By Lee Alperin

"Don’t ever think you’ve succeeded. Always try to do better – otherwise, drop dead." Arturo Toscanini, 1946 La Scala

He had been considered a god, also an indulged, rigid tyrant.  For most people, though, especially those who knew practically nothing about him, Arturo Toscanini [1867-1957] had been synonymous with conducting the way Caruso was for opera and, one suspects, Callas for temperament.  It has been more than fifty years since Toscanini conducted his final concert, ending an unparalleled performing career of close to seventy years, one that began in 1886.  The year 2007 marked the half century anniversary of his death.

Why revive interest in a man whose day has passed? Put simply, there has never been anyone like Toscanini.  Intense and short-tempered he carried everything to the limit sparing neither himself nor anyone else. In recognizing his own single-minded involvement with conducting he once remarked about the leisure his colleagues took in devoting time for family and friends, “The infernal that’s in me isn’t present in them.”1 That infernal he took as a birthright, setting him on a demonic, never-ending quest for how the music of the great composers must be heard.

Two things kept the infernal for Toscanini ablaze.  He was for years an anti-Fascist smarting under Benito Mussolini’s dictatorial rule and a married man attracted to beautiful younger women.  Both would inflame his moods and spark his temper on the podium, for he treated any difficulties in his personal life as incentives to drive an orchestra.  The following story, which exists in variations, depicts the temper of the man as well as the way he was viewed by the public.

Toscanini is rehearsing an orchestra.  He hears an error repeated by a member of the winds.  In a fury he flings his baton at the player and despite extreme nearsightedness is able to land the stick against the errant musician.  The player jumps up to protest, but Toscanini still beside himself with rage waves the man back and shouts, “Too late to apologize!”  So entwined were his art and the ire rising from his personal and political convictions that the stick Toscanini threw may have been meant as much for Benito Mussolini as for the poor wind player.            

Toscanini never sought attention as a conductor, but privately he had a rejoinder for anything said of him, good or ill. James Levine once remarked he considered Toscanini “the most consistently great conductor of [his] century.”  Toscanini would have corrected Levine to speak of him not as a great conductor but “the only good one.”2So ingrained was this primacy sense that long after Toscanini’s death his son-in-law, pianist Vladimir Horowitz, remarked, “There is no conductor I want to play with.  They are all bad.”  If Horowitz were not supporting a tradition handed down by the old man it would be surprising.

Toscanini always insisted he was only making an orchestra do what the composer had intended.  This may be so in his mind, but the listener also senses that within the parameters of a Toscanini performance is a striving for truth as he, Toscanini, sees it and a force of will not to compromise for less. In 1949 during a recording session for Ottorino Respighi’s Feste Roman, RCA engineers advised Toscanini that the volume of sound he called for could overload the equipment.  “Break everything, but get it on!” he demanded. 

Contributing to the awe about him was that in a career spanning 68 years Toscanini had conducted without a score.  Only during his last concert was there a noticeable memory lapse.  The incident shocked the music world and was treated as acause celebre by the media. In some cases sensationalism instead of scrupulous reporting held sway. By chance I was to witness what took place that evening.

I was twenty when I attended the last concert for the 1954 season of the NBC Symphony in Carnegie Hall.  The orchestra had been formed for Toscanini in 1937, and the performances were originally broadcast from studio 8H in Radio City.  To be part of the live audience one could not go to a box office for tickets.  While there was no admission charge to attend a Toscanini NBC broadcast, tickets were dispensed in a way that did not make them generallyavailable to the public.  I was there because Monroe Larsen, the father of a classmate, had obtained a ticket for me.  He was connected with Socony-Vacuum Oil, sponsor of the broadcasts. 

There was an intense air of expectancy about as I took seat X8 a little after 6:00 P.M. that Sunday evening of April 4th.  The 2783 other places were being quickly filled.  I did not notice anyone standing around to chat.  Hushed low-pitched whispering enveloped the hall instead of the usual sprightly pre-concert conversation. These things were not so by chance, as I was to learn.  From the very beginning the NBC concerts were set up to ensure serious attention.  Admission had started out and remained “by invitation only.”  In addition, “extraordinary precautions were taken . . . the programs were printed on rattleproof materials; ticket holders with coughs were asked to leave.”3If offered the privilege of attending a Toscanini concert, it was expected that people would settle in with the care of veteran concert-goers many of whom, as I looked about, could harken back to the 1930s when Toscanini had directed the New York Philharmonic, also in Carnegie Hall. Seated among such a venerable audience, chosen from among New York’s concert-going elite, a kid like me had to feel just a bit out of his depth.

Meanwhile as media officials and the usual array of critics began arriving they were given an NBC press kit containing Toscanini’s letter of resignation and related materials. Actually the possibility of this performance being the octogenarian maestro’s last had been in the wind if not already taken for granted, and in retrospect I think it was another reason for the somber atmosphere in the hall.

With a concert time of 6:30 approaching I stared with anticipation at the podium.  I could not recall any other with a safety railing on three sides, but I did not dwell over it. I was too excited about the program, which was all-Wagner: the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin, Forest Murmursfrom Siegfried, Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, the Tannhäuser Overture and Bacchanal, and the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger.  I could not have been happier had I chosen the selections myself.

I must have been lost in thought, for I became startled by the burst of applause as Toscanini made his way from the wings, moving past the players in a steady purposeful gait.  When he climbed onto the podium and turned to us I felt a tremor of recognition to see that famous visage -- the strong, stern patrician face, the fluffy white hair, and that ornately tended moustache.  The man had previously come to me in spirit as reflected through his recordings.  Now he took physical form. It was like being in the presence of the Almighty. 

In his past concerts Toscanini usually gave a brief nod to acknowledge the applause and would turn to the players.  This time he paused, lowered his head just a bit and kept his eyes leveled toward us for a good ten or fifteen seconds.  I can still see him there as clearly as I had over fifty years ago.  As his gaze lingered it revealed a sadness, which took me by surprise, but it also gave me time to observe him in fuller detail. He had a very large head for his body.  His frame seemed angular and his arms long.  He was a mortal to be sure, but once he turned to give his downbeat to the players I was no longer aware of the man but a force at work.   

After a hush there rose the opening strings of the Lohengrin Prelude, high floating and luminous.  Its shimmer of sound was so radiant as to elevate one to a level of spiritual purity, at least musically.  Then with the rest of the orchestra joining the strings, the work kept picking up pace, and gathering strength as the music surged in its cyclical fashion to a full orchestral crescendo. I had heard the work dozens of times on recordings, including Toscanini’s own, but with the enormity of sound at the climax radiating around me I remember holding to the armrests of my seat.

Something else I had never witnessed occurred in the Prelude. In a struggle to reach balance with the rest of the orchestra at the tutti, all the violinists bore down so hard for volume that their heads and shoulders were pulled towards their instruments.  Former NBC Symphony violinist Samuel Antek had remarked of this practice, “We tore with our bows against our strings.”4As Toscanini kept urging the orchestra for greater volume it was a thrilling moment, made more so by watching the maestro’s body move in sync with the music.  He never remained in one place but kept turning from section to section of the orchestra.  My attention was also drawn to principal cellist Frank Miller who would often face straight up at Toscanini with an encouraging smile.  I assumed it was done to bolster the old man, adding a human element to the performance.  But there was another reason.

Unknown to most of us in the audience the dress rehearsal for this concert was never completed.  The day before, Toscanini had gone through the first two works of the program, but duringthe next piece, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, he lost his temper over an entry made by the timpanist, blaming the player for a mistake.  He repeated the section still dissatisfied.  Eventually he left the podium in a rage and did not return.  It was unusual for a Toscanini dress rehearsal not to cover every piece on his program in detail. The Rhine Journey, the Tannhäuser andMeistersinger works to follow never received the finishing touches of a final rehearsal.  Conductor Erich Leinsdorf had been notified to be ready to step in.

The Forest Murmurs, an impressionistic piece depicting birdcalls, wind and water, also went well, with cellist Miller continuing to smile and nod as if to remind his maestro the orchestra was with him.  Following that, the opening strings in the Dawn section of the Rhine Journeyunfolded at an expansive pace.  Toscanini’s movements seemed low-keyed now.  Even as the tempo quickened and led into an animated fanfare for the horns he did not seem to be as involved as he had been in the first two works.  Maybe he was tiring; maybe I was imagining it.  In any case the work flowed to a satisfying conclusion. 

With the subdued chamber-like opening of the Tannhäuser Overture Toscanini set a deliberate tempo for the horns and winds followed in turn by the strings and then the full orchestra.  At this pace the music did not seem to proceed smoothly.  On listening to the playbacks now, I think the reading could have been less stately and a bit lighter in texture as in a 1952 NBC broadcast recording of this work. And yet as the piece continued certain parts began to take on an urgency typical of the maestro.  The sight of him there on podium was always a drama in itself.

By the time the Bacchanal began the Toscanini voltage took hold.  It was as if he were inspired once again.  There are not many sweepingly furious and frenzied passages like those which appear in this part of the work, and they almost convolute the orchestra as the different sections go at it one against the other.  For the listener it is like being caught in a maelstrom.  I sat lost, oblivious of anything else, wishing only for the music never to end.  Toward the final few minutes of the piece, the tempest began to subside and wind down to a calming tranquility.  But then something made my back arch.  The music sounded different. It happened during a quiet passage, and I leaned forward to listen more acutely.  I remember cellist Frank Miller turning to the men at his side, but I was unable to determine what was going on. It seemed as if some kind of mix-up had occurred in the orchestra or maybe the men had forgotten their parts.  Whatever the problem the music soon sounded on track again, and I settled back in my seat.

When the Bacchanal came to an end Toscanini was said to have tried to leave the stage but was reminded by Miller the Meistersinger Prelude needed to be performed. I don’t recall that, but what I distinctly remember is at the final public performance of his career Toscanini beat time, stick in one hand and the safety rail grasped in the other.  Sometimes he raised his left hand to his hip as if impatient for everything to be over.  At the conclusion of the piece he dropped his stick and left the stage.  He never returned to acknowledge the applause.  

The audience kept applauding until the house lights came on and the players rose to leave.  I remained in my seat until everyone had left the stage. I stayed as a sort of personal gesture for the maestro. I emerged from Carnegie Hall to the noise and confusion of the streets. It was like reentering a world I had long forgotten.

The estimate given is that for thirty seconds during the Bacchanal Toscanini had been unable to cue the orchestra.  Having been trained to follow their conductor’s every move the players must have felt adrift. According to one behind-the-scenes version of events there was even confusion among those in the NBC radio control booth who had observed Toscanini falter.  Bickering ensued between NBC’s Samuel Chotzinoff and conductor Guido Cantelli over what to do.  Cantelli, a Toscanini protégé, insisted on cutting the broadcast signal.  Thus, for the radio audience, in the words of writer Joseph Horowitz, “Wagner’s Venusberg languor was shattered by the pounding opening of Brahms’s First Symphony.”5After Toscanini had resumed control Brahms was stopped and the live broadcast allowed back on the air. 

Because one is now poised for it when listening to the playback of the concert, the discordant passage is more vivid than it had sounded live, at least from a purely aural perspective.  In the view of some who would write of the incident, many in the audience, including some critics, had no inkling of a problem.  Yet despite the lapse from Toscanini the Bacchanal was still over- whelming. For a 20 year old, being at this concert has not only remained the most exciting event of his life, but more than 55 years later it may be an episode in musical history for which there is nobody else left as witness.

No orchestra member would comment on the performance for the media. However, according to critic B.H. Haggin, who later spoke with a few of the players, Toscanini had already given some incorrect beats during the Forest Murmurs, but the orchestra came through it without fault.6That could have been a prelude for when Toscanini was to cease conducting at a point during the Bacchanal, causing the orchestra to flounder.

What then had happened to Toscanini during those 30 seconds?  There was a good deal written about this, some of it a reckless distortion of the truth. It became an opportunity for those of lesser stature than the maestro’s to cash in on his fall.  As an example, NBC executive Samuel Chotzinoff in his book,Toscanini: An Intimate Portrait, wrote that the maestro “ceased conducting and put his hand to his eyes.  Then the men stopped playing and the house was engulfed in a terrible silence.”7  A picture taken by a Life Magazine photographer from the wings showed that Toscanini did indeed cover his eyes, but at no time had the orchestra stopped playing.  What astounded here was the audacity with which Chotzinoff wrote of the “terrible silence,” considering that over twenty-seven hundred people attending the concert could dispute that.  In the subsequent, British edition of his book Chotzinoff added a footnote to explain that being in the radio control booth he “assumed” the music had stopped.  To borrow a quote from Toscanini: Too late to apologize!

Vincent Sheean in his book, First and Last Love, wrote “Many stories have been told of this day [April 3 rehearsal] and the next [April 4 performance], and they [the stories] do not agree.”8From here Sheean went on to offer his own contribution to the fantastic lore surrounding the last concert. He reported Toscanini’s memory loss had occurred in Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.  He would persuade his readers of that even though he was not at the performance.  He also admits he did not even listen to the radio broadcast.  What then was the source of his information?

Sheean only attended the April 3rddress rehearsal.  He observed what had gone wrong at that time and assumed the same thing would have had to occur during the next day’s performance.  A grievous error.  Only the rehearsal problem dealt with Siegfried’s Rhine Journey.  In his written commentary about the concert Sheean also included a phantom work on Toscanini’s program, a so called “Tristan Preludes.”  No such piece was performed that evening or even rehearsed. 

It should be pointed out that Chotzinoff and Sheean, exuding an aura of experts, wrote their views of the concert not for a newspaper but in a book that will long occupy the library shelves to promulgate their fictitious statements.  Evidently in dealing with names like Chotzinoff or Sheean, their editors did not see fit to check anything. They just published.  While these errors take up only a small portion of the Chotzinoff and Sheean books, they make one cautious about accepting anything else these writers included in them. 

A more acceptable explanation of what had occurred that night appeared in Irving Kolodin’s article, My Version of the Day.  He wrote, “Toscanini’s memory was a visual one . . . he would see the score in his mind.” But, as Kolodin points out, in the stress of the moment, his daughter-in-law’s fatal illness and the charged atmosphere of the last concert, Toscanini’s “internal eye failed.”9 He was also aggrieved over the expected break-up of his orchestra, but all these matters took a critical turn for one reason only: age.  Kolodin, however, argued the NBC Symphony concerts might have gone on for another season but that Toscanini had to give in to “institutional pressure” since NBC wanted the orchestra disbanded. In Kolodin’s view “No king ever abdicated less willingly or under more duress than Arturo Toscanini.”10   In reporting on the concert as music editor for the Saturday Review Kolodin did not even mention that Toscanini had ceased conducting in the Bacchanalbut wrote that “the cues became fewer, and even an extra beat crept in, it seemed, at one point [italics mine].”

As a music lover I also would have welcomed the continued presence of Toscanini on the podium, but it would not have been in the best interests of the man. What Kolodin had utterly failed to perceive was for the aging maestro a decline had already set in.  Toscanini had passed that evening from the raging perfectionist to an old man having to live down his shame.  Possibly the sadness I saw in his eyes had foretold this.  After the concert he avoided the stage door exit to leave Carnegie Hall unseen. Actually if anything should have occurred to Toscanini about the events of that night it is that life had come full circle for him when he later explained, “I conducted as if it had been a dream.”

Sixty-eight years earlier, during his initial conducting experience – Aida, in Rio de Janeiro, 1886 – the nineteen year old Arturo had also said he conducted as if in a dream and had a memory lapse for that performance.11

Though Toscanini had retired, his records continued to be released and to sell well.  Some were studio recordings, and others were taken from NBC radio broadcasts over the years.  Each seemed the most satisfying performance of a particular work, whether it was his crack of doom version of the Beethoven Ninth or the stirring Finlandia of Sibelius.

What causes the public to prefer one conductor’s recordings over those of any other?  Most orchestra leaders, after all, are able to come up with effective performances.  They even share certain personal qualities.  Besides the requisite musical talent they also tend to develop a sense of omnipotence, a driving if not merciless will and, in moments of extremity, more than a touch of paranoia.  This last trait should not be regarded as irrelevant by anyone who has yet to stand before an orchestra.  Artur Rodzinski reportedly carried a loaded gun to rehearsals.  Fritz Reiner’s menacing hooded eyes implied that the murder of an incompetent player would deliver a salutary message to the rest of the orchestra.  Leopold Stokowski was known to fire musicians on the spot.  For Toscanini tantrums sufficed, but he was more than an angry man throwing fits from the podium. He sought perfection.

Within the framework of his interpretations, his sense of tempo was considered impeccable, “balanced on the razor-edge that lies between ‘too fast’ and ‘too slow.’ ”12A typical Toscanini reading would have a solid feel to it, especially in rhythm and intonation. From the first note nothing would sound fuzzy, adrift, or wan. This meant you would get what was promised at the beginning.  Other characteristics were an attention to detail and especially to balances.  During a tutti, Toscanini strove to get different sections of the orchestra to be heard so that an intensity was born of the struggle.  Felix Galimir, former NBC Symphony violinist, explained that Toscanini always worked to maintain  balances so one could “hear all the notes . . . there was never the possibility that you had to fight the trumpets to get through.” 

Toward that aim, Galimir said Toscanini had often displayed anger at the orchestra but that “he was always justified when he blew up.”13 Of course keeping balances took a good ear.  The men of the orchestra would boast that Toscanini’s ear was so good he could hear grass grow. 

Early on, the highly intense and demanding nature of Toscanini became a factor in the results he achieved from his performers. Friction was to be expected.  A famous diva smarting under Toscanini’s strict direction protested that she is the star.  Toscanini was said to have responded, “Yes, you are a star,” then pointing his thumb to himself, continued, “But when the sun is out there are no stars.” 

In many instances singers of less than super-star caliber who worked under Toscanini claimed he had made them reach a level of performance beyond their usual limits. Toscanini would not settle for what they chose to give but drove them until he attained “better than their best.”  If his standards were high he never felt he needed to achieve them with self indulgent, celebrity performers.  In fact it can be argued that when conducting opera Toscanini, though exacting in his demands, was not averse to considering the human voice as another instrument of the orchestra.

Though Toscanini achieved both fame and fortune the man remained an enigma even though more words have been written about him than probably any other conductor of his time. Despite the appearance of two TV documentaries in the United States and numerous books one cannot but wonder who the man was. He had been dubbed a legend, but the spread of such lore tends to obscure rather than serve as a basis for truth. 

In 1978 Harvey Sachs’s biographyToscaninicame out.  This work has taken its place as the most exhaustive reference on the life of the maestro.  But while it contained much information readers did not know, it offered few actual surprises.  The man who had always contrived to maintain a secret life, even from his family, eluded scrutiny once again as in those times when he had explained to his wife, “I firmly believe that the best part of me, that which could best shed light on my soul, is and will forever remain unexpressed.”14 

Perhaps, but even this most private and secretive man left a trail.  He wrote letters.

Harvey Sachs’s annotated The Letters of Arturo Toscanini[2002]revealed not only Toscanini’s views on music, family life and politics but allowed passionate love declarations to his mistresses to become a matter of public record.  Readers were now able to have a deeper understanding of the man than previously possible.  But how important is that understanding, and does it amount to an invasion of privacy?  These questions are still asked even though it has long been accepted that an artist’s intimate life can have an enormous affect on the formation of his art.  While a piece of music may be appreciated in the absence of information about its creator, Beethoven’s monumental Ninth gains impact when it is known that its composer was deaf and a social misfit.  Or consider that Schubert’s lilting melodies were the work of a man suffering from depression and mired in poverty.

In Toscanini’s case it can be said with assurance that almost everything in his life had an effect on his work as a conductor.  Of course we are dealing here with matters Toscanini never remotely expected would gain public exposure. For instance the letters tell us how he actually felt toward his wife, Carla De Martini. “Toscanini was thoroughly dissatisfied with his marriage,”15 explains biographer Sachs.   Actually after some forty years of matrimony, Toscanini could be far more emphatic.  “. . . the life I’m leading with her [Carla] drives me mad, to despair.  I could cry out of sorrow and anger.”16

He never left his wife, nor did he ever intend to.  He considered marriage and the pursuit of beautiful women as mutually exclusive.  If he suffered anything it was his anguish that as a married man he could not freely express the passion he felt for other women or exert greater claim upon them.  His possessiveness was encompassing, and intrusions such as other husbands or his own family considerations were brushed aside. But if things did not go well he would not suffer alone.  Into his conducting he channeled the anger and despair whenever matters in his personal life did not proceed exactly in the way he wanted.

No soprano escaped his notice.  Dressing rooms were fertile hunting grounds, and many of Toscanini’s lovers had to deal with his attentions as well as pursue their careers as celebrated divas.  One of them, Rosina Storchio, bore Toscanini’s child.  Tragically, while staying with her, he did not realize he had left his wife Carla to cope alone with the sudden death of their four year old Giorgio. According to Sachs, Toscanini “could not forgive himself but neither could he control himself in the sexual-amorous aspect of his life.”17  

Another lover, soprano Geraldine Farrar, gave him an ultimatum to leave his wife or leave her.  He chose his family, but it is believed that rather than confront his feelings over working in the same opera house with Farrar, he resigned his post at the Metropolitan. Other singers Toscanini worked with and who were suspected to have been lovers included Lucrezia Bori, Lotte Lehmann and, in later years, Herva Nelli.18 There were also hosts of female hangers-on attracted by his position of power. In his pursuit of female company he was of course an unfaithful husband and lived a life of lies and subterfuge from the day he was married.

Many of Toscanini’s letters have most likely been destroyed, but those which survived reveal he absolutely refused to be without other women. One of his on-going relationships was with Ada Mainardi (spouse of the renowned cellist Enrico Mainardi) and to whom he described himself as one “who adores you above everything and every living creature.”  Like many before her, Ada had to accept being pursued with a tireless energy and even ferocity.  Were she his alone, Toscanini vowed, he would never let her body go to waste and warned that in making love “I would reduce you to a pulp.”19

Writing to Ada did not at the time affect his feverish declarations to other women, especially a certain Elsa Kurzbauer.  “Give me your mouth. I kiss you until you faint.  I kiss you everywhere, in the most hidden recesses.  Give me, give me your caresses, your mouth. Give me everything -- everything!!”20 Toscanini was at the time seventy-two but presumably able to make good his amorous blusters. Always, his relationships with women had to be turned into a tour de force, as it was in his conducting.

He claimed that women energized his work. To Ada he wrote of a 1937 Salzburg performance ofFalstaff to show how necessary she was to him. 

“You were there, Ada my dear, and I wanted to do the impossible to extract the best, better than the best, of their abilities.  Not a bar vanished having first been cajoled and caressed by you!” Another time, “Yes, you were in my blood with every note of the Magic Flute!”21

As many of the letters show, Toscanini’s passion was at times so demanding as to all but vaporize a relationship.  To appease his desire for Ada during the times they could not be together he demanded a handkerchief sprinkled with her menstrual blood and her “tiny flowers [pubic hair].”22 That his inamoratas were often married, not infrequently to someone Toscanini knew well, never gave him pause.  He would not deny himself a woman on moral grounds any more than a volcano might hesitate to erupt for fear of endangering life and property. 

Like lightning or thunder, flooding or conflagration, nothing about Arturo Toscanini was negotiable.  His struggles against the forces around him were brought about by a restless intensity, present before his career as a conductor took hold.  “I was a seven month baby: I couldn’t wait,”23 he explained to serve notice of the infernal seething in him prior to his birth.  As a teenager he was almost expelled from the Royal School of Music of Parma for disobedience.  His professors had to come up with a letter of apology for him [to the director] since it was expected he would refuse to consider it.24 It did not take long for Toscanini to exhibit a behavior pattern that led inexorably to a person who could fall into a rage at the slightest provocation or over nothing at all.

With his rise to positions of authority Toscanini gave free reign to his temper.  For him the podium was not a place to harbor frustration.  He would insult, even curse an orchestra while kicking or breaking anything in reach.  In fact it would not be too surprising were there locked in some deserted NBC backroom a graveyard of his broken batons.  Josef Gingold, former violinist with the NBC Symphony, related that Toscanini could have broken as many as twenty sticks during a single rehearsal of Berlioz’s Queen Mab Scherzo.25 Once in rehearsal with the New York Philharmonic he tried to break his stick.  When it bent instead of snapping in two he became so furious “he began to bite it.”26Complacency was not in his nature, nor did he feel it belonged anywhere in the process of making music. In due course he reached a status in which he had to answer to no one.  Indeed, obedience to him took hold of people as if by force of habit.  Even composer Giacomo Puccini deferred, if a tad sarcastically, when he remarked at a 1921 Toscanini rehearsal of Manon Lescaut, “We must all listen when he talks.  He is Toscanini.”27

The Italian maestro had his moods and expressed them in his letters.  At times he wanted to “spit poison in the face of all mankind” and wrote, “I hate people more than ever.  I can’t stand being looked at any longer.”28He also admitted to being racked by doubts and described himself as a “wretch always unsure of myself, worried and anxious over the choice of a tempo or a coloring.”29A man riddled with contradictions Toscanini risked his life by acting forthright against dictators yet chose to deceive his wife with petty lies.  He detested totalitarianism but insisted on imposing absolute power over anyone or anything involving his interests. He raised his hand in fury against his daughter, Wally, when to his consternation he learned of her relationship with a married man while his own extra-marital affairs he treated as within his prerogative. He was superstitious, arbitrary, and at times just a hair’s breadth from violence and paranoia.  Driven by a furious inner compulsion he was unable to control or understand, he wrote “. . . the disturbance, the agitation in my blood are there . . . and they wear me out.  I can’t sleep.  I turn over and over; I turn the light on and off, but it’s all the same.  I ought to turn off something that’s burning inside me, but it’s not within my power.”30  

In being anti-Fascist under Mussolini’s thuggish regime Toscanini caused concern for his safety. He did not need to make speeches.  His appearance at or absence from a function constituted a statement for which he was deemed responsible.  In 1931 when he refused to conduct the Fascistanthem Giovinezza for a concert in Bologna he and his wife were attacked with canes.  Later 200 Fascists surrounded his hotel crying, “A morte Toscanini!”

His wife tried to speak with the mob, but its representative refused to deal with a woman.  The composer Ottorino Respighi arrived and in attempting to intercede found Toscanini “a caged beast.”  Respighi was told that the Toscanini family would have to leave Bologna by morning for its safety to be assured.31

Experiences such as these were certainly not lost on Toscanini, the musician.  Driving an orchestra into shape became a struggle for ascendancy over what could not be accomplished against the might of despots.  In due course he boycotted the halls and opera houses of Nazi Germany (including Bayreuth), Austria, and even of his native Italy.  His services remained in plentiful demand elsewhere.  In fighting dictatorships from the podium he could triumph over all, but in the process of achieving that it was his nature to allow no accommodation, no half measures, only the lash.

Though subject to less criticism than other conductors Toscanini was not entirely free of censure. In his book about RCA Victor recording artists, The Other Side of the Record (1947), Charles O’Connell, music director for Victor during the 1930s and early 40s, had to put up with what he considered Toscanini’s finicky, exasperating attitude. Characteristics recounted of Toscanini were “vindictiveness and unreasonableness.”  It was claimed that he had also “been quick to imagine slights and doubt friendship. On his sleeve,” insisted O’Connell, Toscanini “wears not his heart but his spleen.” 

O’Connell also criticized the limited major repertoire (concentrated largely on Brahms, Beethoven, Tchaikowsky, Verdi, and Wagner) of the NBC years.  Yet, it should not be ignored that Toscanini had been responsible for the premieres in Italy of operas by Debussy, Puccini, Mussorgsky, Wagner, Tchaikowsky, and Strauss as well as performances of orchestral works of composers considered modern in his day.  In due course, however, like his pianist contemporary, Artur Schnabel, Toscanini had settled into a routine of perfecting a deeper understanding of the works of the old masters.  He would have surely concurred with Schnabel who in later years played only that music he “considered to be better than it can be performed.”33

Despite his dissatisfaction with the Toscanini warhorses O’Connell conceded supremacy to the maestro for his 1941 RCA recording of Brunhilde’s Immolation Scene (Wagner) performed with soprano Helen Traubel. He declared the records “the closest to perfection we shall ever know.”  Almost those same words had been used by critics for Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic recording of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony.  Others, like conductor George Szell, would attest to the “unmatchable perfection” of those1930s Salzburg performances of Falstaff.  Evidently the listing of such Toscanini nonpareils could extend on and on.

Music critic Michael Steinberg wrote in The Times “. . . there are relatively few people around who could have heard him [Toscanini] in concert.”34 Steinberg’s comment appeared back in 1975.  Nevertheless, over a quarter of a century later all of Toscanini’s RCA recordings remain available on 82 CDs, as are a number of videos of his broadcasts.  Most buyers for these recordings would have to be people who could not have been born when Toscanini was active.  That his legacy continues to assert itself bears a significance beyond anything the latest technical advances in sound may offer. Except for the final concert none of his recordings are in stereo, and many are too unresonant to offer a purely aural pleasure.  But when I fall prey to disappointment or grow bitter over unfulfilled expectations, I put on a Toscanini record, maybe the Brahms First, the Beethoven Seventh, or the Tchaikowsky Manfred.  I can feel sustained because, despite the forceful blunt sound of the recording, what comes through is that when he picked up his stick Toscanini provided an hour’s truth.  This does not mean he necessarily reached the definitive truth of any particular composition he conducted but that he achieved his truth after long battle for it.  Struggle would always be essential for Toscanini to justify his right as an interpreter. 

His final three years were spent in Milan, Italy and in Riverdale, New York, approving record releases and receiving friends.  He wept, complaining that not being able to conduct was like death.  He may not have exaggerated.  In a 1983 paper, Toscanini’s Relation to His Orchestra,psychoanalyst Martin H. Blum determined that Toscanini’s deprived childhood prevented an emotional relationship with anyone or anything except for his conducting.  In Dr. Blum’s words Toscanini’s “incapacity for ordinary relatedness made him turn to his working relations as a desperate mode of escape from his pain and rage.”32 Perhaps it was not an escape from these emotions that Toscanini sought from the podium but their release.

After the 1954 season the NBC Symphony never played another concert. A number of its members decided to keep the ensemble going renaming it the Symphony of the Air.  It had a run of performances and made a number of recordings but nine years later had to be disbanded because of a lack of financial support.  Whether known as the NBC Symphony or the Symphony of the Air it was the only major American orchestra never to perform under the banner of a city or state. The NBC Symphony had been a commercial enterprise solely dependant on RCA Victor for its 17 years of existence.

The wake for Arturo Toscanini in Manhattan was held at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Home in January of 1957.  Even in death he was no shell of a man but lay there as if ready to spring up and give some orchestra what for.  As was the case when I saw him in Carnegie Hall, his head was indeed large.  His hands were huge, too, oversized compared with his body.  I would have liked to look into those eyes once more, but then I was not given any opportunity for idle ruminations.  Behind me was a line of people stretching to the street.  I can remember the shove I receivedto move past the bier.   

If in the years ahead Arturo Toscanini remains a historic figure in music he will have achieved that in spite of himself.  It could not have been easy for him. He had no use for equilibrium; things had to be at the edge with his conducting and his dealings with people.  Though he was a musician with the highest standards it was in his nature to achieve them through strife.  Nothing of value could be derived unless things were boiling over.  His letters revealed him as a man always tightly wound, with more rages, obsessions, and furies pent up in him than could be released, keeping him at a constant sforzato.

The question arises as to why Toscanini had been unable to live in peace with himself and others. He always remained at the pinnacle of his profession, idolized not only by the public but colleagues as well. No other musician exerted such absolute control over his life and work.  Still nothing could appease the seething from within.  Not artistic success, audience adulation, or even the love of beautiful women could make up for a youth bearing enough “pain and rage” to have earned Toscanini a place on the couch of Dr. Blum.  The details are these.  As a boy of ten he had been sent from his home and sequestered for the next seven years at the Royal School of Music in Parma, a consequence of the fact that his mother, a “grumpy unaffectionate woman,”35 lacked the means or the desire to be bothered with him.  To what extent the child harbored resentment can only be surmised.

To worsen matters life for the “internal” students there was dreary in the extreme. They were forbidden to leave the school premises without a guard.  The boys were often punished by being locked in a room for an entire morning.  In addition to the “prison atmosphere”36 of the school the food was meager, and on one occasion Toscanini and his classmates skinned and roasted a cat.   Still no matter what deprivations he suffered or how they were to mark him later in life, he never lost belief in himself. In reaction to his desolate youth and the shabby treatment from his mother, who never once visited him at the school, he had dedicated himself to the pursuit of his talent, no matter what.  He was even known to sell his food rations to buy music scores.  The drive that was later to be so much a part of his nature and of his note-honest conducting must have given young Arturo the will to excel at a very early age and swept the boy on his way.  But if he used music as a refuge he also gave back, being responsible for a more lasting influence over the performance of classical music than anyone else of his time, if not of all time. 


Quotes taken from:

1. Antek, Samuel.This Was Toscanini, 1963, Vanguard Press.4                                     

2. Chotzinoff, Samuel. Toscanini: An Intimate Portrait, 1956, Knopf. 7

3. Haggin, B. H. The Toscanini Musicians knew, 1980, Horizon.13,23,25,26

4. Haggin, B. H.Conversations with Toscanini, 1959, Doubleday.6  

5. Horowitz, Joseph. Understanding Toscanini, 1987, Knopf. 3,5,32

6. Kolodin, Irving. The Musical Life, 1958, Knopf. 9,10

7. O’Connell, Charles. The Other Side of the Record, 1947, Knopf. 2,12

8. Sachs, Harvey. Letters of Arturo Toscanini, 2002, Knopf. 1,14-22,24,28-30

9. Sachs, Harvey. Toscanini, 1978, J. B. Lippincott & Co. 11,31,35,36

10. Schnabel, Artur. My Life and Music, 1963, St. Martin’s Press. 33

11. Sheean, Vincent. First and Last Love, 1956, Random House. 8                                                                          

12. Steinberg, Michael. New York Times Book Review, March 30,1975. 34

13. Toobin, Jerome. Agitato, 1975, Viking Press.27