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Toscanini:
Musician of Conscience

by harvey sachs
liveright, 944 pages, $39.95

When the first instruction manual for leaders of orchestras—Johann Mattheson’s Der vollkommene Capellmeister—appeared in 1739, it was a sign that the size of orchestral ensembles and the complexity of the music they were performing had reached levels where it was no longer feasible for a group merely to pitch into playing by consensus, or for one player (usually at a keyboard) to herd all the others along by eye contact. Still, it would take another century and a half (and a good many subsequent ­conducting manuals by Karl Ludwig Junker, ­Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, ­Felix ­Weingartner, and Bruno ­Walter) before the chef d’orchestre became the autocrat of the podium and an international celebrity on the order of Arthur ­Nikisch, Leopold Stokowski, and above all, Arturo Toscanini.

Living as we do under the dictatorship of the pop-music proletariat, it almost passes understanding to read of concerts directed by ­Toscanini that had people queuing up for tickets in lines several blocks long in Manhattan, with more than sixty policemen on hand to maintain order. It requires even more effort, from a professional musician’s view, to understand the maniacal furies Toscanini was allowed to indulge in rehearsals. “You people have a conservatory in Palermo, isn’t that right?” he raged at one Italian orchestra, “Turn it into a brothel!” Scores, pocket-watches, batons—all sailed through the air in fits of rage. Sarcasm and insults in an uneven mélange of English and Italian broke in screaming thunderclouds over orchestral heads. In Bologna, he turned to the orchestra manager: “Where did you get these guys? At the morgue?” When the ringing of a telephone interrupted a practice session with the violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Toscanini bolted up from the piano and ripped the offending device out of the wall, plaster and all.

Orchestra players were not patient with such tantrums. “Full powers must not be given to this abortion of Luciferian arrogance,” pleaded one musician early in Toscanini’s career. Nevertheless, Toscanini bent them to his will, partly because his irascibility was a calculated formula for intimidating lazy musicians (“One must always threaten in order to get what one wants!” he explained) and partly because, behind the tantrums, Toscanini possessed layer upon layer of extraordinary musical gifts. 

There are, Gunther Schuller writes, seven kinds of hearing: for harmony, intonation, dynamics, color, rhythm, balance, and the architecture of a composition. Good orchestra leaders will have two or three of these “ears”; a great conductor will have four or five. Toscanini had all seven, and even those who cursed his arrogance had to admit that they had never performed under a director who could get them to play so far above their own ­expectations.

He had, moreover, a photographic memory, with total recall for poetry, opera librettos, and even entire scores after a single read-through. When he arrived at the Metropolitan Opera to conduct Wagner’s Götterdämmerung in 1908, he began his first rehearsal without even using the score, relying on a memory so capacious that it included corrections of misprints in the orchestra parts. A reputation like that ­awakened even the drowsiest rear-desk player. When Toscanini directed the Vienna Philharmonic in 1933, a student noticed an unusual activity backstage: “Before the rehearsal . . . all the violinists . . . were actually practicing their part.”

Toscanini came by these gifts with ease. He was born in Parma, in 1867, at the apex of Italy’s four-hundred-year-long obsession with opera. His father, Claudio, was one of Garibaldi’s Red Shirts and an ally of the proto-socialist Giuseppe Mazzini, and Arturo would wear the impress of the Risorgimento, with its suspicion of monarchy and the Catholic Church, all through his life. He was picked out for his musical talents by a schoolteacher and placed in Parma’s Regia Scuola di Musica, and his first job was as a cellist in the pit orchestra of the Teatro Regio in ­Parma. In 1886, he joined the ­Claudio Rossi opera troupe, then touring Brazil, and on not much more than a moment’s notice, stepped in as a replacement conductor for Verdi’s Aida.

From then on, it was nowhere but up. He was hired to conduct the Teatro Carignano in Turin in 1895, then to direct at La Scala in Milan in 1898. He quarreled incessantly with the local aristocrats who ran La Scala, and left them to direct the Metropolitan Opera in New York from 1908 to 1915. He was back at La Scala in 1920, but only briefly, returning to the United States to lead the New York Philharmonic in 1926. He had begun to tire of opera and was moving more into directing symphonic music, and indeed opera itself was rapidly losing ground, even in Italy, to the motion picture. In 1937, David Sarnoff of RCA ­created a ­studio orchestra expressly for ­Toscanini and RCA’s national radio network, NBC. Toscanini was the NBC Symphony’s director (with only one brief interruption) until his last concert in 1954.

Harvey Sachs has been living with Toscanini ever since 1978, when he published his first biography of the mad maestro. (Sachs went on to publish a collection of essays, Reflections on Toscanini, in 1991 and a volume of ­Toscanini’s correspondence in 2002.) This second survey of Toscanini’s life, ­Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, is twice the length of Sachs’s ­previous opus, and it is fattened by newly released archival materials.

Fattened, unhappily, may be precisely the word, since a great deal of the book rarely rises above cataloging where Toscanini was performing, what the programs were, and who sang in them, often in numbing succession. The principal interruption of this encyclopedic plodding is Sachs’s introduction of the idea of ­Toscanini as a “musician of conscience,” meaning chiefly Toscanini’s bold and frequently costly refusal to cooperate with the rising Fascist regime of Benito Mussolini in the 1920s and of Hitler in Germany after 1933.

As a rule, Toscanini preached a wall of separation between art and politics. “I never tie art to politics, which don’t concern me at all, either in my own country or in foreign countries,” he wrote in 1931. But it was a rule which circumstances did not allow him to practice. The Fascists and Nazis insisted that art and politics were actually one, and they were determined that art should be politically vetted and that musicians should cooperate with the vetting.

Not Toscanini. He began pushing back at the Fascists in 1924 when they acquired seats on the board of La ­Scala, and then demanded that ­Toscanini display portraits of ­Mussolini and begin his ­performances with the playing of the Fascist anthem. When he refused, ­Toscanini was summoned to a harangue by Mussolini himself in Milan, then assaulted by a squad of Fascist thugs in Bologna in 1931, and finally nearly deprived of his passport in 1938. After that, Toscanini denounced Mussolini, and then Hitler, in an ever-escalating crescendo of vituperation in which ­Toscanini, with his decades of practice, invariably came out the rhetorical winner. And although Toscanini was routinely and coarsely dismissive of Jews, he attacked Hitler’s anti-Jewish persecutions and made a landmark appearance in 1936 conducting the Palestine Orchestra, an ensemble of musical refugees that later became the Israel Philharmonic.

But this only earns Toscanini the laurel of conscience on one issue. It cannot disguise (and Sachs doesn’t try to disguise) that Toscanini’s red-shirt socialism originally made him an ally of Mussolini in 1919, and even a candidate for a parliamentary seat that year as a Fascist on an anti-capitalist platform that included the abolition of banks, the confiscation of property, and the syndicalist management of business. Some of this surely sprang from a vaguely artistic “contempt for materialism.” But simple otherworldliness fails to explain why ­Toscanini never extended his defiance of ­Mussolini and the national socialists to Stalin and the international socialists, or why Toscanini never bestowed the same contempt on Stalin’s musical toadies (such as Prokofiev) that he reserved for Nazi collaborators like Clemens Krauss, Willem Mengelberg, and Wilhelm Furtwängler.

It has to be asked, too, why ­Toscanini shouldn’t be judged a musician of convenience in several key respects. His musical passions were Wagner, Verdi, and Beethoven (in more or less that order). Beyond that, his attention faltered. He considered Mozart little more than an idiot savant, and his orchestral programming with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony stopped at the borders of Bartók. His neglect of American composers while conducting American orchestras infuriated American music critics, provoking Virgil Thomson to castigate him as “a reactionary in spirit . . . wholly devoted to the playing of familiar classics.”

But far worse was Toscanini’s incessant philandering, executed on a scale that even Sachs concedes would today earn Toscanini the label of “sexual predator.” Although he stayed securely married to ­Carla de Martini for fifty-four years, ­Toscanini carried on lengthy and flaming affairs with Rosina Storchio (by whom he had a son), Geraldine Farrar, Elsa Kurzbauer, Ada ­Mainardi, and many others. Sachs’s idea of conscience does not extend to the personal domain.

Yet there is one other point on which Toscanini demonstrated the most sterling evidence of conscience, and that was his utter fidelity to the written intentions of the composers whose music he conducted. Those of us who were schooled to the ­metronome from our first piano lessons find it hard to realize that orchestra conductors in the nineteenth century felt perfectly at liberty to bend and pull tempos like taffy, to rewrite parts in the score, and to treat the score itself as “only outlines” of a composer’s intentions. 

Toscanini, however, had no use for such musical subjectivism; he was, in effect, a musical originalist, and he insisted that the strictest fidelity had to be maintained to what a composer wrote. “The oddest thing about conductors,” Toscanini complained, “is the way they will hold the score up to the light or turn it back to front. They’re always looking for something which isn’t there and never see what is.” Rehearsing Beethoven’s “Eroica” in the old Queen’s Hall in London in 1937, he protested the weakness conductors had for finding “stories” in Beethoven. “No! No! Nein! Is-a not Napoleon! Is-a not ’Itler! Is-a not Mussolini! Is Allegro con brio! . . . Da-caaaaa-po!

This earned Toscanini the reputation of being a mere conducting machine whose only significant interpretive twist was playing things faster than anyone else. Judging by the vast number of recordings he made between 1920 and 1954, he did tend to push tempos ahead of other conductors. But in many cases, Toscanini only sounds faster because he is setting a firmer, more regular beat. And far from conducting like a musical tin man, Toscanini, the one-time opera musician, strove to make every part sing, even the pizzicati in the strings. A 1952 NBC television broadcast shows the eighty-five-year-old Toscanini on the podium, giving a clear, large liquid beat to the overture to Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, using his left hand only to gesture quietly for holding back. But the playing he extracted, even in the limited acoustics of 1950s recordings, is stupendous in its shimmering lyricism. Cantare! Cantare! was what he implored his musicians to do. Sing! Sing!

Conductors of our generation no longer exercise the absolute monarchy of a Toscanini, a Stokowski, a Fritz Reiner, a George Szell. Valery Gergiev asks the orchestra members what tempo they want to play at; Simon Rattle sees himself more as an office-style manager than a musical sorcerer. And perhaps the passing of the imperial conductor is not something we should necessarily regret. But Sir John Barbirolli was certainly right—and it was a lesson he learned from watching Toscanini—when he wrote that young conductors must “make your watchwords integrity and sincerity to yourself, and loyalty to the . . . music you are seeking to interpret. Never think, ‘What can I make of this piece?’ but try to discover what the composer meant to say.” That is the voice of musical conscience—and it might be worth heeding in law, ­literature, and a few other domains as well.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.

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