Harvey Sachs has made a career, well part of one, writing books about the eminent conductor. Sachs wrote his first Toscanini biography in 1978. Why a second one almost 40 years later? Sachs cites the additional material now available that was denied him during his first go around with the conductor. The book’s subtitle, Musician of Conscience refers mostly to the principled stand he took against Fascism and Nazisim, at considerable personal risk, rather than to his private behavior. He was a serial adulterer almost to the point of mania. In this regard, he resembled Tony Soprano rather than Cincinnatus. When he was 80 he said he only wanted to live to 100 if he could remain sexually potent. Sachs says that the Maestro and his wife stopped having conjugal relations when he was 40; she was 10 years his junior.
Why should we care about a conductor who has been dead for 60 years and who left behind only interpretations of other, and more gifted, musicians’ work? As Sachs says, referring to another contemporaneous great conductor: “And Mahler, whose compositions have flourished, has long since beaten Toscanini with respect to posterity.” Well, there are two reasons we should care. The first, and more important, is that he had a very interesting life. The second is that he was a phenomenon – a superstar. There are only less than a handful of musicians who worked in opera whose names became household words, four by my reckoning – Toscanini, Caruso, Callas, and Pavarotti. You might include Leonard Bernstein among this group but he was also active on Broadway and in the movies.
Becoming a superstar like those above is a mysterious process that goes beyond talent. Charisma is hard to dissect, but whatever it is Toscanini had it. There were contemporary conductors whose ability equalled or surpassed his whose fame stayed within the realm of their art – Monteaux and Furtwängler are two who easily come to mind – but Toscanini transcended music. From the death of Verdi until his own, he was the most important musician in the world.
Trained as a cellist, he became a conductor by default age 19. He was on tour with an orchestra in South America when the singers refused to perform Aida under their regular conductor. Toscanini was the only player who had the score in his head and conducted the performance. For the rest of the tour he conducted 18 operas with great success.
Back in Italy he conducted opera in Turin, again to great acclaim. He did return to the cello section in 1887 to participate in the first performance of Verdi’s Otello. He was still a teenager at the time of Otello’s first appearance. Blessed with a prodigious memory and an equally prodigious capacity for hard work and endurance, he was rapidly recognized for his extraordinary qualities as a conductor of both opera and orchestral compositions.
At the outset of his career, the public wanted new operas and symphonic works. Toscanini introduced many French and German works to Italy. He conducted the world premiere productions of many operas – most notably Pagliacci, La Bohème, La Fanciulla Del West, and Turandot. His career was so long that he conducted the 50th anniversary performance of La Bohème. The recording of that performance is still available, 121 years after the opera’s birth. As he aged, his repertoire ossified as did the demands of the audience. After the death of Puccini, new operas had to be force fed to the public. A phenomenon which still persists. The opera house and symphony halls of the 21st century are largely museums. Toscanini inevitably was a product of his time. The music of Alban Berg and his ilk was beyond him, though he outlived Berg by more than 20 years.
Toscanini’s career progressed so rapidly that in 1898, at the age of 31, he was appointed principal conductor at Milan’s La Scala; a position he held for 10 years. Giulio Gatti-Casazza was the manager of La Scala during the same decade that Toscanini was chief conductor there. When Gatti move to New York in 1908 to assume the same position at the Met, Toscanini went with him. He stayed until 1915. Gatti remained in charge of the New York house until 1935. For his first two seasons both Toscanini and Gustav Mahler conducted at the Met, a combination of conductorial excellence that’s never been equaled anywhere. He returned to La Scala in 1921, staying until 1929. A period now considered to be that august house’s golden age.
It was toward the end of his second La Scala tenure that he started having trouble with Mussolini and the Fascists. He repeatedly refused to play the Fascist anthem Giovinezza. In 1931 he was beaten up by a gang of blackshirts after a concert in Bologna. He left Italy at the start of World War II. He lived in New York for the rest of his life though he did periodically return to Italy after the war, most notably to reopen La Scala in 1946.
Toscanini was the first non-German conductor to appear at the Bayreuth Festival. He refused to return after the Nazis took over. He appeared regularly at the Salzburg Festival and again refused to return when the Nazis absorbed Austria into Germany. He conducted the inaugural concert of the Palestine Orchestra in 1937; it’s now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. He did as much as was possible to aid refugee musicians seeking shelter from Hitler and Mussolini.
Toscanini was Music Director of the New York Philharmonic from 1928 to 1936. In the 1937 he assumed the directorship of the NBC Symphony Orchestra which was created especially for him. It was with this ensemble that he made most of his recordings. In 1937 he was 70 years old and while still a major musical force his best years were clearly behind him.
The magical effect that Toscanini had on both audiences and musicians is hard to realize from the many recordings he made with the NBC Symphony. Part of the problem is that most of these recording were made in the notoriously dry Studio 8H built especially for Toscanini. It now houses Saturday Night Live. The recordings made in Carnegie Hall give a better, but still approximate, depiction of what the Maestro’s conducting yielded. Another problem is that Toscanini’s broadcasts labored under time constraints; they had to fit within the broadcast schedule; they couldn’t go a minute over. Sach’s points out that many observers thought the rehearsals were better musically because they were not rushed.
What a sensitive listener hears on Toscanini’s recordings is an orchestra that plays with phenomenal coordination. They stop and start as if they were one. It seems to me that Toscanini is at his best when he conducted Verdi. His Falstaff recording is particularly good. It’s the opera he loved the most and which he conducted the most. It’s also a conductors opera. Phenomenal voices are not needed to bring it off. During his NBC days he did not frequently have phenomenal voices. Jussi Björling repeatedly would sign up and then bow out.
When he did have really great voices he often didn’t like the result. Consider the 1951 Verdi Requiem performed at Carnegie Hall in January 1951 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its composer’s death. Herva Nelli, a Toscanini favorite but a second rank soprano, was joined by Fedora Barbieri, Giuseppe Di Stefano, and Cesare Siepi – all great singers. Toscanini did not care for the performance. Sachs doesn’t even mention the cast in his cursory reference to the performance. I’ve always thought it a great rendition of Verdi’s colossal work. It’s available on YouTube so you can judge for yourself.
An aside about Di Stefano. He’s mentioned in the preface, but doesn’t appear in the index. Another perplexing issue is Leoncavallo. Toscanini conducted the first performance of his Pagliacci (as well as his later opera Zazà), but never did it at the Met. When Cav and Pag were paired Toscanini would lead Cav, but another conductor would take over for Pag. In his earlier bio, Sachs details how little the conductor thought of Leoncavallo, using his name as a synonym for much of what he disliked. Yet Toscanini frequently conducted Pagliacci after he left the Met. So what happened? Sachs leaves us unenlightened.
Sachs book is a long look (almost 900 pages) at one of most remarkable performing careers in musical history. It’s very detailed, but it’s length is matched by the skill of its writing. It tells the story of late 19th century and first half of the 20th century opera and orchestral music from the vantage of its most renowned practitioner. Anyone enthralled by the music of Beethoven, Verdi, and Brahms will read the book with unflagging interest. Highly recommended.