Several years ago I visited Toscanini’s birthplace, now a museum paying homage to Parma’s famous conducting son. He was from a poor background, such that his mother didn’t feel herself sufficiently elegant to visit him at the city’s music school. The house doesn’t appear too small, until you discover that the Toscaninis shared it with three other families. Toscanini’s father, a tailor, used the downstairs room as a workshop.
There’s something strangely powerful about a musician’s birthplace. The artist invariably moves on, settling perhaps in one of the international centres of music-making, or following whirlwind careers and never really settling anywhere for long. But something of the essence of their origins invariably shapes them. In Toscanini’s case, perhaps his humble beginnings helped form his humanitarianism and commitment to widening audiences. Meanwhile, Benjamin Britten’s childhood house – which was turned into a pop-up museum for his centenary – looks out towards the churning, foam-flecked North Sea, which was such a crucial part of his music. There are, indeed, many composer birthplace museums – a UK itinerary alone could take in Elgar, Holst and Vaughan Williams. But a museum devoted to a conductor or instrumentalist is more rare and, in the case of Toscanini, really symbolises the esteem in which he was held in his day.
One of the reasons we’re celebrating his life this month – aside from it being 150 years since his birth – is because of the pivotal role he played in shaping the relationship between classical music and broadcasting. Quick to grasp the potential for exploiting this medium as a way of increasing and democratising audiences (just as another Italian, Enrico Caruso, had spotted the potential of recording to do likewise decades earlier), Toscanini, at the helm of his NBC orchestra, became synonymous with orchestral music-making in the public mind. As Richard Osborne reminds us in his cover story, a poll in 1937 suggested that 70 per cent of Americans knew who he was.
How many classical musicians can be said to have that same mass appeal today (expanding this thought-experiment beyond America to the wider world)? That’s a sobering thought, for I doubt there are many. Daniel Barenboim perhaps? I reckon Simon Rattle might score fairly high in the UK, Yo-Yo Ma in the US, and Lang Lang in China and elsewhere. Venezuelans will likely recognise Gustavo Dudamel, and so might a fair few in other countries.
These names have earned much of their status through their outreach work. There’s nothing wrong with that, but who is following in Toscanini’s – and Caruso’s – footsteps today when it comes to using modern technology to communicate music-making? I’d say it’s probably organisations more than individuals. We’ve recently increased our focus on live streaming, drawing attention to the commitment by organisations
as varied as the Berlin Philharmonic, Gothenburg Symphony and the Philharmonie de Paris to making their performances available online, live and archived. This, in itself, builds on the own-label boom pioneered by the LSO and others. Who knows what will come next – and who will pick up the baton, so to speak?