The forgotten years …

Timeline of the Leipzig Radio Choir  1924-1933

by Rüdiger Koch


www Szendrei Arbeitszimmer

Alfred Szendrei in his MDR office at the Leipzig broadcasting studio in the Old Weigh House (c. 1925)
© Photograph: MDR Orchestra archive


Alfred Szendrei: Radio music in theory and practice  [I-03]

Who was this Alfred Szendrei who had already worked as principal kapellmeister in Leipzig since 1918 and was now taking on a long-term commitment in the city?
Born in Budapest on February 29, 1884, he studied music in his native city from 1901 until 1905, then held a succession of typical training posts along the way to taking charge of an orchestra and worked as a rehearsal pianist and conductor at venues of various size, both in Germany and abroad.

The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians lists the following posts:

  1905-1907 Cologne
  1907-1909 Mülhausen (now Mulhouse, France)
  1909-1911 Brünn (now Brno, Czech Republic)
  1911-1912 Philadelphia and Chicago
  1912-1913 Hamburg
  1913-1914 New York (Century Company)
  1914-1916 Berlin-Charlottenburg
•  1916-1918 Vienna (Volksoper)
  1918-1924 Leipzig

This sequence of posts must have been interrupted by his service in the Austro-Hungarian army during the First World War given that the reviewer of Szendrei’s dissertation commented that he “got to know Szendrei as an outstanding organiser of German and Austrian music propaganda in Constantinople during the Great War.”
By 1924, so at forty years of age, the conductor had gained enough experience and was old enough to take over the leading role at a concert hall or some other arts institution.
From the spring of 1924 until November 1931 (although his contract officially ended in the summer of 1932) Alfred Szendrei was the director of music at Central German Radio and therefore the resident conductor of the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra.

What he did after being dismissed by MIRAG is rather unclear. He is said to have worked as music director of Berlin Radio for a short period and taught at the Klindworth-Scharwenka Conservatory in Berlin. It was during this time that he began to gather material relevant to the history of Jewish music.

Before Szendrei emigrated to the United States in the early 1940s, he worked as a radio programme director in Paris from 1933 until 1940.
In a letter to the composer, musicologist and conductor Fritz Reuter, of whom he had been a close friend since his Leipzig days, Alfred Sendrey (this is the spelling adopted by the conductor in the USA) describes his adventurous escape from Paris one day before the German army moved in, his experiences between the front lines, his return to the occupied French capital, his second, this time successful attempt to flee to the unoccupied part of France and his perilous transatlantic crossing. In the USA Szendrei embarked on a busy schedule of research and teaching at various, mostly Jewish colleges and ended up at the University of Jewish Studies, which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 1967. He also worked as a music director at several synagogues from 1952 until 1964.
Alfred Szendrei died in Los Angeles on March 3, 1976.


Radio and the Cultivation of Music
Dust jacket of Alfred Szendrei’s dissertation, published by Kistner & Siegel publishing house in 1931
Source: Rüdiger Koch’s collection

The conductor came into the public eye by virtue of his compositions too: written in 1920, his opera Der türkisenblaue Garten (the turquoise garden) was broadcast by MIRAG in 1931. Further works include a Hungarian overture, a symphony (1923), songs, chamber music and other vocal compositions.

Since assuming his office at MIRAG, Szendrei had frequently written publications, including articles in various music and radio journals in which he passionately promoted the new medium of radio and the important role of music in radio broadcasting. He may have been the first ever person to have written a dissertation on the subject of radio. Entitled Rundfunk und Musikpflege (radio and the cultivation of music), this paper was published in Leipzig in 1931. The most significant of his post-war works was Music in Ancient Israel (1969). Through the mediation of Fritz Reuter this work was translated into German and published in Leipzig in 1970.
Further publications include his guide to conducting Dirigierlehre (1932), a third edition of which was instigated by Fritz Reuter in Leipzig in 1953.

This brief overview of Szendrei’s long and varied career demonstrates how talented this man was in so many ways. He was an accomplished practitioner as well as an intelligent and farsighted theorist. It was the fusion of these contrasting talents that forged his outstanding organisational skills.

Although contemporaries did not put him on a par with such famous conductors as Carl Schuricht, Hermann Scherchen and Bruno Walter, they frequently emphasised his qualities as a conductor:
“His rendition of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite was so compelling and original that it merited loud applauseThe orchestra also demonstrated the height of its capability in this concert; while Schuricht has made the orchestra into an artistic icon of the highest order, Szendrei’s achievements must not be understated, wrote Heinrich Werlé, reviewer of the arts journal Das Neue Leipzig (the new Leipzig), whom we will meet again below in a different connection.

Similar praise was given in Zeitschrift für Musik (journal of music): “The winter concert series was splendidly rounded off by the Strauss evening under Dr Szendrei, who brought together our Chemnitz orchestra and his Radio Symphony Orchestra to perform An Alpine Symphony and A Hero’s Life.”

To quote Werlé once again:
“Dr Szendrei, the orchestra’s headstrong, almost autocratic leader, made it obvious not only through his gestures but also through his exceedingly incisive rendering of the dynamic, metrical and rhythmic contrasts that he once worked in the theatre
The ovation at the end was well deserved.


Alfred Szendrei in his office at the MIRAG broadcasting studio
Photograph: Mitteldeutsche Monatshefte magazine, 10th volume, 7th edition, April 1927 (from Rüdiger Koch’s collection)

The observations of what might be called Szendrei’s autocratic style of leadership tie in well with the comments of Fred Malige, violinist and board member of the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra. Malige stated that the musicians were secretly pleased about their director’s imminent dismissal from MIRAG because they were daunted by his strictness. Alfred Szendrei knew that the only way in which the Leipzig Symphony Orchestra would be able to survive alongside the Gewandhaus Orchestra was for the former to keep raising its level of performance. He was unrelenting in this pursuit and would hold auditions as a basis for renewing the contracts of his performers, some of whom he would proceed to remove from the orchestra and replace with better players.

A detailed interpretation of Szendrei’s dissertation is beyond the scope of this brief summary. One point that should not go unmentioned, however, is that the vision he pursued back in the 1930s laid down principles that have underpinned the development of radio and are now adopted by public-service broadcasters as essential elements of their cultural mission: the duty to cultivate little-known works, the promotion of new music (which includes the targeted commissioning of composers) and the need to educate the audience. All in all, Szendrei took a didactic view, based on a striving for improvement, education, enhanced musicality and enrichment of the musical experience. One of his interesting and innovative ideas is that the quality of a concert programme “lies in the intellectual connection of the works being performed” and “this connection must also link the concerts of a season… This requirement is all the more relevant to an infinitely expanded radio programme.”
These statements sound very modern and resemble the programmatic ideas of Howard Arman, the long-serving choirmaster of the MDR Radio Choir. Szendrei’s personality has been explored in a little more detail here because his versatility and vision are what underlay this man’s great achievements in his service to the Leipzig-based radio company during the 1920s.






More Chapters of the Choir Timeline  1924-1933

[I01] The secret of an old photograph
[I02] Radio – the new medium of the 1920s
 •  [I03] Alfred Szendrei: Radio music in theory and practice
[I04] Die MIRAG mausert sich: Von der Hauskapelle zum Symphonieorchester
[I05] Vom „funkischen“ Singen: Die Leipziger Oratorienvereinigung
[I06] Dr. Helmuth Weise: Rundfunkchorsänger der zwanziger und fünfziger Jahre
[I07] Das Ende der Ära Szendrei und das Ende der Leipziger Oratorienvereinigung
[I08] “An den Pranger mit Dr. Szendrei!”

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