A Magnetic and Complicated Personality

By Simon WilliamsOctober 19, 2017

A Magnetic and Complicated Personality

Toscanini by Harvey Sachs

ARTURO TOSCANINI’S REPUTATION, including the impact of his career on the classical music world, has undergone radical questioning since Harvey Sachs published his first biography of the Italian conductor in 1978. Critics have viewed the glorification of his charismatic presence as an early instance of the use of celebrity culture to sell classical music; the claim that he interpreted scores just as their composers intended has frequently been challenged as fallacious and unachievable; and the metronomic quality of playing he encouraged from the NBC Symphony Orchestra, among others, has been decried. It is not, of course, incumbent on biographers to tackle their subjects’ posthumous reputations, and Sachs’s new biography, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, only acknowledges this shift of opinion away from the near-universal adulation Toscanini aroused in his lifetime in the closing pages of the book. Nevertheless, this biography is sure to contribute much fat to the fire of any current Toscanini polemic.

This biography is not a rewrite of Sachs’s 1978 tome. Rather, it draws on sources not available in the 1970s, including a vast amount of correspondence, tape recordings of Toscanini’s conversations with his family and friends, and documents from recently opened archives at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, and other artistic and governmental institutions. Indeed, this new material was so voluminous that Sachs can claim, with justice, that not “a single entire sentence from the old book is to be found in this one.” The new biography, more than double the length of the earlier version, is a major achievement, chronicling Toscanini’s life from his school days in the Parma Conservatory to his death almost 80 years later. Sachs’s lively, engrossing narrative effectively captures Toscanini’s magnetic and complicated personality, displaying a sure grasp both of the musical world over which Toscanini held such sway during an epoch of unprecedented change and of the political and social order that underwent catastrophic collapse during the conductor’s lifetime and was still in the process of reconstituting itself at his death in 1957.

As Sachs shows, Toscanini’s career as a conductor and his public role as one of the most prominent dissenters to the dictators of the 1930s became so closely associated that, toward the end of his life, classical music appeared to have the potential to transform society by spreading and inculcating humanistic values. This, of course, never happened, due, in part, to the commodification and standardization of music, a process in which Toscanini, as one of the first widely broadcast and recorded conductors, played a crucial role.

Sachs does a superb job conveying Toscanini’s unprecedented power and effectiveness as a conductor. He marshals testimony from a vast array of orchestral colleagues, fellow conductors, critics, friends, and audience members, who bore witness to the intensity and concentration Toscanini brought to the podium: his astoundingly capacious photographic memory, which allowed him to conduct most music without a score, ensured a unity of performance unprecedented in the memories of all who heard him and played under him. He even claimed to have conducted Franchetti’s vast Cristoforo Colombo without even having seen the score! Through the force of his personality and the grip he held on the opera companies and orchestras he conducted, the masterpieces of the Western canon, in the mildly extravagant words of the Viennese music critic Julius Korngold, “emerge[d] sacrosanct through his individuality, through his subjectivity, through his temperament, although often as if newly discovered, newly thought out.”

This ever-renewing freshness, the hallmark of Toscanini’s conducting, makes nonsense of the myth that there can ever be a definitive version of a work, even though it is widely believed that Toscanini claimed there could be. In fact, the period in which Toscanini labored saw the rise of many similar conductor stars — Willem Mengelberg, Bruno Walter, Otto Klemperer, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Leopold Stokowski ­— who brought attention to the interpretative nature of the conductor’s art and the subtle variations that can be found in different renderings of the same musical score.

Describing the contours of musical performance in layman’s terms is a particular challenge for music historians. Sachs highlights the subjective experience of the performer or listener rather than offering objective assessments. Only occasionally does he suggest the unique dynamics of Toscanini’s conducting: for example, he cites Richard Aldrich’s praise for Toscanini’s focus “on clear-cut outline, on abundant detail, on the strongest contrasts, on vivid color; […] the fine modeling of phrase, the symmetry of the musical outline […] and the pulsing dramatic blood he sent coursing through [the] score.” More descriptions like this would have been welcome, as would brief treatments of the styles of other conductors, which would allow readers to judge Toscanini’s achievement in relation to his contemporaries. Sachs does not hesitate to include the enthusiastic, even sublime praise of other conductors: Klemperer wrote of the “delightful impression of uncalculated rightness” in the music-making of this “king of conductors,” while Erich Leinsdorf gave a vivid account of how Toscanini — who never fussed “over minutiae when the overall concept was there” — managed the difficult passages in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony with fluency and ease.

As Toscanini’s career advanced during the 1930s, his eminence appeared to take on godlike proportions. Sachs is right to give his biography the subtitle “Musician of Conscience.” In Toscanini’s gradual isolation from Italian fascism, he came to stand for the dignity of the individual; his performances, which he would famously never sully by playing the fascist hymn “Giovinezza,” took on major symbolic importance. His resolute stand against the European dictators, his deep concern for the well-being not only of musicians but of all who suffered through World War II, led to the most extraordinary paeans, such as that of Isaiah Berlin, who considered Toscanini to be “not just a great conductor, but a symbol of discipline and spontaneity […] the most morally dignified & inspiring hero of our time — more than Einstein, (to me) more than even the superhuman Winston [Churchill].”

As Sachs observes, Toscanini’s rise to universal fame was somewhat improbable. During the first four decades of his career, he only conducted substantially in three countries — Argentina, the United States, and Italy — and briefly in six others: Brazil, Spain, Uruguay, France, Canada, and Switzerland. Even though he conducted concerts from his early teens, his work was centered mainly in opera, at three houses: the Teatro Regio in Turin, the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, and the Metropolitan Opera in New York — institutions he transformed from sites of mediocrity into theaters with the highest standards in singing and orchestral playing. He also introduced, sometimes controversially, new staging and scenic techniques. “Opera,” he rather surprisingly claimed late in life, “is theater and words are more important than the music.” Orchestral music, especially with the New York Philharmonic and the NBC Symphony Orchestra, occupied the majority of his energies in the last few decades of his extremely long career.

Oddly enough, his contribution to the repertoire was somewhat limited. He insisted on conducting only what he liked, which meant that 19th-century European romanticism stood firmly at the center. For him, Mozart was a relatively minor composer — he never conducted Così fan tutte and disliked Don Giovanni intensely. Sachs argues persuasively that Toscanini was incapable of grasping Mozart’s mastery at mingling the pathetic and the ironic. Toscanini notoriously avoided conducting any modern music that was not tonally based, which allowed him to include Richard Strauss’s virtuosic orchestral tone poems, though he never conducted a single work by Mahler, with whom he had a somewhat fraught relationship during his early artistic directorship of the Met. Strangely for one who was so celebrated for his interpretation of Wagner, Toscanini never conducted a complete cycle of Der Ring des Nibelungen, nor a complete Rheingold. Even for one traveling prior to the jet age, Toscanini’s geographic range was limited: he only conducted London orchestras occasionally, was rarely in Berlin, and conducted a US West Coast orchestra only once, the Los Angeles Philharmonic in April 1945. Nevertheless, his eminence was enhanced by his centrality in both the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, both of which he had to abandon in the mid-1930s when political circumstances dictated, even though the managers of the festivals, including the Wagner family, begged him to stay.

The myth of Toscanini as an artist of superhuman stature was both augmented and diminished by the excessive volatility of his character. Sachs does not pull any punches when it comes to chronicling the conductor’s constant explosive confrontations with individual players, sometimes with whole ensembles. Time after time, we read of rehearsals where Toscanini flings the score over his shoulder or storms out of the room swearing never to return, a threat rarely acted upon. Singers and instrumentalists lived, we are told, in terror of him. But for every performer trembling in fear, another can be found who felt he was unusually kind; it is clear that the vast majority of musicians who worked with Toscanini revered the man and the artistic values he stood for.

Sachs’s unprecedented access to family papers and correspondence has allowed him to penetrate the most intimate realms of Toscanini’s private life, and here the biography is especially successful. As Sachs shows, the conductor was torn between an intense affection for his family and the erotic pleasures offered by the raffish theatrical milieu, spurring a conflict that was never resolved. Carla, Toscanini’s long-suffering wife, seems to have resigned herself to his serial philandering — for example, she agreed to stay with him after discovering his affair with the opera singer Rosina Storchio. Yet even though she may have seemed at times complacent, to the extent even of entertaining his past lovers, she was never at ease, and his late affair with Herva Nelli clearly hurt her as much as his earlier dalliances had. Just before she died, she sighed, “He’s always been a liar,” hardly the most reassuring epitaph on a marriage. Sachs seems to offer a sort of excuse when he writes that Toscanini “continued to believe that prolonging his sex life would help him prolong his artistic life as well,” but such an assumption surely requires further examination.

Harvey Sachs’s new biography of Toscanini stands as the preeminent work on the conductor, a superbly written and immaculately researched volume with which all future discussions of this eternally controversial figure will have to grapple.


Simon Williams is professor emeritus in the Department of Theater and Dance at UC Santa Barbara.

LARB Contributor

Simon Williams is professor emeritus in the Department of Theater and Dance at UC Santa Barbara. He is author of German Actors of the 18th and 19th Centuries (1985), Shakespeare on the German Stage: 1586-1914 (1990), Richard Wagner and Festival Theatre (1994), and Wagner and the Romantic Hero (2004). He has also published numerous articles on the history of theatre and opera.


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