The sound and the fury of Arturo Toscanini


Arturo Toscanini’s boisterous humanity comes alive throughout a new biography by eminent music historian Harvey Sachs. To mark the 150th anniversary of the legendary conductor’s birth, “Toscanini -Musician of Conscience” will come out in spring from Liveright Publishing Corp., a division of W.W. Norton & Co.

The monumental biography presents the man as he was — certainly generous, courageous and principled. He tended to have “boundless generosity towards other people and musical and charitable organizations that he believed needed assistance, and in his love for his family, for Italy, and for human freedom”. But he also had major character flaws. Besides his fierce, explosive temper, he was excessively harsh towards some musicians, and equivalent of a rock star today, he had many extramarital encounters.

His human flaws are told beyond our fallible praise or blame in this biography that in exploring his life illuminates his art.
Arturo Toscanini, new bio in English
Toscanini was the heart and soul of La Scala and as well as New York’s Metropolitan Opera. He dominated the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the glamourous Bayreuth, Salzburg and Lucerne festivals.

Sachs, a musicologist who writes for The New York Times, published a previous study on the great virtuoso in 1978, but to mark the anniversary a more detailed book was needed. In 2002 Sachs edited a generously annotated collection of Toscanini’s letters.

Emanuela Castelbarco, Toscanini’s only surviving grandchild, made available documentary material that contributed greatly to the substance of the new book. An uncorrected version of “Toscanini - Musician of Conscience” was provided to us in advance.

The most influential maestro in several generations, he was nearsighted but had a phenomenal photographic memory. He did not use printed scores while performing, and by the end of his career had memorized 250 symphonic works and more than 100 operas. His disciple Gianandrea Gavazzeni referred to the “evolutionary quality of his operation, which was tireless, never sated, never still”.

Toscanini was born in Parma on March 25, 1867 and died on Jan. 16, 1957, his long and distinguished life spanning nearly a century of political turmoil. He breathed his last in Riverdale, New York, where his American career was based as he brought classical music to new audiences. “He helped encourage the tremendous flowering of symphonic life in the U.S.,” says Sachs.

On his passing, a pontifical mass was held at New York’s Saint Patrick’s Cathedral and later the coffin was flown to Milan. More than 250,000 people stood in the rain to watch as the hearse slowly proceeded from La Scala. The conductor De Sabata played the Funeral March from Beethoven’s “Eroica” symphony as a surreal silence descended over the crowd. The hearse then briefly paused at via Durini in front of the house that had been Toscanini’s favorite home for nearly half a century. Final stop, the Cimitero Monumentale.

It was as fitting tribute. Toscanini had long been homesick for Milan. However much he appreciated the New York atmosphere, he said “I want to get back to Milan as soon as possible. I must, I must.”

He had been the heart and soul of La Scala and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. At various times he dominated the NBC Symphony, the New York Philharmonic, and the European glamour of festivals in Bayreuth, Salzburg and Lucerne.

He made music’s meaning clear through vivid body motion, a precise beat and an improvisatory looseness of opera.

Also an impassioned patriot and rebel, Toscanini was an outspoken anti-fascist. Soon after Mussolini led his march on Rome in 1922, he told friends that if he were capable of killing a man, he would kill Mussolini.

Fascists attacked him before a concert in Bologna in 1931. He was slapped across the face for refusing to perform the Fascist Party anthem “Giovinezza”. Mussolini’s secret police spied on him. After the Bologna incident, he wrote: “The conduct of my life is, and will always be, the echo and the reflection of my conscience, which does not know dissimulation or deviations of any type — reinforced, I admit, by a proud and scornful character, but clear as crystal and just as cutting.”

The political conditions in Europe were becoming oppressive. In a letter dated 1938 he wrote: “I cannot alienate myself from life. Everyone ought to express his own opinion honestly and courageously — then dictator criminals wouldn’t last so long.”

Wally Toscanini, one of Toscanini’s three children, remembered that “Papà hated Germans.” His anti-German sentiment had been there since the eve of WWI when Toscanini had a very animated discussion with his famed friend Giacomo Puccini for whom he conducted the world premieres of “La Boheme”, “Madama Butterfly”, “La Fanciulla del West” and the unfinished score of “Turandot”.

“One day Puccini complained that everything was going badly in Italy. He ended his speech by saying: ‘Let’s hope that the Germans come to put things in order’,” Wally said. “Papà went wild. He jumped to his feet and shut himself in the house. He said he wouldn’t go out again because if he were to see Puccini he would hit him. Some friends came to our house to try to make peace between the two, but Papà chased them out brusquely … Friends came to the window and said ‘Puccini has repented, he asks you to forgive him. Come out, go visit him’. Papà shouted: ‘If I meet him, I’ll box his ears!’ After a week, however, they were reconciled.”

He was a handsome man who routinely betrayed his wife. In old age, he confessed that “in earlier years he had been so overwhelmed with work that he sometimes had sex with women without having enough time to remove his trousers completely”, writes Sachs. “Yet he never denied a role to a singer because she had refused to go to bed with him and never awarded roles to a singer merely because she had acquiesced.”

Appointed Senator for Life in 1949, he renounced the title, explaining to Presidente della Repubblica Luigi Einaudi that “averse to any sort of accumulation of honors, academic titles and decorations, I wish to end my existence in the same simplicity with which I always lived”.