Arturo Toscanini is the epitome of what a conductor should be according to the mass imagination. Like Caruso and Callas, his fame went beyond the concert halls, past the record-buyers and radio listeners, and reached into the minds of those who had never heard him perform. His sometimes-fiery temperament and energetic conducting style supported the popular image of the all-powerful maestro.
Although views on his style have been revised since his death in 1957, it certainly wasn’t all hype that made him a classical music superstar. After hearing Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic in Prague in 1930, conductor and composer George Szell wrote,
The clarity of texture; the precision of ensemble; the rightness of balances; the virtuosity of every section, every solo-player of the orchestra – then at its peak – in the service of an interpretative concept of evident, self-effacing integrity, enforced with irresistible will power and unflagging ardour, set new, undreamed-of standards literally overnight.
Toscanini studied at the music conservatories in Parma and Milan, perfecting his technique as a cellist. When playing at the opera house at Rio de Janeiro he filled in for a conductor who was having difficulties with the score of Aida, an opera that he already knew from memory… he was 19. His capacity for memorising scores – and apparently poems when he was at school – was legendary, and he often conducted entire concerts without music in front of him.
In 1898, he became the musical director of La Scala in Milan, and ten years later he took over at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. He was the conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1928 to 1936, and from 1937 to 1954 he directed the NBC Symphony.
Composer Virgil Thomson called him the “founding father of American conducting”, which is less complimentary than it seems as Thomson admired the European depth of culture which he thought beyond the scope of the young American conductors. He also criticised Toscanini for largely ignoring the modern repertoire, including, obviously, his own music.
Toscanini’s career spanned 68 years, during which he conducted the world premieres of many operas, including Pagliacci, La bohème, La fanciulla del West and Turandot.
He conducted the first Italian performances of Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Salome, and Pelléas et Mélisande as well as the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings.
Toscanini was a hard, often obsessive, worker. In 1919, he took the La Scala orchestra on tour in the USA with 67 concerts in 77 days, followed shortly after by an Italian tour of 38 concerts in 56 days.
His fame in America was immense. He was featured three times on the cover of Time magazine: in 1926, 1934, and 1948. On the anniversary of his birth in 1989 the US Postal Service issued a 25-cent postage stamp in his honour.
Roy Brewer writes in his short biography,
Toscanini’s opposition to Fascism and Nazism was implacable. In 1931, he was attacked for refusing to play the Giovanezza, a Fascist anthem. In the same year, he was the first non-German conductor to appear at the Wagner Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, but refused to return in 1933 in protest of the Nazi’s treatment of Jewish musicians. He also turned his back on the Salzburg Festival because the Jewish conductor Bruno Walter’s performances there were not broadcast in Germany. In 1938-1939, he conducted without fee at a festival in Lucerne, Switzerland, where the orchestra was composed entirely of musicians who had fled German persecution.
Toscanini was granted admiration and a respect reserved for a select few, and musicians and singers stoically bore his temperamental rages. Psychoanalyst Martin H Blum wrote,
They always felt that in yielding to him they were nurturing him. Without knowing the derails, they sensed that he had been crippled by an impoverished and traumatizing childhood, that his incapacity for ordinary relatedness made him turn to his working relations as a desperate mode of escape from his pain and his rage…
As the providers of the gratifications for which he lived, his performers knew that they were more important to him than his wife, his children, his mistresses, or his audiences…
He was clearly more fragile than they and they needed to solace him so he could lead them. In providing the medium of his states of rapture they guaranteed the materials of their own. What had developed on both sides was a curious kind of love.
In Kenneth A Christensen’s The Toscanini Mystique, he concludes by saying,
The victim of a frigid childhood blighted by an alcoholic and absent father, a cold-hearted mother and a music school which resembled a maximum security prison. Toscanini often hurt all the people closest to him, including his own children, because only through his own art, did he ever learn to love himself.
David Cairns for the New Grove, wrote that among Toscanini’s most remarkable characteristics were,
Energy, single-mindedness, [and] impetuosity combined with an inflexible will, fanatical perfectionism and an almost morbid self-criticism.
In an interview Toscanini once said,
I am no genius. I have created nothing. I play the music of other men. I am just a musician.
Arturo Toscanini – born 25 March 1867, in Parma, Italy; died of complications from a stroke, 16 January 1957, in Riverdale, the Bronx, NY
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.