The birthplace of Toscanini

Martin CullingfordTue 27th September 2011
Toscanini's birthplace, now a fascinating museumToscanini's birthplace, now a fascinating museum

Parma museum reunites maestro with his hometown

Parma, Italy

On a quiet street to the west of the city centre, just along from the walls that ward off the waters of Parma’s river (which, this scorching summer, is entirely absent, the river-bed a grass-strewn chasm), backing on to the ordered avenues of the Parco Ducale, is the Casa Natale Arturo Toscanini.

It’s not a small house by modern standards – until you discover that the Toscanini family shared it with three others. The maestro’s father, a tailor, used the downstairs room as a workshop, and the Toscaninis lived in the room above it. They were not wealthy - rather heart-breakingly Arturo’s mother would not visit him at music school as she didn’t think herself to be sufficiently elegant. Though Toscanini was to earn greatest international fame for his work in America, this was where he grew up, across town from Parma’s beautiful Baptistry, a walk through the suburbs from the tomb of Paganini.

The one-time workshop is the first room we arrive at; it’s devoted to Toscanini’s relationship with his hometown, concert programmes from the Teatro Regio di Parma, pictures of his teachers. From Parma to Milan: a corridor lined with posters of La Scala triumphs takes us up to his self-imposed exile from his homeland following the rise of the Fascists. Toscanini, an early supporter of the movement, became a committed, outspoken adversary, refusing to conduct the Fascist anthem, incurring the wrath of Mussolini but the support of figures throughout the world: the museum contains a letter from Einstein, praising Toscanini for his commitment to fighting Fascism and his work with musicians in Palestine, soon-to-be Israel.

The Toscanini family’s room, where Arturo was born, explores his personal life: his birth certificate, characterful caricatures drawn by the tenor Caruso, mini Shakespeare volumes mere inches tall (with correspondingly tiny text and appropriately sat next to his reading glasses), hats, canes, portraits of him, one of his father as a Garibaldi soldier, and a gallery of musical heroes: Verdi, Debussy, Wagner, Catalani.

From the personal to the professional: Toscanini’s conducting clothes, some of the 1200 photographs taken by an RCA Columbia engineer over a 20-year period, correspondence with composers, including Strauss and Puccini (for whom he premiered La bohème, La fanciulla del West and Turandot), a chain-mail costume from a Lohengrin production, his Bechstein piano. Among the museum’s many recordings available to listen to is one of him rehearsing the orchestra in La traviata, Toscanini occasionally singing the parts and giving directions in a mix of Parma dialect and American English. Finally, in an air-conditioned upper-storey room, a looped-film takes us up to his final years, and so bringing down the curtain on this fascinating tribute to the life of a great conductor, reuniting one of the past century’s most formidable and famous musicians with the quiet Italian side-street in which he was born.

For more information: Museo Casa Natale Arturo Toscanini

Martin Cullingford

Martin Cullingford is the Editor and Publisher of Gramophone.

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