Tomasz Lis | London | April 2023
“Personal magnetism radiates from the man and holds each of us, not in a grip of iron, but with a power at once irresistible and intensely human and sympathetic.” Under his baton “the most diﬃcult change of tempo becomes, even to those farthest from him, clear and unmistakable just at the right moment”. So wrote Bernard Shore, the BBC Symphony’s principal viola, in his book based on London concerts given by the great Arturo Toscanini in 1935 and 1937.
Shore believed that Toscanini’s intense concentration was “very near the root of his greatness” and enabled him to “live and think the music he is recreating so deeply and intensely that all who are working with him feel drawn to the composer’s very heart. It is a state of mind which boots out everything save the subject desired; he enters into another world, taking the orchestra with him.”
When on 25 March 1867 little Arturo was born in Parma, now as famous for its architecture as for its ham, cheese and fine dining, Giuseppe Verdi was at the peak of his artistic powers, Richard Wagner had just shaken the world with Tristan, Gounod had triumphed in Paris with Romeo and Juliet and Tchaikovsky was yet to write his Onegin, while Toscanini’s close future friend Arrigo Boito had suﬀered a terrible flop at the La Scala opening night of his ambitious Mephistopheles.
It’s a cultural landscape so familiar to us in its abundance of genius, creativity and radical change and yet so far removed from our prosaic times, where genius is nearly non-existent and where creativity is usually replaced with reproduction and sameness.
Harvey Sach’s biography, titled Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, is monumental in both scope and detail, thoroughly researched and readable, even though, at 900 pages long, one needs to pause occasionally. Drawing on previously unknown sources such as very substantial private correspondence and archives belonging to various opera houses, it is the most complete portrait of the great maestro to date.
During his lifetime Toscanini was the most famous and highest-paid conductor in the world, as well as one of the most recognisable figures in general, having featured a record three times on the cover of Time magazine. At a time of no television or internet, and with radio still in its infancy, opera and concert life were in unprecedented demand, with the public’s thirst for culture insatiable. People queued for hours to hear their favourite opera stars, pianists and conductors, with tickets sales often exceeding demand.
Toscanini was what we would now call a complete musician. He was undoubtably a prodigy and by the age of 14 had mastered cello, piano, violin and double bass. His phenomenal photographic memory was a wonder to behold and led him to his first public triumph when he replaced at the very last minute not one but two failing conductors at the Imperial Opera House in Rio de Janeiro. On the night of 30 June 1886, at the age of 19, his desperate colleagues pushed him to the podium and the teenage musician conducted from memory Verdi’s Aida, having no conducting experience whatsoever. It was a triumph, with Toscanini taking over the remaining 26 performances of 12 operas, all directed from memory. He would return to Rio in 1940, but this time staying at the Copacabana Palace hotel instead of a rooming house, and received with ovations “unparalleled in the history of the city’s musical life”.
In the coming years he found opera intoxicating subsequently becoming the artistic director of both the Metropolitan Opera House and Milan’s La Scala. At first his repertoire included works by living composers such as Verdi, Puccini and Mascagni, as well as some lesser-known names now often forgotten. It gradually expanded by resuscitating works deemed old-fashioned but which now form the core of our operatic canon. His love for Wagner had no bounds and he conducted at Bayreuth on several occasions, to ecstatic reviews. His knowledge of the genre reached much further than with most conductors and he often exerted his influence over every aspect of the production, something nearly lost nowadays. This was the concept of “Gesamtkunstwerk” that he applied to opera, with singers, direction, orchestra, lighting, costumes and sets all in perfect unity, something that was mentioned during his triumphal La Scala visit to Berlin in 1929 and on numerous other occasions.
He worked tirelessly with singers, rehearsing for hours when necessary and slightly less during revivals, when the machine was already well-oiled. He made no allowances even with the greatest names – and those read like the crème de la crème of the operatic galaxy. They feared him but with love and admiration.
Toscanini’s reputation for losing his temper and having tantrums was legendary, though it is clear his sky-high demands were first and foremost with himself. After running once through a piece, he looked at the orchestra and remarked: “Bene! You play it bene! But me, no.” He could be fiercely critical, uncompromising and unforgiving, yet also incredibly generous, understanding and devoted.
His energy was boundless and his workload immense, defying the present-day notion that the work balance in performing arts was better then than now. The number of operas Toscanini conducted during an average season makes one dizzy. He would gradually withdraw from running a theatre company and focused entirely on symphonic concerts, as the toll on his health became too heavy.
Toscanini’s tenures with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony Orchestra are now legendary and well-documented. He honed their sound and trained them to perfection. Both have subsequently become the best orchestras in the world and he often preferred them to European orchestras, even such illustrious ones as the Vienna Philharmonic. After his first rehearsal with the famed Austrian ensemble, the maestro commented to Ada Mainardi, saying: “The orchestra is good – not excellent, like mine in New York, and above all not as disciplined. You can tell that it’s not accustomed to being in good hands. However, it’s flexible, because at the first rehearsal it immediately modified itself so as to maintain the rhythm strictly, and it had responded perfectly to all my demands.” Needless to say, both debut concerts with the orchestra were a tremendous success.
Hesitant at first about record production, he nonetheless became one of the most recorded artists of his era. If some of the recordings did not always reflect the impact of his live performances (NBC studios were notoriously dry), and if the casting of those few operas he put on disc doesn’t quite match what was usually at his disposal, there is enough to make you gasp. His Brahms cycle, recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall in 1952, Verdi’s Otello and Beethoven’s symphonies with the New York Philharmonic, Debussy’s La Mer or anything by Wagner will change your perception of these works forever.
Sachs is clearly smitten by the man and understandably so, even though Toscanini like everybody else had his flaws both as an artist (very few) and a human being (few more). He gives the man with all his contradictions. The conductor’s love aﬀairs were numerous and hardly secret for a man of his fame and status. Some lasted for years, some were just fleeting, but his wife’s patience must have been infinite.
Reading some of his vast correspondence is very revealing as Toscanini wore his heart on his sleeve. His letters to Geraldine Farrar or Ada Mainardi are full of passion and eroticism, sometimes borderline pornographic. On the other hand, Toscanini was a true family man who adored his children and grandchildren and a loving if often absent and unfaithful husband.
He was a man of principle, which showed especially vividly in his political opinions. Perhaps it ran in his blood as his father had been a political activist and a Risorgimento fighter.
Toscanini’s hatred for fascism and Nazism was widely known and admired. He defied Mussolini for years, refusing to play the Fascist Party’s anthem at the start of each performance till he was beaten by thugs and his passport confiscated. After the incident, he left the country, to return only when the war was over. In 1933 he decided to withdraw from conducting at the Bayreuth Festival in spite of pleading calls from Winifred Wagner and a flattering letter from Adolf Hitler himself. A similar fate awaited the annual Salzburg Festival, whose further invitations after the Anschluss he refused.
Harvey Sachs’s biography is a treasure trove of Toscanini’s artistic career and a wholesome portrait of a fascinating man. We follow his often-turbulent friendships with composers and his opinions about new music; his admiration for early Richard Strauss but disdain for his late works such as Arabella or Capriccio. The only Mozart opera he ever conducted was The Magic Flute as he shockingly thought little of the others. Verdi and Wagner were his operatic gods, though he did conduct works by composers rarely performed at the time such as Gluck. He admired Menuhin, Oistrakh and Heifetz and adored Kathleen Ferrier and Lotte Lehmann, while he accused Maria Callas of negligible diction! He admired Furtwängler in spite of vast musical diﬀerences but despised his political stance on fascism. He loved hiking and nature, hardly gave any interviews, had no press agent and cared little for money, with which he was very generous. After all, one is tempted to quote Deems Taylor, who once said: “Toscanini may have been at the Last Supper but he wasn’t at the head of the table”, but everything Toscanini did in life was in the service of music and his legacy is indisputable, which shines clearly throughout the pages of this superb book.
Verdi, Otello with Vinay, Nelli and Valdengo, NBC Symphony and Chorus, 1947.
Strauss, Death and Transfiguration, NBC Symphony, Carnegie Hall, 1952.
Toscanini at the Queen’s Hall, BBC Symphony, June 1935.
Toscanini and the Philadelphia Orchestra complete recordings, indulging a sensational Debussy’s La Mer, 1941 and 1942.
Brahms, The Four Symphonies etc., Philharmonia Orchestra, Live at the Royal Festival Hall, 1952.
Beethoven, Symphonies No. 5 & 7, New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall 1933 and 1936.