert Einstein. Armed with a starter pistol and a German-made sound level meter, the physicist roamed the hall’s balcony, lower level, and stage to collect various resonance lengths and corroborated Swan’s earlier conclusions that the luxurious textiles lining the auditorium acted as sound absorbers.
Four years later after Shankland’s study and one year after the Orchestra’s first European tour, Shankland’s suggestions were brought to fruition in a major acoustical and aesthetic renovation of the stage. Distance, however, did not offer relief from Szell’s close scrutiny on the project. Even from Paris, the conductor dictated color schemes and penned his objections to word that a lacquer coating that would seal the panels of the shell; “WHO THE HELL HAS GIVEN INSTRUCTIONS FOR LACQUERING ????!!!!!????” he wrote.
Hurried by Szell’s refusal to christen an unfinished stage, crews completed construction barely in time for the opening of the 1958-59 season. As might be expected, the Orchestra was skeptical of an acoustically unrecognizable hall; players complained about the wash of reverberations created by the new shell. Concerns were put to rest, however, when Szell and audiences reacted with unanimous amazement at the sonic experience of the new Severance Hall. “Is this really an orchestra? Is this a recording? There are miracles happening here,” wrote Szell. Presented with a program clad in rich sonorities that would surely exploit the new hall’s features, audiences were no less stupefied by what a lot less velvet and a little more wood could do for the ears. “From the opening heraldry chords of Wagner’s thickly textured ‘Meistersinger’ Prelude, the capacity opening-night audience knew that at last The Cleveland Orchestra finally had a hall worthy of its finest efforts,” wrote one reporter for the Cleveland Plain Dealer; “Daylight Follows Foggy Night--New Severance Sound Unchains Orchestra,” heralded another. If nothing else, Szell’s hard-lined demands saw to it that The Cleveland Orchestra finally had a home fitting of its abilities.
Information and quotes on history of the shell taken from:
Rosenberg, Donald. The Cleveland Orchestra: Second to None. Cleveland: Gray and Company, 2000.
Photographs, Shankland study, and relevant press references held in The Cleveland Orchestra Archives.
Michael Quinn is a research fellow in The Cleveland Orchestra Archives for the 2018-19 season in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the M.A. in Historical Performance Practice at Case Western Reserve University.