Arturo Toscanini was the early-twentieth century version of a rock star, receiving offers left and right, commanding huge sums of money, selling out theaters, and grabbing the constant attention of the press wherever he went…
Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, by Harvey Sachs (Liveright, 944 pages, 2017)
In the Academy-award winning film adaptation of Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, a fictionalized account of the life of Mozart, there are many scenes that feature performances of the famed composer’s operas. But the atmosphere of the portrayals inside the theater would cause confusion for anyone who has attended an opera in today’s day and age. Amadeus shows the lights fully on in the theater, audience members talking and interacting with one another, and in some cases laughing loudly and causing quite a disruption.
This is opposite of the atmosphere one can expect in an opera house today. Take a trip to the Metropolitan Opera, the Opera Garnier in Paris, or even a low-budget community production in a city like Washington, D.C., and you will find near pitch-black theaters, all attention focused on the stage, and even the slightest distracting sound is met with scorn from other patrons, much like the person whose cell phone goes off in a movie theater. As the scenes in Amadeus suggest, this was not always the case: Theaters and opera houses were not the hallowed halls they are now. Part of this aesthetic is clearly a feature of classical music’s transformation to a high art, and an elite status symbol. But a major player in the transformation to this more formalized aura, particularly in the opera houses of Italy, was conductor Arturo Toscanini.
Ask anyone today, even someone who might consider himself a classical music buff, to name a single contemporary conductor, and one would likely be met with a blank stare. People in New York who frequent the Metropolitan Opera could probably name James Levine, while a handful of others might point out Gustavo Dudamel of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Classical music, especially opera, is patronized by the few instead of the many, and if there is a personality that draws someone to the theater, it is usually the star singer.
As music historian and Curtis Institute faculty member Harvey Sachs shows in his enormous new volume on Toscanini’s life, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, this was not the case for the late conductor. Toscanini was the early-twentiethcentury version of a rock star, receiving offers left and right, commanding huge sums of money, selling out theaters, and grabbing the constant attention of the press wherever he went. An international phenomenon, he led orchestras in South America and all the great theaters of Europe, particularly in his home country of Italy, and spent years as music director at the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.
Born in the northern Italian city of Parma, Toscanini earned a scholarship to attend the local conservatory, where he studied the cello, and the beginning of his career as a musician was spent as a cellist—he played in the pit for the world premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s Otello. His conducting debut actually came while on tour in South America, in a production of Verdi’s Aida in Rio de Janiero. When a last-minute crisis left the production without a conductor, Toscanini was thrust onto the podium, where he employed the skills that would push him into the international spotlight, as he became one of the most sought-after musicians of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century.
Toscanini had the ability to study a score and internalize it to such a degree that he could memorize the entire work. He could conduct without referencing the score. This ability served him well that night in Rio and would serve him throughout his storied career. But this was by no means the only attribute that contributed to his success. Toscanini was a perfectionist and maintained an intense reverence for the music that he chose to conduct. He also had keen musical instincts and an ear for detail. Upon witnessing Toscanini rehearse Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, a French conductor stated that “his ear for balance was astounding and exquisite,” as he was able to conjure a dynamic change in the sound in equal gradations across entire sections of the orchestra.
Toscanini had an often strained relationship throughout his life with the equally famous composer Giacomo Puccini. Nonetheless, Toscanini was revered by Puccini, and Puccini would workshop his music with him—Toscanini made modifications to the orchestral score of Manon Lescaut and significant changes to La Fanciulla del West, which received its world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera with Toscanini at the musical helm, starring the now-legendary tenor Enrico Caruso. Speaking to Toscanini’s musical acumen, Puccini said that “I think I am the only composer who has never conducted his own work. I leave that to others, particularly to a man like Toscanini. He is marvelous in his understanding of the composer and the music.” Toscanini also conducted the premieres of other famous Puccini works, such as La Boheme and Turdandot.
He also brought a new seriousness to the art form and changed the nature of theatergoing. In Milan’s La Scala, where he spent two separate stints as music director, Toscanini was the man responsible for bringing the audience to heel, transforming the theater from a vaudeville-like atmosphere, as seen in Amadeus, to the formal and focused aesthetic seen in opera houses today, with darkened houses and quiet and attentive audiences. He was also able to translate this seriousness into repertoire, resurrecting works that had fallen out of favor. Late-nineteenth-century Italian audiences preferred the works of Verdi, and the newer works of verismo composers, such as Leoncavallo and Mascagni. Toscanini was met with scorn for programming work by Gaetano Donizetti, which was seen as unserious and musically unsatisfying. But he was successful in winning audiences over and ushered in a renaissance of sorts for Donizetti’s work, which is now part of every large company’s standard repertoire—works such as L’elisir d’amore, La fille du regiment, and Lucia di Lammermoor are performed regularly around the world.
Toscanini’s perfectionist streak may have been an overall asset for him, but it also caused problems. His intensity translated into a stern personality that led to clashes with singers and other musicians, and sometimes this escalated close to the point of a physical altercation. He was also a thorn in many singers’ sides—those who wished to be ostentatious in their presentation of the music, singing unwritten interpolations and high notes simply as a way of showing off vocal acrobatics and prowess. There were instances later in his career when he would allow it, but by and large, he adhered to the notes written on the page, unless it was stylistically appropriate, such as in the case of the bel canto stylings of Donizetti.
Professor Sachs’ book is subtitled “Musician of Conscience,” which seems to be a fair interpretation of the career of Toscanini. He relentlessly and unapologetically pursued what he saw as the truth present in the music. He did not waver and did not moderate, but his conscience manifested itself in other ways. A fervent Italian patriot, he gave up his lucrative and lofty perch atop the Metropolitan Opera to return to his home country for the duration of World War I—years which were among his least active as a musician due to the devastating effects of the war. And while he was initially supportive of the Fascist elements in Italy, as their stated goals were broadly left-wing ideals, he quickly became disillusioned with the violent and authoritarian direction Mussolini and company were taking. From then on, he was a dedicated anti-Fascist, and attempted to stymie Mussolini’s influence on the direction of La Scala, which like most European theaters received support from the state.
Toscanini was human, and like all humans not without flaws, as Professor Sachs documents consistently in the book. He was an adulterer and essentially an absentee father. It is believed that part of his tense relationship with Puccini was due to the fact that they were pursuing the same mistress. These are not minor details of a man’s life, but despite the repeated infidelity, Toscanini remained married to his wife Carla until her death in 1951.
But no amount of personal failings can erase the imprint that Toscanini has left on classical music. While the tenor Luciano Pavarotti was able to achieve a pop-star-like status in the later twentieth century, partially because he was willing to enter into the pop-music sphere, there will most likely never be another conductor of a similar stature to Arturo Toscanini. Harvey Sachs’s biography is a meticulously presented picture of the full life, warts and all, of a transformational cultural icon.
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