FIFTY YEARS FROM NOW it will be comparatively easy to judge the worth of the conductors we now see and hear at work: they’re well documented on crisp recordings and videos, examined in close-up, interrogated at length for books and magazines, debated concert-by-concert on the Internet.
Fifty years ago, as Arturo Toscanini neared retirement, he too was documented by plenty of recordings, but the sound quality was (and remains) inconsistent – nothing like the crisp stereo or surround-sound we hear today. A single short film and a series of ten foggy kinescopes allow us to see him at work. Yet he remains the most hotly debated conductor in history, and may continue to remain so a half-century from now.
His legend and his reputation are so mixed that it’s difficult to assess the truth of his greatness. We who never saw a live Toscanini concert have only recordings and written accounts to go on. Some who saw him in performance insist that the recordings barely approach what the concerts revealed of his mastery; in his book Understanding Toscanini, Joseph Horowitz blasts the marketing hype that unduly influenced what’s been written about the conductor.
The Letters of Arturo Toscanini comes as a relief. Whether complaining to an impresario, bragging to a girlfriend, or sucking up to Richard Strauss, Toscanini’s missives have a consistency of character that reinforces the legend and makes the Maestro engagingly real.
“For three days I’ve been leading a dog’s life,” he writes in 1896 to Carla De Martini, his fiancée (and eventual wife). “I leave home at 8:30 [a.m.] and get back at midnight. Three days of eating lunch and supper out and running all over the Bergamin Agency listening to singers of every sex and genre, and as if that weren’t enough I’ve had to go through the martyrdom of two sessions of three and a half hours each to audition two new operas.”
Toscanini was then not yet thirty, still paying his dues ten years after making his conducting debut. He was middle-aged when he conducted at the Met and would have been eligible for AARP when he became principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic in 1930. He “traded” with Stokowski in November of that year, and was lauded for his work with the Philadelphia Orchestra. But, as he wrote to his wife, “Everyone is enthusiastic over this poor old maestro. Hmmph! And to think that I would like nothing better than to drop everything and withdraw in peace! I’m torn by a thousand different thoughts.” A month later, back in New York, he complained to her, “What boredom, what sighs, what sadness!!! Warm welcomes, triumphs, applause are worthless when one’s soul is sad.”
There’s a hint of posturing here – Toscanini frequently played the “poor me” card in his letters to his ladies – but he did follow a punishing schedule for most of his long life. The self-deprecation that also comes through often sounds more sincere, and it’s a valuable clue to his character. As he wrote to Carla in 1931:
“I firmly believe that the best part of me, that which best could shed light on my soul is and forever will remain unexpressed. It is given only to truly superior beings like Dante, Shakespeare, Leopardi, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner to express themselves completely, for the joy of all humanity.”A conductor is only an interpreter of someone else’s genius, Toscanini insisted (he took a youthful stab at composing and almost immediately abandoned it), and he considered his own talent on the podium insufficient to satisfy those masters. This self-deprecating attitude is part of the Toscanini mythology, held up like a virtue in his more worshipful biographies. The Letters reveal a more complicated context, aswirl with a shifting sense of vanity.
“Every time I go back to work,” he wrote in 1936 to Ada Mainardi, his mistress for many years, “my lack of confidence in myself comes over me, and it seems to become greater and greater. I put too much faith in myself and my strength. I accept too many engagements that are a great responsibility. I forget my age, and I’m wrong to do so.”
He was in Salzburg conducting an acclaimed series of operas and orchestral concerts; among the latter was a performance of Brahms’s German Requiem about which he commented, ““Humility and vanity were combined in me. I think I did well.” But he later noted, in an unsent letter, that “Men like Furtwängler suffer from too much vanity; I suffer from too little!”
Once thought lost, thousands of pieces of his correspondence surfaced in recent years and over 750 letters are reproduced, in whole or part, in Harvey Sachs’s collection. Sachs examined some 1500 letters and translated those he chose to include. They follow the conductor from his student days into the last months of his life, a span of nearly 72 years. There are no other first-person accounts of Toscanini’s life: he was notorious for not giving interviews. Not surprisingly, given Toscanini’s temperament, the lions’ share of the correspondence is to the women he loved. First he courts his wife with a young man’s gusto; then come the mistresses.
If Toscanini’s standards were high, so was his double standard. He expected total fealty from his wife, but was able to write, as she slumbered in bed beside him, to his adored Ada Mainardi that he “can no longer contain my voluptuous craving. I want to kiss you from head to foot, suck every corner of you, every meander, however hidden, of your adored body.” He was 70 at the time.
As Sachs predicts in his introduction, the more salacious letters will attract the most attention, but what makes the collection especially valuable are the insights Toscanini provides into his work. Here we find the nuts and bolts of putting together an orchestra, shepherding an opera through production (he was fanatical enough to ask the singers in his Salzburg “Magic Flute” to speak their dialogue in pitch with the music), and unguarded appraisals of the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic in their formative years.
And there are key glimpses of Toscanini’s relationship with the music he performed. While in London in 1938 to work with the BBC Symphony, he writes to a friend: “I’ve discovered after several years the way to interpret a trill at the end of the andante of Bach’s Brandenburg concerto in F! I trill in the violin part, right in the last bar, which everyone including Busch omits. ... And I made the discovery very early yesterday morning, while I was sitting at the piano (but not playing), and you can’t imagine my joy at having discovered that I learn something every day.”
Could Toscanini really have been as godlike as his worshipers suggest? His conducting career has been well enough documented to support his reputation as one who both improved the quality of orchestral musicianship and raised standards for interpretive excellence at the turn of the last century, but he had plenty of company as that century progressed, Stokowski and Furtwängler among them.
To New York Herald Tribune critic Lawrence Gilman, Toscanini had a transcendent single-mindedness: “This tireless quest for an inaccessible perfection is seldom so unswervingly pursued as it is in Toscanini’s case. Many artists who follow their own conceptions of excellence and beauty are willing to indulge themselves in humanities and relaxations and resting places along the way. For Toscanini, such things are not merely ignored: they simply do not exist.” (Toscanini and Great Music, 1938.)
A contemporary reader would find a thinly-veiled reference to Furtwängler in that passage, a conductor who otherwise isn’t mentioned in Gilman’s book. “On the surface, at least, no two conductors could have been more dissimilar in their approaches to music,” writes Furtwängler biographer Sam H. Shirakawa. According to simplistic pundits, Toscanini was the great objectivist; Furtwängler the ardent subjectivist. “Any generalization may have some measure of truth to it, but the complexity of their respective approaches severely limits the usefulness of this one.”
During Toscanini’s reign with the New York Philharmonic (1927-36), his adherents helped promote that generalization. New York Times critic Olin Downes also added a gloss that played especially well in the wake of the first World War. He noted that Toscanini’s Italian heritage gave him “the racial mind that has the finest facture of any in the world; the genius which, at its height, combines marvelously the qualities of analysis and perception, the objectivity of form, and the consuming fire of creative passion.”
If the subjective-objective interpretive dichotomy seems an antiquated conceit, consider the more recent critical partisanship over historically informed performances. There are even those who see the beginnings of the HIP sensibility in Toscanini’s work. Bernard D. Sherman compared recordings of Beethoven’s Ninth in a 1999 New York Times article, noting that our familiarity with the piece demands “a probing, profound interpretation,” and that “The value of such interpretation can be seen in the work of the conductor most prominently associated with a fast, strict approach to Beethoven: Toscanini, whose Beethoven seemed revolutionary in the 1920s and 30s ... (conductor Philippe) Herreweghe seems at first glance to be following in the Italian maestro's footsteps. But in fact, in the first-movement exposition, Toscanini's 1952 recording of the Ninth has a tempo range twice as great as Herreweghe's, and shows far more interesting inflections of phrasing and tempo.”
In 1937 Toscanini became principal conductor of the NBC Symphony. Fifty years later, Horowitz’s Understanding Toscanini took aim at that era. Subtitled “How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music,” it attacked the public-relations aspect of Toscanini’s reign so savagely that many took it as an attack on the conductor himself. But Horowitz’s book never faults Toscanini as a conductor: his biggest complaint concerns the critical machinery that fitted the conductor with angel’s wings.
Classical music in America was completely in thrall to Europe until well into the 20th century. Composers and performers needed the sanction of European adulation to give them credibility. Two world wars and the emergence of jazz eventually helped define an American musical identity, by which time Toscanini was so enshrined that it hardly mattered that he paid scant attention to new works. (To his credit, he tried his hand at Gershwin, Shostakovich, and Vaughan Williams, among others; he had little or nothing to do with the likes of Stravinsky and Bartók.)
As Mortimer Frank points out in his recent Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years, Toscanini was old enough to consider a Brahms symphony a new work. Frank gleefully reveals some of the errors and decries the hyperbole in Horowitz’s book, and he’s in a good position to do so: Frank was curator of the archive at Wave Hill, Toscanini's former home in Riverdale, NY. This makes it all the more surprising that his book should sport such errors as incorrect listings of NBC Symphony personnel. But the book is invaluable to the completist: It lists every broadcast by the NBC Symphony with every conductor who worked with the orchestra, and offers a detailed discography. Frank put in hundreds of hours listening to every available version of every NBC Symphony broadcast and recording and gives us his opinions of them in tiresome detail. He also falls into a formulaic tendency to dismiss anything but the warhorse repertory as substandard music.
The business of appraising recordings has been done before and done better. Spike Hughes’s The Toscanini Legacy (1959) has wit and excitement about its prose, even if Hughes can’t bring himself to write about the symphonies of Brahms (which he loathed). Robert Charles Marsh’s Toscanini and the Art of Conducting (1962) is most interesting as a critical study of the Maestro’s musicianship, less so in his opinions of the recordings, which aren’t much different from Frank’s.
Much of this material was written when the recordings were difficult to obtain. Now they’ve never been more available. RCA issued all the approved recordings in an 82-CD set that’s available for under $500 from the Berkshire Record Outlet, and the record label appended that with 12 two-CD sets of the most popular works with sonic improvement that really did improve the sound. [Long out of print, but replaced in 2012 with a more compact, cardboard-sleeve set in which the wrong "Eroica" Symphony initially was offered on Disc One, and the first six notes of Rossini's "Italian Girl in Algiers" Overture are missing, an error made many years earlier by a cloth-eared BMG engineer and never corrected.]
A few years ago, Naxos began issuing broadcast transcriptions, often complete with announcements and rehearsal excerpts. They got as far as 33 CDs before the licensing deal fell apart, and now the Guild label has picked up the series, with three CDs released so far. [Much of this has changed, particularly the number (now larger) of Guild reissues, and the project has since shifted to the Immortal Performances label.] Naxos also issued five CDs of Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic recordings with vastly improved sound. None of the Naxos and Guild Toscanini recordings are available in the United States, but they’re easy to obtain via the Internet. And even a cursory search will reveal plenty of other labels with varying degrees of legitimacy. You can try to ferret out the duplicates through an online Toscanini discography. [The original link sent you to John Wilson's site, which was last updated in 2002 This link goes to a bi-lingual Japanese site that builds on Wilson's research but is tricky to navigate.]
Does Toscanini, through these ancient recordings, still speak to listeners today? His best performances crackle with an intensity that few contemporary conductors can summon. As a listener, you need only mentally filter Toscanini’s recorded sound to appreciate his mastery. Try it: as your ears adjust to the hiss and limited frequency range, they matter less and less and the music itself blossoms to the fore.
His 1936 recording of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 with the New York Philharmonic is justifiably a benchmark performance: listen to it (the Naxos transfer sounds the best) and you’ll appreciate what the Toscanini fuss is about. “Toscanini’s Philharmonic spews out the dotted figures in flawless streams,” writes Horowitz, “modulating from pianissimo to fortissimo with amazing consistency.” But Horowitz takes issue with what’s usually touted as a Toscanini strength: “Toscanini’s Beethoven express discourages criticism; just hanging on is hard work. And yet the performance is undeniably plain. The separate identities of the movements ... blur together.”
Marsh’s less purple prose notes that “without question he here gave it a reading that is breathtaking from beginning to end.” “His chords were like whip-cracks,” writes musicologist Tully Potter, “and they generated far more excitement than the sonorous chords of other conductors.” Toscanini has been praised for sculpting the movements so that the dramatic impact of each – and of the work as a whole – has an exciting inevitability. As Potter puts it, “The end of a movement seems implicit in the way he launches it, so sure is his grasp of symphonic form.”
Classical music was more welcome when those recordings were made, and it can be argued that the Toscanini hype that Horowitz deplored helped made it so. That in itself doesn’t look like a bad thing, and perhaps we could use another dose of such hype. All we need is another Toscanini, but the only certainty seems to be that we’ll never see – or hear – his like again.
The Letters of Arturo Toscanini | edited by Harvey Sachs
Alfred A Knopf, 468 pp., $35
Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years | by Mortimer Frank
Amadeus Press, 358 pp., $29.95