In the past years there have been a few biographies of musicians that shed special insight into the life and art of these iconic musical figures – Richard Osborne’s sympathetic portrayal of conductor Herbert von Karajan, Kevin Bazzana’s magisterial Wondrous Strange: The Life and Art of Glenn Gould, as well as Harvey Sachs’ Rubinstein: A Life, the story of pianist Arthur Rubinstein.
Sach’s latest book, Toscanini – Musician of Conscience (Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2017) – is a magnificent, copiously researched, well-written, and comprehensive overview of the great conductor’s storied life and musical career. The present volume, weighing in at 923 pages, supersedes the author’s previous biography of Toscanini, mainly because of large number of testimonies by Toscanini family members, colleagues and friends, fifteen hundred of his letters that came to light in the 1990’s, as well as conversations between Toscanini and visiting friends and colleagues, secretly recorded by son Walter in the conductor’s house in Riverdale, New York. The result is a book that highlights not only the life of a great musician, but a glimpse into the musical life of Europe, South America, and the United States during the turbulent times of the first half of the 20th century.
Toscanini’s father, Claudio, was a patriot – just as his son would later turn out to be – who was part of Garibaldi’s Sicilian expedition in 1860. In Sach’s words, Claudio would turn out to be unreliable “as husband, father, and breadwinner.” His philandering ways seemed to have been inherited by his talented son, but more about that later.
Arturo Toscanini received his musical training at Parma’s Regia Scuola di Musica (Royal School of Music), a school whose grandiose title is not matched by its physical locale – a deconsecrated Carmelite convent whose rooms “usually stank, and bedbugs were common.” In spite of the less than luxurious conditions and the absence of immediate family, Toscanini loved conservatory life, and his musical talents showed themselves early on. According to the author, “Toscanini always remembered his student days as the happiest period in his life”. At the beginning of his second year at the conservatory, he was told that the cello was to be his instrument, even though he would have preferred to learn the violin. One interesting fact shows how much performance practice has changed within the last century, because when Toscanini started cello lessons, cellos were not equipped with end pins, and cellists would grip the instrument between their knees, something that cellists specializing in Baroque performance would do today.
After graduation, Toscanini became a freelance orchestral cellist, and thereby landed himself in the situation of his unexpected conducting debut in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The story is too well known to merit repeating. Suffice it to say that Toscanini’s conducting career took off after standing in as a last minute replacement for the scheduled conductor, who had been shouted off the podium by an irate audience. His conducting of Aida was a great success, and he remained conductor for the travelling opera company for the remainder of the tour.
On November 4th, 1886, Toscanini made his professional Italian conducting debut with Catalani’s Edmea, one of many operas, regularly performed at the time, which was to fade into obscurity. Throughout the book, we find names of operas performed, successfully at the time, that are totally unknown today. Immediately he was recognized as a major conducting talent. Toscanini moved to Milan at the beginning of La Scala’s 1886-87 season - the highlight being the world premiere of Verdi’s Otello, his first opera in sixteen years. He won the position as second cello in the Scala orchestra, mainly in order to observe how the 73-year-old Verdi would prepare the production. For the rest of his life, the conductor would refer to those Otello rehearsals and performances as “one of his greatest learning experience.” At the end of the season, Toscanini began to work as in itinerant conductor for the next eight years, conducting in Genoa (where he stepped in to conduct the world premiere of Franchetti’s Cristoforo Colombo, again to great success, even though the opera is again a mere historical footnote today), Rome, Palermo, Pisa, Ravenna (where the local critic predicted that Toscanini was “predestined to occupy the conducting chair at La Scala), and Turin, where he was appointed maestro concertatore e direttore d’orchestra in 1895.
Turin represented an important chapter in Toscanini’s career. At the time, most Italian theatres, including La Scala, had the orchestra playing at ground-floor level, which does not work for the more heavily scored works of Verdi and Wagner. Under Toscanini, Turin’s theatre witnessed the construction of its first orchestra pit, an important chapter in the evolution of opera theatres. Toscanini inaugurated his first season with Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, probably the most complex of the Ring operas. One of the performances was heard by Arrigo Boito, who was hugely impressed by what he heard and saw. This began a long friendship between conductor and composer, “that would have far-reaching consequences for both men.” Boito returned to Turin for Toscanini’s performance of Falstaff, of which he was the librettist for Verdi, and approved of the young conductor’s interpretation of the complex score. Perhaps even more importantly, Toscanini conducted the premiere of Puccini’s La Bohème, at first to lukewarm response, but subsequently to ever-growing popularity and success. It was also in Turin that the conductor gave his first full-length symphony concert. It wasn’t long before Toscanini’s talent became too big for Turin, and Boito, who had been named vice-president of La Scala’s governing board, wanted the conductor, at the tender age of thirty-one, to be artistic director of Italy’s most prestigious opera theatres.
Sachs documents the evolution, as well as the ups and downs, of the history of the great opera house, as well as the intrigue and political machinations behind Toscanini’s nomination as conductor of the house. Sachs devotes many pages documenting the conductors’ years at La Scala. Toscanini’s international career really began after his tenure at La Scala. The bulk of the biography details the rise of Toscanini as international artist and star conductor – his years at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, his second tenure at La Scala after World War One, music directorship of the New York Philharmonic, his musical life between the two world wars, and finally, and perhaps, most well known to contemporary music lovers, his association with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
Other than Toscanini’s life, one of the interesting aspects of this volume is his relationship with his contemporary musicians.
Verdi was already a well-established composer when Toscanini began his career, and even if the aged composer had heard positive reports about the young musician from many quarters, it couldn’t be said that they had a close friendship. Toscanini did visit Verdi on two occasions, the second one shortly before the composer’s death in 1901. The conductor did have an uneasy friendship with Puccini. Part of the tension between conductor and composer had to do with Toscanini’s close friendship with Alfredo Catalani, known today almost solely for his opera La Wally. In Sach’s words, Toscanini felt that Catalani, who died at thirty-nine, “never reached his full professional and artistic stride.” Sachs adds that Toscanini, “was convinced that Catalani was more gifted, especially as a melodist, than Puccini and their contemporaries, but he also knew that Puccini had learned his musical materials more skillfully and to choose more attractive subjects and libretti.”
Yet there is no denying that Toscanini recognized Puccini as an important composer, and Puccini always knew that under Toscanini, his creations would be in excellent hands. Puccini entrusted Toscanini with the world premiere of his La Fanciulla del West at the Metropolitan Opera, and of course Toscanini conducted the composer’s unfinished Turandot, even though the conductor personally found the latter opera difficult to love. One of the two’s periodic falling out involved Puccini’s triple bill Trittico, which the conductor felt was unworthy of the composer’s talents.
Toscanini also recognized the genius of Claude Debussy, and had conducted many of the composer’s orchestral works, and conducted the successful Italian premiere of Pelléas et Mélisande, although it seems inconceivable that the opera was sung in Italian. The composer wrote to Toscanini, “I put Pelléas’s fate in your hands, sure as I am that I could not wish for more loyal or more capable ones. For this reason as well I would have liked to work on it with you; it is a joy that one does not easily come across along the path of our art” - high praise indeed coming from the creator of the work.
Toscanini also conducted Busoni’s Berceuse Elégiaque, Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead, and excerpts from Stravinsky’s Petrushka. Toscanini conducted Busoni’s work frequently throughout his career, but his single performance of The Isle of the Dead would be his first and last experience with Rachmaninoff’s music, even though he genuinely admired the Russian composer as a great pianist and musician. Vladimir Horowitz, Toscanini’s son-in-law, always regretted not having performed the Rachmaninoff’s third piano concerto – his signature piece - with the conductor. According to Horowitz, Toscanini was uncomfortable with Rachmaninoff’s gushing romanticism. Toscanini also disliked the playing (which I find surprising) or the ultra-modern compositions (which I don’t) of Arthur Schnabel. Perhaps he saw Schnabel as a competitor for his role as high priest of music?
The author of the present volume also sheds light on the presumed rivalry between Toscanini and Gustav Mahler. According to Sachs, “[t]he fable of Toscanini’s forcing Mahler to leave the Metropolitan is precisely that – a fable – and it was largely constructed by Alma.” Although Mahler was only forty-eight at the time, he already knew that – due to his heart disease – he would not be able to physically take on the role of principal conductor or general manager of a major opera house. The year before Toscanini’s arrival, Mahler only conducted twenty-six performances of five different operas, hardly a heavy workload compared to what he was doing in Vienna. Sachs quotes Julian Carr, one of Mahler’s biographers, who writes that Mahler’s departure from the Metropolitan Opera “was due neither to the new Italian regime nor (another legend) to hostile critics. He went, as so often before, because he saw a more attractive post.” Toscanini and Mahler were aware of each other’s talents and reputation, and each held the other in high esteem.
I find it ironic that Toscanini only conducted Mozart’s Don Giovanni for one season in South America, because to list the conductor’s many “conquests” would make a list longer than Don Juan in his famous “Catalogue Aria.” Women who shared a bed with the maestro included (of course) opera singers, wives of musical colleagues, as well as various female admirers who bowed to the conductor’s charms. Sachs writes that by today’s standards, Toscanini would probably have been labeled a sexual predator. Indeed, Toscanini’s philandering ways were a great source of pain for his wife and family. According to Sachs, some of the letters Toscanini sent to his many lovers throughout the years bordered on the pornographic. Although Toscanini felt a great antipathy toward the Catholic Church, he seriously frowned upon divorce, and was somehow able to rationalize his womanizing as separate from being married for life.
In addition to Toscanini’s musical integrity, I believe that we can admire him unreservedly for his opposition to any form of tyranny. Although (briefly) an early admirer of Mussolini, who initially branded himself as a socialist, Toscanini quickly saw the dictator for what he was, and took a stand against Italy’s descend into the darkness of totalitarianism. As early as 1922, Toscanini forbade the La Scala orchestra to play Giovinezza, the Fascist anthem. When the Palestine Philharmonic Orchestra (today’s Israel Philharmonic) was founded by Bronislaw Huberman to give a musical home to the Jews displaced from European orchestras and opera houses, Toscanini volunteered his services and conducted the orchestra’s first concerts. Toscanini antipathy towards Mussolini put him in dangerous situations within Italy – his telephone calls were wiretapped, and his letters opened. At one point, Mussolini confiscated his passport, and it was only because of his high profile and the intervention of NBC that he was able to leave Italy before hostilities broke out.
That said, it tells us something of Toscanini’s sense of fairness that he did not join in the chorus of protest to prevent Wilhelm Furtwängler, whose wartime record continues to be a matter for debate, from performing in the United States.
In these nine hundred-plus pages, Harvey Sachs vividly re-creates the musical environment of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When Toscanini was growing up, music, opera especially, was probably more entertainment than culture. This was particularly true in Italy, where every moderate size town had an opera house. People clamored for the newest operas, and revival of older operas was relatively rare. Today, even the world’s largest opera houses would have perhaps one or two world premieres, if that, per season. In the last years of the 19th century, we witnessed the evolution of opera from entertainment to high culture.
It has often been said that Toscanini memorized all his scores – something that influenced the subsequent generations of podium titans – because of his poor eyesight. I believe that for Toscanini, memorizing a score was not a matter of rote, but part of a process of internalizing the music before he could let it come out in his gestures. As Sachs shows in his book, Toscanini was always studying before a performance, always looking for new discoveries between the notes, even with works that he knew intimately.
In the early 20th century, because of advances in electronic media, radio and then television gradually played more of an important role in competing for our hours for leisure. We should remember that when Toscanini was growing up, Brahms was still alive and active, and Verdi had not yet composed his final masterpieces. For someone whose formative years were steeped in the 19th century, Toscanini was surprisingly receptive and opened towards using electronic media to disseminate art. His years as conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra were significant in that radio and television made classical music available to millions of listeners who would otherwise have no opportunity to be anywhere near a major orchestra. Of course, this significant exposure also firmly planted the name of Arturo Toscanini in the consciousness of millions of music lovers. Those early broadcasts, with unbelievably crude sounds by today’s standards, laid the foundation for today’s hugely popular simulcasts of operas on television and in movie theatres.
One fact that surprised me was how varied Toscanini’s programmes were during his NBC years. Of course there were the standard symphonic works we associate him with, but there were also, surprisingly, works by composers like Castelnuono-Tedesco, Roy Harris, Shostakovich, Henry F. Gilbert, Kent Kennan, Charles Tomlinson Griffes, Ferde Grofé, Kurt Atterberg, George Gershwin and Anatoly Liadov, just to name a few. His concerts include such diverse bedfellows as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra, Ravel’s La Valse, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Kabalevsky’s Symphony No. 2 and Gershwin’s An American in Paris and Piano Concerto in F. In his years with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, Toscanini was diligent in seeking out worthy works by American composers.
The impression I got from reading this volume is that Toscanini in his NBC years was quite a different conductor than in his younger years. The broadcasts of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, recorded in the “dry as dust” acoustics of NBC’s Studio 8H, came off as rather driven and devoid of poetry, and probably gave people the impression of Toscanini being a conductor that preferred rapid tempi. In Sachs’ opinion, this impression, “is a gross, indeed grotesque, distortion of the truth, but, like so many other handed-down opinions, it has endured.” Surely the recording technology of the 1930’s did not do justice to Toscanini. Certainly, reading this book made me lament the fact that I had been born too late to have experienced a performance by the conductor, whose performances at its best must have been incandescent.
Toscanini – Musician of Conscience, is obviously a labour of love for Harvey Sachs, who must have devoted many years in researching and writing the present volume. This is an important book that should be read by many. Sachs’ book is more than a mere life story of a great musician, but also a glimpse into the musical culture of our recent past, thoughts about the role of an artist in society, and a history of the development of music in our society.
It is also, for those interested, a darn good read.
November 21, 2017