Thursday, February 22, 2024

Arturo Toscanini: Art With Uncompromising Passion

Arturo Toscanini was born in Parma, Italy on the 25th of March 1867. He was the eldest of four children and the only son. His parents were Claudio Toscanini and Paula Montani. Both parents were from middle-class families. His father was a tailor by profession and also a choir singer. Politically wise, Claudio Montani was a strong adherent of Giuseppe Garibaldi, the Italian liberator and hero figure of the nineteenth century Europe. In his younger days, Claudio being an adventurer at heart, joined Garibaldi’s forces during Italy’s war of reunification and independence. He never managed to settle down seriously to family life and his drinking and irresponsible behaviour made life miserable for his wife and children. Most of Toscanini’s childhood was therefore spent with his grandparents. By the age of nine he was awarded a free place in Professor Leoandro Caranini’s Violoncello school at the conservatory of Parma. He studied the cello under Caranini and composition under Guisto Dacci.

In 1884, he performed in “Lohengrin”, a romantic opera in three acts by Richard Wagner. His friends nicknamed him “genio” which means genius but they also called him “forbice” which means scissors because of his sharp sense of criticism. He left the conservatory in 1885, after earning himself a diploma. What set him apart from his colleagues was the excellent marks he gained while studying at the conservatory. He received the Barbacini prize for being the outstanding graduate in his class. He already had a reputation amongst the local music community for his wide and encompassing musical interests and photographic memory. Till today, the school still preserves three of his orchestral scores and a romance which is to be sung and played on the piano. He became Repetiteur (singing coach) on an Italian operatic group which toured Brazil.

Toscanini at home in Milan. In the glass case with the death masks of Wagner and Verdi.

During the tour in Rio De Janeiro, on 30th June 1886 when several conductors were absent, Toscanini was deputised and conducted “Aida” by Verdi from memory. He was a huge success with the audience and was entrusted to conduct a further eleven operas which were part of the Brazilian tour.

When he returned to Italy, he was invited to play at the Theatro Regio in Turin. While there he was engaged as second cellist. Because of this he was able to attend the premiere of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Othello”. Toscanini began acquiring as much experience as he could by conduction short seasons, one after another at Italy’s opera houses. He conducted many mediocre orchestras and groups. This was a hard period of training for him but he resolved to respect the music scores at all events. From 1890-1891 he was seconded to the Teatro Liceo in Barcelona, Spain as deputy conductor. In 1892, he conducted the world premiere of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Three years later he would become what we would call in today’s terms, Artistic Director of Turin’s prestigious Theatro Regio. While there he conducted the first Italian Production of Wagner’s “Gotterdammerung”, the local premiere of “Tristan und Isolde” and the world premiere of Puccini’s “La Boheme”. He also conducted several new or recent symphonies.

Toscanini, the stalwart

In 1898 he was responsible for the Italian premiere of three of the “Quattro Pezzi Sacri” by Verdi during the world expo there. He was delighted when he became acquainted with Verdi himself during that period. From 1898-1903, he was director of the Milan Scala. During that time he was in charge of the Italian premieres of several operas; “the Mastersingers of Nurenberg” (1898), “Sigfried” by Wagner (1899), “Eugene Onegin” by Tchaikovsky (1900), “Euryanthe” by V. Weber (1902), “Pelleas et Melisande” by Debussy (1902). In 1900 he performed the premiere of “Zaza” by Leoncavallo and in 1902, the premiere of “Germania” by Franchetti. He stood firm on artistic issues while at the Scala and made many enemies. He had to eventually resign as director. From 1908 to 1914, Toscanini conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, New York. While there he conducted the American premiere of Puccini’s “Girl of the Golden West” (1910), Wolf Ferrari’s “Le Donne Curiose” (1912) and other works.

Toscanini returned to Italy during World War I. With a reorganised La Scala Orchestra he toured Europe and the United States (1920-1921). He was artistic director again at La Scala from 1921 to 1929. He later returned to the United States and was conductor to the New York Philharmonic from 1928 to 1936. His other important engagements included the Bayreuth Festivals (1930-31), of which he was the first non-German conductor, the Salzburg Festivals (1934-36) and the Lucerne Festivals (1937-39). In 1936, he conducted the inaugural concert of Palestine Symphony Orchestra in Tel Aviv. He was steadfastly anti-fascist and when asked to appear in fascist countries, he bluntly refused. In Italy, Toscanini was a leading critic of dictator Benito Mussolini’s fascist rule. He refused to include the fascist hymn, “Giovinezza” in his concerts. Once, while in Bologna in 1930, he was beaten up by a group of Mussolini’s supporters. This in no way deterred Toscanini’s view of politics.

The Golden Years

Many consider the year, 1937, to be the start of the most productive part of Arturo Toscanini’s career. It was in this year that the NBC (National Broadcasting Company) Symphony Orchestra was established especially for Toscanini. No expense was spared in finding top class musicians the world over, to form the orchestra. The orchestra, under his conducting skills, made weekly broadcasts from studio 8-H in Rockefella Center over the NBC radio network and ten times over NBC’s television network. The medium of radio at the time, was the best way to expose the music of Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra to the largest audience possible. Through the innovative transmission of short wave radio, Toscanini and his orchestra broke all borders around the world. They garnered an audience of millions as houses around the globe tuned in to their weekly broadcasts. All in all, a total of 117 operas by 53 composers and 480 symphonic works by 175 composers were broadcast. There is nothing more transitory than a musical performance. Once a great performance is heard, it is gone and only lives in the memory of the listener. Knowing that many of Toscanini’s memorable performance were not recorded by the maestro himself, the NBC put themselves to the task by carefully transcribing the performances to tape or disc. Many of these transcriptions have never been made public.

In 1939, the orchestra toured South America with Toscanini at the helm and again in 1950 throughout the United States. The NBC symphony Orchestra was at the time considered the world’s best orchestra. Having Arturo Toscanini as their conductor only enhanced their reputation further. The NBC Orchestra was considered unique because it was wholly owned by a single corporate entity. This meant the musicians found themselves playing on radio dramas, children’s programs and quiz shows. Arturo Toscanini was 70 years old when he took the helm at the NBC Symphony. That in itself was no mean feat. But what was even more incredible was that Toscanini continued with the orchestra for the next 17 years! It was said that the orchestra was created to serve expressly as the instrument of one man’s genius.

Since Toscanini was known for his razor-sharp wit and sarcasm, there are many amusing stories regarding the conductor. Here is a sampling of them:

Giacomo Puccini was in the habit of sending a Christmas cake to each of his friends. One particular year, having quarrelled with Toscanini, he attempted to cancel the order for his cake. Unfortunately, the item had already been dispatched. Puccini, peeved, promptly sent a telegram to Toscanini, “Cake sent by mistake”. Some time later he received a reply from Toscanini, “Cake eaten by mistake”.

During rehearsal one day, Toscanini flew into a rage. He ordered one of his musicians to leave the stage immediately. The irate musician turned at the doorway and shouted, “Nuts to you!” Toscanini’s reply? “It’s too late to apologise!”

When rehearsing Debussy’s “Le Mer”, Toscanini found himself struggling to convey the effect he wished to achieve with a particular passage. Finally, removing a silk handkerchief from his pocket, he tossed it high into the air. As the orchestra watched its slow graceful descent with baited breath, Toscanini beamed and said, “There! Play it like that!”

Toscanini had this endless source of energy whenever he stepped onto the podium. His ability to bring over his interpretation of the piece to the musicians was uncanny. He seemed to instil them with the same enthusiasm; breathing new life into them as it were. He was well known for his fiery temper and outbursts of violence when he could not obtain perfection. A lawsuit was once brought against him in Milan when he accidentally injured the concertmaster with a broken now. Even the most celebrated soloist and opera singers of the era did not dare question his authority.

Despite all the abuse, verbal or otherwise that he heaped upon his musicians, he was still known affectionately as the Maestro who could do no wrong. Ferrucio Busoni dedicated his opera; “Tunadot” to him, Zoltan Kodaly dedicated his symphony, “In Memoriam” to him and also “Nyori Este” (Summer Evening) which he had revised according to Toscanini’s suggestion. He committed all of his scores to memory because he was acutely short- sighted. His last concert was in Carnegie Hall on April 4th, 1954 – 10 days after his eighty-seventh birthday. He sent a sorrowful letter of resignation to the NBC explaining the impossibility of him conducting future performances. It was Toscanini’s fondest wish that the orchestra, which was his labour of love, should continue after his departure. However this was not to be when the NBC disbanded is orchestra soon after, much to Toscanini’s dismay. Despite living many years in America. Toscanini never gave up his Italian citizenship. He died a few weeks short of his 90th birthday on January 16th, 1957 in New York. In 1987, his family presented his valuable private archive to the New York Public Library.

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