Arturo Toscanini was the most admired of 20th-century conductors—and, in certain circles, the most reviled.
Throughout the first half of his seven-decade-long career, Toscanini was spoken and written of in near-worshipful tones, not merely by critics and the public but also by most of his fellow musicians. In 1938, Bernard Shore, principal violist of the BBC Symphony, called him “the one living conductor whom every single member of the orchestra approves.” Even other conductors—hardly a collegial breed—seemed to view him less as a peer than as a phenomenon. Here, for instance, is Herbert von Karajan’s memory of hearing him conduct Verdi’s Falstaff in Vienna in 1929: “From the first bar, it was as if I had been struck a blow. I was completely disconcerted by the perfection which had been achieved.”
Starting in the late 1930’s, however, a note of skepticism began to creep into the appraisals of influential music critics, foremost among them Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald Tribune. Decrying Toscanini’s apparent lack of interest in 20th-century music, these writers also claimed that his interpretations of the classics were too fast and too unyielding. Some went so far as to contend that Toscanini, far from being a uniquely gifted interpreter, was in fact a shallow crowd-pleaser whose flashy, superficial style was (in Thomson’s words) “very little dependent on literary culture and historical knowledge. . . . I find Toscanini’s work, for the most part, spiritually unenlightening, except when he plays Italian music.”
Over time, the two viewpoints hardened into something resembling ideologies. To his most doctrinaire admirers, Toscanini was a genius who could do no wrong; to his most extreme detractors, he was a kind of idiot savant, capable of forcing orchestras to play with matchless virtuosity but unable to grasp the inner meaning of the 19th-century Austro-German classics.
That this controversy should continue to rage is a tribute to Toscanini’s extraordinary charisma, as well as to the fact that he lived long enough to make an unusually large number of recordings. Born in 1867, he remained active until 1954, and for the last sixteen years of his life he performed on radio with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, whose broadcasts were all recorded and have been preserved. In addition, he made commercial recordings for RCA Victor not only of most of his symphonic repertoire but of six complete operas, and he also appeared ten times on TV All of his commercial recordings have been transferred to CD, and all of his televised concerts are available on videocassette.1
Yet this huge corpus of material has attracted little attention from musicologists, while professional critics who generalize about Toscanini’s style, as Joseph Horowitz did in his controversial Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music (1987), tend to do so on the basis of only a tiny sliver of the available evidence. Significantly, the only factually reliable biography of the conductor, Harvey Sachs’s Toscanini (1978), was written not by an academic scholar but by a conductor turned journalist.
In recent months, though, two books have appeared that add greatly to our knowledge of Toscanini and his work. Mortimer H. Frank, who served as curator of the Toscanini archive at Wave Hill, the conductor’s New York home from 1941 to 1945, has published an exhaustive study of Toscanini at NBC—the first such book to be written by someone who has listened closely to all of his surviving broadcast recordings.2 And Harvey Sachs has edited a collection of 700 Toscanini letters, most of which were unavailable when he wrote his biography a quarter-century ago.3 Thanks in part to these groundbreaking books, it has become possible to steer around the roadblock of Toscanini’s legend—in both its favorable and unfavorable versions—and consider the man himself.
The legend began in 1886 when Toscanini, then the principal cellist and assistant chorus master of an Italian opera troupe on tour in South America, made his debut by leading a performance of Aida in Rio de Janeiro. Though he was only nineteen years old and had never before conducted an orchestra of any kind, he brought off the feat triumphantly. Within a few years of his return to Italy, Toscanini was recognized as one of that country’s most promising young conductors; by 1896 he had led the premieres of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Puccini’s La Bohème, and two years later he became principal conductor of Milan’s Teatro La Scala, then as now one of the world’s leading opera houses.
The hot-blooded, high-handed Toscanini struck most of his friends and colleagues as quintessentially Italian, an impression reinforced over the years by his volatile correspondence (not least his love letters). Yet it was in the highest degree improbable that such a musician should have emerged from the chaotic, provincial musical culture of a country that valued singing above all other musical endeavors. Except for Puccini, Italy would produce no major composers during the 20th century, and only a bare handful of world-class instrumental soloists and ensembles. Even the best Italian orchestras were undisciplined, and it was taken for granted that opera productions existed solely to showcase the voices of native-born singers.
Toscanini had different ideas. He led the first Italian productions of such works as Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, Strauss’s Salome, Tchaikovsky’s Yevgeny Onegin, and Wagner’s Götterdämmerung and Siegfried, all of which made radically new expressive and technical demands on singers and orchestras alike. Not only was he determined to bring Italian musicianship up to the standards set by such operas, he also took the closest possible interest in the way they were staged. Influenced by Richard Wagner’s theories of opera as drama, he sought to replace the traditional, singer-dominated approach to production with a new style in which the conductor was responsible for all artistic decisions. As Herbert von Karajan recalled:
To be sure, Toscanini had employed a stage director, but basically, the essential conception came from him. The agreement between the music and the stage performance was something totally inconceivable for us: instead of people senselessly standing around, here everything had its place and its purpose. . . . For the first time I grasped what “direction” meant.
To have done this anywhere in the world would have won Toscanini a permanent place in the history of classical music. To have done it in the opera houses of Italy, whose slapdash practices were antithetical to his quest for perfection, is all but unimaginable, and goes a long way toward explaining why to this day his name is identified with tyrannical behavior. Single-minded to the point of fanaticism, he threw spectacular and terrifying fits whenever he suspected that his musicians were failing to give their best. According to Harvey Sachs, “he would break batons, scream obscenities, tear up scores, throw music stands into the empty auditorium, and hurl insults at principal offenders.” Some of these tantrums were recorded without Toscanini’s knowledge by NBC engineers, proving that rumors of his temper were in no way exaggerated.
For all Toscanini’s gifts as a man of the theater, it was his conducting—and, no less important, his ability to train orchestras—that made the deepest impression on his contemporaries. Even in the largest cities of Europe, standards of playing were extremely uneven well into the 1920’s and beyond. London, for instance, did not have a single world-class orchestra until the BBC Symphony was founded in 1930. Before Toscanini came along, most of the great conductors had been composers like Wagner, Hector Berlioz, and Richard Strauss—men whose works were so innovative that they took up conducting in order to show orchestras how to play them.
Toscanini, by contrast, was a full-time conductor who worked regularly with a limited number of orchestras, teaching them how to play the new music of the late 19th century and painstakingly sculpting them into true virtuoso ensembles capable of performing with unprecedented brilliance. Other men, most notably Willem Mengelberg, Arthur Nikisch, and Felix Weingartner, were doing more or less the same thing at the same time, but it was Toscanini who by most accounts was primus inter pares, first at La Scala, then in New York, where he served as principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera from 1908 to 1915.
In those days, no one was skeptical about Arturo Toscanini, least of all his colleagues. Told by a musician that Toscanini’s interpretation of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony was unidiomatic, the violin virtuoso Fritz Kreisler replied, “I don’t believe Toscanini is wrong; but even if he were, I should rather hear it wrongly played by Toscanini than correctly by anyone else.” Otto Klemperer called him “the king of conductors,” while for Pierre Monteux he was “the greatest of all.”
Had he died young, these words would have been remembered though not necessarily believed. But in 1929, two years after he became co-conductor with Mengelberg of the New York Philharmonic, Toscanini began to record the major works in his repertoire, making it possible for those who never heard him live to understand why he was remembered so vividly by those who did.
The first thing one notices upon listening to Toscanini’s early recordings is the lean, focused sound he draws from the Philharmonic. To some extent, this is a matter of mere precision—he demanded and got tighter ensemble playing than any other conductor—but it also represents a conscious aesthetic preference. Toscanini favored a bright, “Italianate” sound, weighted more toward treble than bass (as opposed to the bottom-heavy tone preferred by many Austro-German conductors). Some critics have accused him of being a “top-line” conductor, interested only in melody, but this is very nearly the opposite of the truth. What he sought, rather, was a transparent sound, one in which the inner voices of a piece were as audible as the soprano and bass lines.
Another generalization about Toscanini that cannot stand up to even the most casual scrutiny is that he played most pieces too quickly. To be sure, he did take certain works or passages, including the slow movements of Beethoven’s Seventh and Schubert’s C Major Symphonies, faster than most other conductors. Just as often, though, the apparent “speed” of a Toscanini interpretation is an illusion arising from clarity and rhythmic tautness. In any case, as Mortimer Frank proves in his detailed study of the NBC Symphony broadcasts, Toscanini’s interpretations varied over time, often quite widely. It is wrong to assume that a single recording, however impressive (or wrongheaded) it may seem on first hearing, necessarily shows how he thought a piece should “go.”
When Toscanini erred, it was on the side of rhythmic inflexibility. This is a trait more evident in his later recordings, which contain fewer of the sometimes startling inflections of tempo heard in his performances from the 1920’s and 1930’s. Yet even here, as Frank explains, we are dealing with the defect of a virtue:
This is not to say that his performances grew increasingly fleet, metronomic, or slack. But his rubato became less obvious. It may be this change in style that has promoted the inaccurate notion that Toscanini’s tempos accelerated and his performances became less subtle as he grew older. Nuance and subtlety, more often than not, remained, but more careful listening was required to discern them.
Early or late, Toscanini was always a dramatic conductor—a man of the theater even in the concert hall. To be sure, he was also capable of drawing exquisitely sensitive sounds from an orchestra (he was one of Debussy’s earliest advocates outside of France), but it is as the passionately unsentimental interpreter of such direct and forceful works as Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony that he is best remembered, and not without reason.
In his private life no less than in his musical life, Toscanini was a man of unequivocal views. After a brief flirtation with fascism, he became known throughout the world as a committed opponent of totalitarianism in all its forms, and his unwillingness to compromise with Mussolini and Hitler would have a major effect on the course of his later career.
Exhausted by the insurmountable difficulties of producing opera in Italy, Toscanini parted company with La Scala in 1929 and decided to concentrate on symphonic conducting in New York and Europe. Two years later, he was attacked by a mob of fascists in Bologna, and vowed never again to conduct in Italy so long as Mussolini was its ruler; in 1933, shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany, he broke with the Bayreuth Festival as well. From then on, he limited his European appearances to concerts with the BBC Symphony and the Vienna Philharmonic, taking time out to help organize the orchestra now known as the Israel Philharmonic.
Toscanini resigned from the New York Philharmonic in 1936, believing that he was too old to work regularly with a symphony orchestra. The following year, the NBC radio network offered to organize a studio orchestra with which he could broadcast and record as often as he wished, and the NBC Symphony was born. With Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria in 1938, it became clear that he could no longer safely remain in Europe, and in that same year he moved permanently to New York. Save for a limited number of appearances with other American orchestras and a handful of European concerts after the war, he spent the rest of his working life at NBC.
The NBC Symphony broadcast from Studio 8-H, a small, unresonant auditorium in New York’s Rockefeller Center that lacked the bloom of a true concert hall. In part because of the dry acoustics, the orchestra tended to sound brassy and blatant, but in 1950 it moved to Carnegie Hall and over time developed a warmer, better-blended tone. Between 1938 and 1954, Toscanini recorded most of his repertoire with the NBC Symphony, including the complete symphonies of Beethoven and Brahms and dozens of other pieces by composers ranging from Haydn and Mozart to Samuel Barber and George Gershwin. Many were recorded during live broadcasts.
These performances solidified Toscanini’s reputation as the world’s most famous conductor. They came to an end in 1954 after he had begun to experience occasional memory lapses on the podium; recognizing that his powers were failing, he reluctantly resigned his post. His final broadcast, an all-Wagner program, was a disaster—he became disoriented midway through the next-to-last piece and briefly stopped conducting—and he never again appeared in public, dying three years later.
A half-century after his last concert, Arturo Toscanini remains an enduring symbol of classical music in the 20th century. Thanks to persistent demand, RCA has kept his recordings in print, and smaller labels issue and reissue “pirated” versions of his live performances.
Yet, beyond a general agreement that he played a key role in raising standards of orchestral performance, there is still no consensus on his historical significance. Indeed, many critics continue to regard his influence as chiefly negative, while others, like Mortimer Frank, reject that view:
Too young to have a memory of the NBC Symphony, some writers, by ignoring verifiable truth, have alleged that those broadcasts pandered to commercialism and that Toscanini was an anti-intellectual obsessed with speed, whose reputation was derived from a cult of older critics blind to his many shortcomings. These critics, it has been claimed, like the NBC network itself, promoted the conductor with unprecedented hype. All such claims comprise, at best, misleading half-truths and, at worst, outright falsehoods.
By and large, Frank is correct. It is true that the NBC Symphony was a commercial undertaking, and that the network promoted Toscanini’s broadcasts and recordings heavily. But to look at the complete roster of its public performances included in Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years is to be struck by just how high-minded an enterprise the NBC Symphony was. Throughout its seventeen-year life, the orchestra performed under such noted conductors as Ernest Ansermet, Leonard Bernstein, Adrian Boult, Guido Cantelli, Erich Kleiber, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Pierre Monteux, Eugene Ormandy, Leopold Stokowski, George Szell, and Bruno Walter. And though Toscanini himself performed comparatively little modern music—the chief complaint of his critics—the lack was made up for by these other conductors, whose programs included, among many other 20th-century pieces, such “difficult” works as the Berg Violin Concerto and the Schoenberg Piano Concerto.
Equally unconvincing is Joseph Horowitz’s argument that Toscanini was an uncultured purveyor of slick performances of the classics that in some mysterious manner embodied the bourgeois obsessions of American middlebrow culture. “He did not so much discard tradition as disdain ever acquiring it,” wrote Horowitz. “Toscanini’s redundant Beethoven and Weber, Dvorak and Elgar, were as instantly and effortlessly preoccupying as a drawn six-shooter at the movies or a three-and-two count, bases loaded, at the ballpark.”
Toscanini’s letters show, to the contrary, that while he may not have been “intellectual” in the narrowly German sense, he was nonetheless an artist of high intelligence and considerable cultural awareness. While one may disagree with his unfavorable appraisal of, say, the music of Mahler, it cannot be dismissed as the mere whim of a boor.4 In addition, The Letters of Arturo Toscanini reminds us that the inspired interpreter who made such thrilling recordings of the music of Beethoven and Wagner was also a man of flesh and blood. To put it another way, Toscanini’s passionate art was a direct reflection of his passionate personality, which has heretofore seemed somewhat opaque, even in the pages of Sachs’s excellent biography or the wonderfully vivid memoirs collected in B.H. Haggin’s The Toscanini Musicians Knew (1967).
Here, for example, is Toscanini writing to his mistress in 1937 about the slow movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony:
The Adagio! Elysian Fields, Paradise—I feel what is inexpressible. It lifts me off the earth, removes me from the field of gravity, makes me weightless; one becomes all soul. One ought to conduct it on one’s knees. . . . Do you know that at the modulation to E-flat I always conduct with my eyes closed? I see extremely bright lights far, far away; I see shadows moving around, penetrated by rays that make them even move disembodied; I see flowers of the most charming shapes and colors. And the very music I’m conducting seems to descend from up there—I don’t know where!
One would not want to be without this wonderful passage, or another from a 1939 letter in which Toscanini compares himself with Verdi: “Always marvelously honest, in art as in life, Giuseppe Verdi. Something of his character, not of his genius, lives in me.” Reading these words, one recalls Isaiah Berlin’s description of Verdi as “a craftsman of genius with the simple strong moral ideas of his time and place—no tragic self-torment. He was a marvelous composer, a divine genius who created in a natural way as Homer and Shakespeare and perhaps Goethe did.”
Toscanini would never have said such things of himself: he drew a bright line between the genius of the creative artist and the lesser gifts of the interpreter. But he rightly sensed that he shared with Verdi the same sort of divine simplicity, and the best of his recordings leave no doubt of it. It is not necessary to dismiss the different approaches of other conductors in order to feel, while listening to him, that Arturo Toscanini really was, as Pierre Monteux averred, the greatest of all.
Arturo Toscanini on CD: An Introduction
Nearly all of Toscanini’s commercial recordings are currently available on CD in excellent-sounding digitally remastered transfers.5 Here are ten of the best, listed chronologically by date of recording. Except as indicated, all performances feature the NBC Symphony:
1929-36: Toscanini recorded a delightfully fleet performance of Haydn’s “Clock” Symphony at his first RCA sessions with the New York Philharmonic. The coupling on CD is Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony, performed with the Philharmonic seven years later and widely regarded by connoisseurs as his single greatest achievement on disc (RCA Victor Gold Seal 60316-2-RG).6
1939: The rhythmic freedom of Toscanini’s earlier conducting—as well as the fiery abandon of the then-new, still-youthful NBC Symphony—can be heard in a broadcast performance of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony recorded live in Studio 8-H (60269-2-RG).
1941: Toscanini’s idiosyncratic interpretation of the Schubert C Major Symphony is best captured in the sonically flawed but nonetheless listen-able recording he made with the Philadelphia Orchestra (60313-2-RG).
1947: Toscanini’s interpretation of Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, whose love scene he called “the most beautiful music in the world,” is not only compelling in its own right but a key document in the history of modern Berlioz performance (RCA 60274-2-RG, two CD’s).
1947: Toscanini had played cello at the world premiere of Otello, and his live recording of Verdi’s next-to-last opera is universally regarded—even by his most severe critics—as definitive (RCA 60302-2-RG, two CD’s).
1949: The canard that Toscanini played German music “too fast” is put to rest by his unusually slow recording of the prelude to the first act of Parsifal, coupled on CD with six other Wagner excerpts (RCA 09026-60305-2).
1950: Toscanini’s second studio recording of Debussy’s La Mer, taped at the end of a transcontinental tour by the NBC Symphony, preserves one of his most celebrated interpretations, featuring several instrumental retouchings for which he scrupulously obtained the composer’s approval. It is currently available as part of a set of French orchestral music (RCA 74321-66924-2, two CD’s).
1951: Of all Toscanini’s studio recordings, my own favorite is the Brahms Fourth Symphony, a fervent yet disciplined interpretation included in a set of the complete Brahms symphonies (RCA 74321-55838, two CD’s).
1951: Toscanini’s ability to combine exhilarating virtuosity with interpretative rigor was never displayed more effectively than in his studio version of Strauss’s Don Juan (RCA 09026-60296-2).
1953: Even at the very end of his life, the eighty-five-year-old Toscanini was capable of conducting Dvorák’s “New World” Symphony with the vitality and panache of a much younger man (RCA 74321-59481-2, two CD’s).
These CD’s can all be purchased on line by viewing this article during July and August on COMMENTARY’s website: www.commentarymagazine.com
1 Recommended CD’s by Toscanini are listed in the discography at the end of this piece.
2 Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years. Amadeus Press, 358 pp., $29.95.
3 The Letters of Arturo Toscanini. Knopf, 468 pp., $35.00.
4 “Mahler,” wrote Toscanini, “is not a genuine artist. His music has neither personality nor genius. It is a mixture of an Italianate style a la Petrella or Leoncavallo, coupled with Tchaikovsky’s musical and instrumental bombast and a search for Straussian eccentricities—although boasting an opposing system—without having the brilliance of the last two.”
5 In addition, Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years offers a detailed listing of live radio broadcasts by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony that have been “unofficially” released by independent labels. Many are hard to find or not for sale in the U.S., and their sound quality is inconsistent. For readers interested in exploring this material, one CD that is both sonically acceptable and readily available is a collection of seven Rossini overtures recorded between 1938 and 1951 (Relief CR 1884). These performances are for the most part superior to Toscanini’s commercial recordings of the same works.
6 Another transfer of the Seventh Symphony, available as part of a set of Toscanini’s complete recordings with the New York Philharmonic, makes use of a slower alternate take of the introduction to the first movement—a fascinating example of how his interpretations varied from performance to performance (Pearl GEMM CDS 9373, three CD’s).