The Italian Arturo Toscanini is widely regarded as an innovative conductor of uncommon brilliance. His remarkable energy, attention to detail and fastidious regard for the intentions of the composer have solidified his role as one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century.
Toscanini was born in 1867 in Parma, Italy. His first foray into music came as a cellist, and it was on that instrument that he was admitted to the Parma Conservatory at the tender age of nine. Toscanini excelled in his studies, graduating with the highest marks in both cello and composition, and afterwards sought to make his living as a freelance cellist by joining various travelling orchestras. It was with one of these ensembles, during a tour to Brazil, that he was called upon at the last minute to conduct a performance ofGiuseppe Verdi’s Aida after many of the performers threatened to go on strike over the ineptitude of the locally hired conductor. Toscanini, then only 19 years old and with no conducting experience, proceed to astound audience and performers alike by conducting the entire two and a half hour long opera from memory with an intensity seldom before seen.
From this remarkable moment onwards, Toscanini’s status and recognition followed a steep incline to the highest levels of musical stardom. Although he continued to play cello for several years upon his return to Italy, his true calling was conducting. Very soon Toscanini was conducting premiers by some of the greatest composers of his day, with early examples includingLeoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892) and Puccini’s La bohème (1896). In 1898 he finally gained control over his own opera company upon becoming artistic director of the Milan-based La Scala.
During his 15 years with La Scala, Toscanini not only premiered and showcased many Italian works but also proved an adept champion of international composers, particularlyWagner, whom he hailed as “the greatest composer of the century.” By this time, a certain amount of complacency and downright laziness had settled deep into the culture at La Scala and many other orchestras. Toscanini was quick to excise any hints of this, demanding a level of commitment and excellence from his musicians above and beyond what had ever been asked of them before. Everything down to the most meticulous of details was examined and perfected, and Toscanini famously insisted that all singers, no matter how small their part, memorize the entire libretto.
Toscanini’s insatiable desire to improve and perfect did not stop with his musicians; he also made several conscious efforts to change the habits of his audience that were seen as distracting. In addition to lowering the level of light inside the opera house, he demanded that women remove their hats during the performance and did away with the then-common practice of playing a ballet at the end of every concert. During this time he also travelled extensively in Europe and South America as a guest conductor, and gave the Italian premiers of numerous works by composers ranging fromRichard Strauss to Claude Debussy.
As Europe emerged from the wreckage of the First World War and drunkenly teetered towards the second, Toscanini’s career became as much about politics as about music. In 1919, very early on in Mussolini’s rise to power, Toscanini ran for local election in Milan as a fascist, perhaps flattered by Mussolini’s declaration that Toscanini was “the greatest conductor in the world.” However, he soon rescinded his support and became vehemently and vocally anti-fascist and anti-Mussolini in his political leanings, once declaring “If I were capable of killing a man, I would kill Mussolini.” During the last few years he spent before leaving Italy for the United States he frequently refused to conduct the fascist hymnGiovinezza, which earned him a beating from a group of Blackshirts at one concert and the confiscation of his passport. Despite becoming the first non-German ever to conduct at Bayreuth in 1930, he ceased attending the festival after Hitler banned Jewish artists from performing in 1933. Four years later, the Anschluss led him to stop his appearances at the Salzburg Festival, which he had reliably attended since 1934.
The next major phase of Toscanini’s career saw him in New York City, were he fled upon the outbreak of World War II. While there he worked extensively with theNew York Philharmonic Orchestra, the New York Symphony, and the National Broadcasting Corporation Orchestra, which he would lead for 17 years. Toscanini frequently toured North and South America and would return periodically to Italy after World War II ended, but for the remainder of his career New York City became his home.
Toscanini’s brilliance as a conductor can be attributable to several qualities and skills he had in disproportionate abundance. The first is his famed memory. His conducting debut was not an isolated incident, as Toscanini was known to conduct whole scores, and know entire libretti, by heart. Later in his life his eyesight faded to such a point that he had no choice but to do this.
Toscanini's capacity for memorization was just one facet of his remarkable musical mind. Hehad an unmatched penchant for perfectionism, an attention to detail and a charismatic energy seldom matched by any conductor before or since. His conducting style sought to bring out every minute detail in the composer’s score exactly as they had envisioned it, at the time an innovative approach which would have far-lasting consequences in the greater conducting world. He was known for being especially hard on musicians, pushing them far beyond their comfort zones in his quest for perfection.
Of all the many aspects of Toscanini’s life and career, there is one more that bears mentioning: comparisons with his great rival, German conductorWilhelm Furtwängler. Their points of departure are obvious. As the leading exponents and interpreters of the two supposedly greatest classical traditions, Italian and German, their styles were remarkably different from their country’s musical stereotypes. Toscanini was meticulous and exacting, and became well known especially for his performances of opera, the most Italian of art forms. In contrast, while Furtwängler was a champion of the German symphony his approach was anything but dogmatic, and he championed a highly expressive style of looking at the broader meaning and intention of the score rather than playing every marking faithfully.
However, the also had several points of similarity, in addition to being strong advocates for the classical traditions of their native countries. Both Toscanini and Furtwängler found themselves in similar situations as their homelands were overtaken by Fascist forces. Toscanini responded forcefully and eventually left his homeland in protest, while Furtwängler tried vehemently to change the system from the inside, walking a thin line that could have easily ended in his death dozens of times. Both conductors were originally praised by Mussolini and Hitler as being an embodiment of the local classical tradition, and where eventually shunned by those dictators when they refused to play along with their fascist ideas.
Toscanini lived out the end of his life in New York City, where he spent the years after his retirement working on the future release of many of his recordings with the NBC orchestra. He died on January 16, 1957 at the age of 89 and was outlived by his three children Walter, Wally and Wanda, who had been married to pianistVladimir Horowitz since 1933.
Images courtesy of Art Special Day, AllMusic, www.gustav-mahler.eu, www.tonyassante.com