Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997) Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997)

Georg Solti: The man behind a classical music legend

Bespoke Savile Row evening tails, pocket metronomes, organic foods: Lady Valerie Solti tells us about the passions and whims of one of the greatest orchestra conductors of all time.



22 September 2014


A simple, red, round peach: I will start from here in my attempt to paint a portrait in just a few lines, of a complex, larger than life personality, that of Sir Georg Solti (1912-1997). It would be easy to talk about his passions, such as supercars and beautiful women, but this would take us back to the cliché of an “artist in front of the orchestra, a millionaire off the podium,” and it would be true of many conductors, such as Toscanini, Karajan and so forth. But it was Lady Valerie Solti, Sir Georg’s widow, speaking to me in good Italian (my native tongue; she is British, from Leeds) who introduced me to her husband’s real personality. We were in the idyllic setting of Tenuta La Badiola all'Andana, in the Maremma district of Tuscany, where twelve singers were about to perform in a concert that marked the high point of their participation in the summer programme of the Georg Solti Accademia. More of this later.

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Home from home in Italy
The joy with which Solti accepted the gift of a peach or another mature fruit derives from one of the most intimate and deep-rooted images that a man can treasure, that of his place of origin, his home. Lady Solti explained that the fruit grown in this part of Tuscany reminded Georg of the lands of his family’s origins, near Lake Balaton in Hungary. She added that “in the 1960s, when he first came into contact with Tuscany, my husband looked at me and said, ‘I’m at home again.’” Soon after, Solti purchased a house at Roccamare, which, along with those at Villars-sur-Ollon and Regent’s Park, became one of the focal points in his life. “They are all enchanting locations, the places where my husband decided to make a home, as if to mark the definitive end to the dramatic events of his youth,” said Valerie Solti. Soon after his debut as a conductor, which took place in Budapest in 1938, with Le nozze di Figaro by Mozart, Solti was forced to flee from Hungary, at that time allied to the Nazis, as a result of his Jewish origins, and he had to begin his career all over again, in Switzerland. He had to wait for almost nine years, when he had reached the age of 34, before he was able to savour the taste of success.

                  Solti studying scores in Roccamare

And so for Solti, his home became a symbol of his long-awaited professional realization, and an opportunity to put everything in order, “creating a setting in which there was the necessary peace and quiet to create good music,” as his wife said. Very different from the concept of a temple consecrated to one’s own personality, as was the case for other artists such as Wagner and D’Annunzio, whose homes were a way of seeking refuge from the banality of the outside world. Solti’s reconstruction of a domestic setting seems to reflect the idea of returning to that world from which he had been separated by the dramatic events of modern history.

Measuring time
The objects that Solti liked to have around him, and avidly collected, include various instruments for the measurement of time. He had many wristwatches, and all sorts of metronomes, from table versions to those shaped like a pocket watch. Who knows whether he used one of the latter when he set out on the courageous, immensely difficult task of performing Beethoven following the metronome marks provided by the composer himself two centuries ago. Of course, scores were a constant presence in the rooms where he lived, on which his notes provide an indication of the sort of dialogue that Solti developed with the composers whose work he performed. There may have been gaps of years in this virtual form of communication, but it all came back whenever he returned to that particular piece of music. Hundreds of these scores are now conserved at the Loeb Music Library, Harvard.

Evening tails and Savile Row
In his choice of clothes, Solti was of course influenced by his job. His practical approach precluded any aesthetic considerations, of appearance for his own sake. As his wife told me, “he preferred evening tails made from very light mohair, so that he would not perspire during a performance. In rehearsal, he wore a knitwear jacket. Generally speaking, he liked soft, practical textiles, ideal both for conducting and for sport. After all, life on the podium is physically as well as mentally taxing.” From whom did he commission his clothes? Valerie Solti replied without hesitation, “Huntsman of Savile Row, with their legendary tailor Colin Hammick, and Jungwirth in Frankfurt. When it came to shoes, Solti liked wearing Ferragamo, his neighbour at Roccamare…”

I mentioned peaches for another reason. He was a real “control freak” (in Valerie’s own words), and from the 1970s he was a convinced believer in organic foods. He scrupulously selected the ingredients used in his diet, and gave strict instructions to his two cooks – one Hungarian, one Italian – regarding the extra healthy dishes that they prepared.

Rolex and the Georg Solti Accademia
Solti left this world almost twenty years ago, but his brilliance and his remarkable personality live on in his extensive discography (most of the albums were produced by Decca) and in the Georg Solti Accademia, an institution launched by Lady Solti and that this year, 2014, has reached its tenth anniversary. The Accademia helps promising young opera talents to progress from music college to the leading opera houses in the world, by means of masterclasses that give them a refined training in style, technique and language. The major sponsors of the Academy include the Rolex Institute, which runs the famous watch brand’s philanthropic and training activities. “The programmes of the Georg Solti Accademia are perfectly aligned with Rolex’s real desire to promote knowledge, which means investing in young people and the future,” explained Rebecca Irvin, who for years has been at the helm of the Rolex Institute. The connection between the Accademia and the Rolex Institute acquires concrete form in the legendary New Zealand soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, who has been a Rolex testimonial since 1976, and who teaches masterclasses at the Georg Solti Accademia together with other musicians of the calibre of Mirella Freni, Angela Gheorghiu and Leo Nucci, to name just a few. It was thanks to a large donation from the Rolex Institute that this year the Accademia was able to implement the partnership with the Festival Verbier, an important international showcase for new talents in the world of opera.

Often it is said that men live on in their works: the expression fits Georg Solti to perfection.