Toscanini: the 20th-century conducting giant who changed the history of recording

Richard Osborne Mon 6th March 2017

Born 150 years ago, the Italian maestro dominated the gramophone age, making a huge impact across Europe and America. Richard Osborne pays tribute to the musician who defined what it was to be a 20th-century conductor

Arturo Toscanini (Tully Potter Collection)

Arturo Toscanini (Tully Potter Collection)

Writing to his friend Noel Annan in 1974, Sir Isaiah Berlin related how ‘the intensity, the seriousness, the sublime terribilità’ of Arturo Toscanini, live in the opera house or concert hall, left him feeling that ‘this and only this was the truth’. As a philosopher, Berlin knew that ‘truth’ is a slippery concept. But conductors fascinated him. In his view, no one, not even the admired Otto Klemperer, was ‘fit to tie Toscanini’s shoelaces’. Was this just a parlour game or were there, indeed, things about Toscanini’s life and career that genuinely set him apart?

Born in 1867, Toscanini was not the earliest conductor to survive into the age of the gramophone – Nikisch and Weingartner were older – but he was the most extensively recorded and the most influential. Though he didn’t begin recording regularly until he was in his sixties, the foundations of his vast repertory were laid early, in the 1890s. The readings evolved – he was, said Gianandrea Gavazzeni, ‘tireless, never sated, never still’ – but there’s no reason to believe, as some have claimed, that there exists another, older Toscanini whose work we can never properly know.

It was the boy’s exceptional ear that led him to be accepted at the age of nine into Parma’s Royal School of Music, from which he emerged in 1885 as a gifted cellist, laden with honours. The story of the 19-year-old’s debut the next year, conducting Aida from memory at an hour’s notice in Rio de Janeiro, was more remarked upon afterwards than at the time. Of greater contemporary significance was his being entrusted later in 1886 with a Turin production of Catalani’s Edmea. The Milanese prima had been led by Italy’s foremost conductor Franco Faccio – conductor in 1887 of the first performances of Otello in which Toscanini was the second of the four solo cellists Verdi asks for in the Act 1 love duet. But it was the young Toscanini who impressed Catalani more. ‘He’s a true phenomenon. His career is assured.’

In Turin, where Toscanini gave the first Italian performances of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, and at La Scala, Milan, where in 1898, on Arrigo Boito’s recommendation, he was appointed music director, he introduced epoch-changing musical and dramaturgical reforms. Not everyone approved. Briefed by a hostile Giulio Ricordi, even Verdi wondered at the orchestra’s new-found prominence. But the die was cast. Elsewhere, Toscanini’s grafting of Austro-German symphonic music onto Franco-Italian operatic rootstock was similarly mould-breaking, anticipating by more than 25 years the arrival of ‘New Objectivity’ in Germany itself.

It is said that, by the end of his career, Toscanini had conducted some 117 operas and 480 concert pieces – much of this new music, for all that works like Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Debussy’s La mer and Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony (which a New York audience booed and Toscanini promptly repeated) might seem old hat now. And all this (such was his myopia) rehearsed and conducted entirely from memory.

His core repertory, most of which is preserved on disc, ran from Haydn to the French and Italian impressionists, with nods in his final two decades to contemporary American composers and to Shostakovich whose First and Seventh Symphonies he played – the latter, the Leningrad, as part of a private Kulturkampf with Leopold Stokowski who, in the summer of 1942, was equally desperate to give the American premiere of this politically charged symphonic epic.

Toscanini’s ties to contemporary composers outside Italy were rarely close. There was a famous falling-out with Ravel over Boléro in Paris in 1930. ‘A minute-and-a-half too fast’, said Ravel, drawing a pocket watch from his waistcoat and stalking off. (In Ravel’s view, the faster Boléro was played, the longer it seemed.) Toscanini also warred with Richard Strauss over the rights to the Italian premiere of Salome, though fences were eventually mended and Toscanini would continue to conduct uniquely exciting performances of Don Juan and to treat Death and Transfiguration with a consideration that almost convinces one to place the work among the highest echelons of art.

Major orchestral appointments

In literature, there is a great gulf between the daylit world of Homer’s Odyssey and the more complex mythos of the Jewish Old Testament. And so it was in New York in 1908 when Toscanini, newly appointed as the Metropolitan Opera’s chief conductor, was obliged to work alongside Gustav Mahler. In the event, Mahler was more understanding of Toscanini – ‘It isn’t our Tristan but this conductor knows what he wants’ – than Toscanini was of Mahler, whom he disliked personally and whose psychologically troubled music was beyond his ken.

Mahler died in 1911 and in 1915 Toscanini returned to Italy, leaving the Metropolitan Opera glowing, exhausted and oddly bereft. Budget cuts were one reason for his departure; another was the soprano Geraldine Farrar with whom Toscanini had enjoyed one of his more complicated affairs. When Farrar demanded that he leave his wife and family, Toscanini took the first boat back to Europe, cancelling a reservation on what would be the Lusitania’s tragic final voyage.

For the next five years, a combination of war and politics made a hiatus in the conductor’s career. The son of a tailor who had fought alongside Garibaldi, Toscanini had grown up to be pro-Italian, anti-Fascist (in the party’s non-socialist phase), anti-monarchist and anti-German. These beliefs, as uncomplicated as the man himself, would help shape the final 30 years of his career.

In 1920-21 he took the La Scala orchestra on an eight-month, 133-concert tour of the United States. It was here that he made his first recordings: for the Victor Company in New Jersey. Dazzling accounts of the finales of Beethoven’s First Symphony and Mozart’s 39th show what a virtuoso group Toscanini had forged. They also reveal how suited Toscanini’s music-making was to the gramophone, both for its purity of sound and clarity of purpose. A recording doesn’t bear hearing more than a few times, Menuhin once observed, if you can predict, not the note, but the interpreter’s own private twist or eccentricity.

When La Scala reopened in December 1921, Toscanini was once again its music director. He retained the post throughout the 1920s, ending with a 1929 tour to Vienna and Berlin that left audiences and fellow musicians prostrate with admiration. The following year he created a similar effect with a European tour by the New York Philharmonic – the new bespoke Philharmonic whose players had been personally selected by Toscanini from the existing orchestra and the now-defunct New York Symphony. That same summer he also led revelatory, Italianate readings of Tannhäuser and Tristan at Bayreuth.

As a guest conductor in Europe in the 1930s, Toscanini commanded huge fees. For six of his concerts with the BBC Symphony Orchestra he was paid a total of £3000; this at a time when the annual salary of its chief conductor Adrian Boult was £3500 and the average national salary £200. He was, however, a huge draw. His decamping to Salzburg in 1934, as a protest against the Nazification of Bayreuth, transformed the festival’s fortunes. ‘Prices doubled’, recalled Isaiah Berlin, ‘and a lot of very fashionable people began appearing: rich Americans, Randolph Churchill in lederhosen’. But the music-making justified the cost. ‘Fidelio with Lotte Lehmann provided a quality of direct, old-fashioned sublimity which you rarely hear today.’ There were also orchestrally and textually incomparable performances of opera’s two greatest comedies Falstaff and Die Meistersinger.

Toscanini’s NBC symphony orchestra

In 1937 a new orchestra was created for Toscanini by NBC, a 1926 addition to RCA’s commercial radio portfolio. Head of the conglomerate was media mogul David Sarnoff (1891-1971) whose decidedly unReithian mindset was summed up in his mantra, ‘the value of a broadcasting organisation can only be accurately gauged by the number of viewers or listeners it has’.

NBC described the orchestra’s inaugural concert on Christmas Night 1937 as the greatest radio event since the abdication of Edward VIII. ‘Wagner, Beethoven, Bach, Sibelius and Brahms can now be made manifest in many a remote farmhouse’, rhapsodised the New York Times. A poll the following year revealed that 70 per cent of Americans (around 90 million people) knew who Toscanini was.

This new mass-market aspect of the Toscanini phenomenon would send anti-market Marxist Theodor Adorno and his followers into permanent session. Virgil Thomson’s not entirely implausible assertion that Toscanini’s ‘radical simplification of interpretative problems’ had changed orchestral conducting ‘from a matter of culture and its personal projection into something more like engineering’ was a typical example of what was now being written by the Adorno faction. (Thomson’s theory that Toscanini’s fabled memory contributed to this alleged streamlining was, however, bunkum. Toscanini prepared every concert afresh, referring to the printed score and his vast library of books and related materials.)

The NBC Symphony Orchestra was created from players from the company’s existing Red and Blue networks, supplemented by some of the finest individual musicians in the land. Artur Rodzi´nski was hired to prepare the ensemble but was replaced at the eleventh hour by Pierre Monteux who was alarmed by the tonal mismatches between individual sections. Some players claimed that it was not until their 1950 tour of the Americas that they became a properly functioning symphony orchestra but that may be something of an exaggeration.

The problems with NBC’s studio 8H have been endlessly rehearsed. Toscanini liked its restricted ambience because on the podium he could hear everything. Unfortunately the players couldn’t always hear themselves and Toscanini was often unhappy with the broadcast balances. In 1941-42 an acoustic shell was inserted and for a while an enterprising engineer Robert Johnston found some workable microphone placings. (The 1947 Otello is admirably clear.) Then, in 1950, 8H was turned into a TV studio and, to most people’s relief, the broadcasts moved to Carnegie Hall.

Full-blooded Italian style

On the rostrum, Toscanini was a man in thrall to his craft and the music it served. ‘Put your blood!’ he roared as he played through some Italian sweetmeat. ‘I put my blood!’ No one who played under him ever forgot that sunken brow and the eyes shining beneath ‘like burning coals’.

Did such ferocity of purpose inhibit players? Bernard Shore, principal viola of the BBC SO in the 1930s, thought the opposite. And the recordings, studio and live, which EMI made between 1935 and 1939, tend to bear this out. As WR Anderson wrote in these pages, he wanted ‘nothing better’ than the orchestra’s 1937 recording (HMV, 3/38R) of Brahms’s Tragic Overture: ‘I like the playing, for it reaches the drive of human affairs, and avoids any extreme note of fury, which is alien to the finest spirit of tragedy.’ The young Benjamin Britten was ‘astounded’ by the orchestra’s realisation of Debussy’s La mer, understandably so. Play the last 90 seconds of the live 1935 ‘Nimrod’ from Elgar’s Enigma Variations and you will hear playing of staggering beauty and intensity.

But it was a fine dividing line. The playing during Toscanini’s 1952 London Brahms cycle, a one-off encounter with the relatively new Philharmonia Orchestra, often seems tense and unyielding compared with, for example, the ease and eloquence of the recording of Brahms’s Haydn Variations which he made with the NBC SO earlier that same year.

Did conducting from memory take its toll? Klemperer, who hugely admired Toscanini (‘a splendid conductor with a phenomenal sense of sound and yet basically naive in the best sense of the word’), thought this may have been the case. He recalled reports of Toscanini pacing his room before a Salzburg Festival Falstaff muttering ‘if only I don’t make a mistake’. He did make mistakes in rehearsal, and occasionally in concert, but they rarely amounted to much, such was the quality of his technique and the fierce levels of concentration he induced in his players. Bassoonist Hugo Burghauser, the Vienna Philharmonic’s controversial chairman, recalled one such occasion. ‘Toscanini misremembered the order of numbers in the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition. When he gave the beat it was met with complete silence. Why? Because his gesture was so unmistakable you couldn’t take it to mean anything else. That a hundred people should have this split-second mental contact – this happened with no other conductor in my 50 years of playing.’

Technique and temperament

The story was told to Bernard Haggin, a writer Toscanini much admired. In his Conversations with Toscanini (New York, 1959) Haggin describes ‘the plastic coherence’ imparted by Toscanini’s ‘sense of continuity and proportion in the continuum of sound moving in time’. ‘It is with our beautiful baton that we make music’, Toscanini told Pierre Monteux. ‘With it, we play on our great instrument the orchestra. The more expert we are, the finer the music.’ Toscanini’s fluent baton technique was not exactly textbook. His effects were mainly achieved with his right arm working from the shoulder to the baton’s tip, augmented by large circling movements, now this way, now the other, which indicated moments when some expansion or intensification of the drama was called for.

All this, Bernard Shore recalls, was perfectly understood. ‘First, the magnificent sweep, which must be one of the most eloquent gestures ever made and which seemed to hold all the threads of the orchestra and to imbue them with life. Second, his not-so-apparent but extraordinarily dynamic, almost magical, preparation of his beats. With this, the most difficult changes of tempo became, even to those farthest from him, clear and unmistakable just at the right moment.’ Toscanini’s 1948 televised account of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony shows this well.

Toscanini was never (despite the publicity) a textual purist, though by the standards of the early 1900s he must have seemed Savonarola-like in his purges. His recordings are peppered with small alterations – and rather more lavish ones in works such as Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. His changes to Debussy’s La mer were made, he said, with the composer’s blessing. In fact, he learned early that the printed score is but the start and that less can be more where a composer’s markings are concerned. In 1898 he had consulted Verdi about a passage in his ‘Te Deum’ where Toscanini felt a slowing was required. He played the passage; Verdi approved of the playing: ‘A bad musician would have exaggerated that. But with a good musician I know I’m right not to have written it down.’

Toscanini was a small, energetic man with a bustling walk and a robust love of life, as his genial account of Beethoven’s Septet and footage of him on tour with the NBC Symphony Orchestra or at home with his family on Lake Maggiore vividly reveal. Claudio Arrau, who disliked intensely Toscanini’s music-making, found the man himself both charismatic and impressive, with a face – ‘its structure was unbelievable’ – of great beauty. Women must have thought likewise. ‘You are a great seducer’, Mistress Quickly tells Falstaff; so was Toscanini, albeit a rather more successful one. If the incandescence of his conducting of the gibbet scene in Verdi’s Un ballo in maschera is anything to go by, the testosterone levels must have remained high even in his mid-eighties.

His wife Carla died in 1951, two days after their 54th wedding anniversary. Toscanini went on working but retired in June 1954 at the age of 87. He groomed Guido Cantelli to be his musical heir but Cantelli died in a plane crash in Paris only weeks before Toscanini’s own death in January 1957. The old man was never told.

Toscanini’s legacy

It has been said that Toscanini was the musician who singlehandedly codified the 20th-century idea of what a conductor is. Those of his successors – Szell, Reiner, Karajan, Solti, Giulini: men who knew and understood his work at first-hand – carried forward aspects of his legacy in their own distinctive ways. More problematic have been the imitators, ancient and modern, who seize on the externals of the Toscanini style without mastering its inner workings – what Yehudi Menuhin has described as ‘the rhythmic spring, the flexibility, the slight unevenness which came from his profound understanding of music’. (Play in its entirety Toscanini’s 1951 NBC recording of Beethoven’s First Symphony and you will hear precisely what Menuhin means.)

A more detailed discussion of his recorded legacy must await next month’s review of the 20-CD ‘Arturo Toscanini: The Essential Recordings’ on RCA. This has been compiled by Harvey Sachs, author of the standard biography, and the late Christopher Dyment, whose Toscanini in Britain is published by Boydell. Among English-language writers who knew Toscanini, Haggin is not to be missed; there is also an outstanding chapter on the conductor in Roland Gelatt’s book Music Makers (New York, 1952).

As a symphonic conductor, Toscanini was best known for his Beethoven. Writing in 1939, Neville Cardus described it as ‘the most musically comprehensive Beethoven of our time, if not the most poetically comprehensive’. As the long view of history teaches, other Beethovens are available. In Verdi he was supreme. To this day his Otello is the most elemental (and textually articulate) on record. But in this anniversary year, let Puccini pay the final tribute: ‘Toscanini is now really the best conductor in the world’, he wrote in 1922. ‘He has everything: soul, poetry, flexibility, dash, refinement, dramatic instinct; in short, a real miracle.’ And so he was: a miracle indeed.

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