Born December 19, 1888; Budapest, Hungary
Died November 15, 1963; New York City
At the Royal Academy of Music in Budapest, Fritz Reiner studied piano with Béla Bartók, along with composition, conducting and percussion, while also taking courses in jurisprudence. After graduating summa cum laude in 1904, he became a coach at the Budapest Opéra-Comique, where he made his conducting debut in 1908, leading Carmen.
Reiner served as conductor of the Volksoper in Budapest and the Court Opera in Dresden before being engaged as music director of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1922, a position he held until 1931, when he became a professor of conducting at the Curtis Institute of Music. During this time, he also was a regular guest with the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as with the San Francisco Opera and Royal Opera, Covent Garden. Reiner made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival in August 1937, and the following year, he began a decade-long tenure as music director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. From 1949 until 1953, he was principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera.
In December 1952, the Orchestral Association announced that Reiner would become the CSO’s sixth music director, beginning in the fall of 1953. Under his leadership, the Orchestra made several landmark recordings for RCA including orchestral works by Bartók, Mussorgsky, Ravel, Respighi, Rossini, Strauss and Wagner; symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms, Dvořák, Haydn, Mahler, Mozart and Tchaikovsky; and concertos with Van Cliburn, Emil Gilels, Jascha Heifetz, Byron Janis and Arthur Rubinstein. Under Reiner’s baton, recordings by the Orchestra were first recognized by the Recording Academy, with Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta receiving the award for Best Classical Performance–Orchestra in 1961 and Leontyne Price winning for Best Vocal Soloist Performance for Berlioz’s Les nuits d'été and Falla’s El amor brujo in 1965.
In 1957, Reiner invited Margaret Hillis to form the Chicago Symphony Chorus, which became the first permanent choral ensemble in the United States to be affiliated with a major symphony orchestra.
In 1960, Reiner’s failing health began to restrict his concert work, and he eventually stepped down as music director, being named musical advisor for the 1962-63 season. In the fall of 1963, he had begun rehearsals for Wagner’s Götterdämmerung at the Metropolitan Opera, but he contracted pneumonia and died in New York City on November 15. Memorial concerts were scheduled in Chicago for later that month; however, those concerts doubled as memorials for both Reiner and President Kennedy, who was assassinated on November 22.