Arturo Toscanini (Italian: ; March 25, 1867 – January 16, 1957) was an Italian conductor. He was one of the most acclaimed musicians of the late 19th and of the 20th century, renowned for his intensity, his perfectionism, his ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his photographic memory. He was at various times the music director of La Scala Milan, the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Later in his career he was appointed the first music director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra (1937–54), and this led to his becoming a household name (especially in the United States) through his radio and television broadcasts and many recordings of the operatic and symphonic repertoire.
Toscanini was born in Parma, Emilia-Romagna, and won a scholarship to the local music conservatory, where he studied the cello. Living conditions at the conservatory were harsh. For example, his diet consisted almost completely of fish. When he became successful, he never ate anything that came from the sea. He joined the orchestra of an opera company, with which he toured South America in 1886. While presenting Aida in Rio de Janeiro on June 25, Leopoldo Miguez, the locally hired conductor, reached the summit of a two-month escalating conflict with the performers due to his rather poor command of the work, to the point that the singers went on strike and forced the company's general manager to seek a substitute conductor. Carlo Superti and Aristide Venturi tried unsuccessfully to finish the work. In desperation, the singers suggested the name of their assistant Chorus Master, who knew the whole opera from memory. Although he had no conducting experience, Toscanini was eventually persuaded by the musicians to take up the baton at 9:15 pm, and led a performance of the two-and-a-half hour opera, completely from memory. The public was taken by surprise, at first by the youth and sheer aplomb of this unknown conductor, then by his solid mastery. The result was astounding acclaim. For the rest of that season, Toscanini conducted eighteen operas, all with absolute success. Thus began his career as a conductor, at age 19.
Upon returning to Italy, Toscanini set out on a dual path for some time. He continued to conduct, his first appearance in Italy being at the Teatro Carignano in Turin, on November 4, 1886, in the world premiere of the revised version of Alfredo Catalani's Edmea (it had had its premiere in its original form at La Scala, Milan, on February 27, of that year). This was the beginning of Toscanini's lifelong friendship and championing of Catalani; he even named his first daughter Wally after the heroine of Catalani's opera La Wally. However, he also returned to his chair in the cello section, and participated as cellist in the world premiere of Verdi's Otello (La Scala, Milan, 1887) under the composer's supervision. Verdi, who habitually complained that conductors never seemed interested in directing his scores the way he had written them, was impressed by reports from Arrigo Boito about Toscanini's ability to interpret his scores. The composer was also impressed when Toscanini consulted him personally about Verdi's Te Deum, suggesting an allargando where it was not set out in the score. Verdi said that he had left it out for fear that "certain interpreters would have exaggerated the marking".
Gradually, Toscanini's reputation as an operatic conductor of unusual authority and skill supplanted his cello career. In the following decade, he consolidated his career in Italy, entrusted with the world premieres of Puccini's La bohème and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. In 1896, Toscanini conducted his first symphonic concert (in Turin, with works by Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner). He exhibited a considerable capacity for hard work, conducting 43 concerts in Turin in 1898. By 1898, Toscanini was Principal Conductor at La Scala, where he remained until 1908, returning as Music Director, from 1921–1929. He brought the La Scala Orchestra to the United States on a concert tour in 1920/21, during which he made his first recordings (for the Victor Talking Machine Company).
Outside Europe, Toscanini conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1908–1915) as well as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1926–1936). He toured Europe with the New York Philharmonic in 1930. At each performance, he and the orchestra were acclaimed by critics and audiences. Toscanini was the first non-German conductor to appear at Bayreuth (1930–1931), and the New York Philharmonic was the first non-German orchestra to play there. In the 1930s, he conducted at the Salzburg Festival (1934–1937), as well as the 1936 inaugural concert of the Palestine Orchestra (later renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) in Tel Aviv, later conducting them in Jerusalem, Haifa, Cairo and Alexandria. During his engagement with the New York Philharmonic, Hans Lange, the son of the last Master of the Sultan's Music in Istanbul, who, later, became conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the legendary founder of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra as a professional ensemble, was his concert master.
In May 1915, Toscanini was set to return to Europe aboard the doomed RMS Lusitania when his season at New York’s Metropolitan Opera ended. Instead, he cut his concert schedule short and left a week earlier, apparently aboard the Italian liner Duca degli Abruzzi.
In 1919, Toscanini ran unsuccessfully as a Fascist parliamentary candidate in Milan. He had been called "the greatest conductor in the world" by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Toscanini became disillusioned with fascism already before the March on Rome and repeatedly defied the Italian dictator. He refused to display Mussolini's photograph or conduct the Fascist anthem Giovinezza at La Scala. He raged to a friend, "If I were capable of killing a man, I would kill Mussolini."
At a memorial concert for Italian composer Giuseppe Martucci on May 14, 1931, at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Toscanini was ordered to begin by playing Giovinezza, but he refused, despite the presence of fascist foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano in the audience. Afterwards, he was, in his own words, "attacked, injured and repeatedly hit in the face" by a group of blackshirts. Mussolini, incensed by the conductor's refusal, had his phone tapped, placed him under constant surveillance, and confiscated his passport. The passport was returned only after a world outcry over Toscanini's treatment. Upon the outbreak of WWII, Toscanini left Italy. He returned in 1946 to conduct a concert for the opening of the restored La Scala Opera House, which was severely damaged in the war.
Toscanini returned to the United States where the NBC Symphony Orchestra was created for him in 1937. He conducted his first NBC broadcast concert on December 25, 1937, in NBC Studio 8-H in New York City's Rockefeller Center. The acoustics of the specially built studio were very dry; some remodeling in 1942 for Leopold Stokowski added a bit more reverberation. (In 1950, 8-H was converted into a television studio. It has been home to NBC's Saturday Night Live since 1975. In 1980, Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra began a series of special televised NBC concerts called Live From Studio 8H, the first one being a tribute to Toscanini, punctuated by clips from his television concerts.)
The NBC broadcasts were initially preserved on large 16-inch transcription discs recorded at 33-1/3 rpm, until NBC began using magnetic tape in 1949. NBC employed special RCA high fidelity microphones for the broadcasts, and they can be seen in some photographs of Toscanini and the orchestra. Some of Toscanini's recording sessions for RCA Victor were mastered on sound film in a process developed about 1930, as detailed by RCA producer Charles O'Connell in his memoirs, On and Off The Record. In addition, hundreds of hours of Toscanini's rehearsals with the NBC were preserved and are now housed in the Toscanini Legacy archive at The New York Public Library.
Toscanini was often criticized for neglecting American music. However, on November 5, 1938, he conducted the world premieres of two orchestral works by Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra. The performance received significant critical acclaim. In 1945, he led the orchestra in recording sessions of the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé in Carnegie Hall (supervised by Grofé) and An American in Paris by George Gershwin in NBC's Studio 8-H. Both works had earlier been performed in broadcast concerts. He also conducted broadcast performances of Copland's El Salón México; Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with soloists Earl Wild and Benny Goodman and Piano Concerto in F with pianist Oscar Levant; and music by other American composers, including marches of John Philip Sousa. He even wrote his own orchestral arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, which was incorporated into the NBC Symphony's performances of Verdi's Hymn of the Nations, together with the Soviet Internationale. (Earlier, while music director of the New York Philharmonic, he conducted music by Abram Chasins, Bernard Wagenaar, and Howard Hanson.)
In 1940, Toscanini took the orchestra on a "goodwill" tour of South America, sailing from New York on the ocean liner SS Brazil on 14 May. Later that year, Toscanini had a disagreement with NBC management over their use of his musicians in other NBC broadcasts. This, among other reasons, resulted in a letter which Toscanini wrote on March 10, 1941, to RCA's David Sarnoff. He stated that he now wished "to withdraw from the militant scene of Art" and thus declined to sign a new contract for the up-coming winter season, but left the door open for an eventual return "if my state of mind, health and rest will be improved enough". So Leopold Stokowski was engaged on a three-year contract instead and served as the NBC Symphony's music director from 1941 until 1944. Toscanini's state of mind soon underwent a change and he returned as Stokowski's co-conductor for the latter's second and third seasons resuming full control in 1944.
One of the more-remarkable broadcasts was in July 1942, when Toscanini conducted the American premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7. Because of World War II, the score was microfilmed in the Soviet Union and brought by courier to the United States. Stokowski had previously given the US premieres of Shostakovich's 1st, 3rd and 6th Symphonies in Philadelphia, and in December 1941 urged NBC to obtain the score of the 7th as he wanted to conduct its premiere as well. But Toscanini coveted this for himself and there were a number of remarkable letters between the two conductors (reproduced by Harvey Sachs in his biography) before Stokowski agreed to let Toscanini have the privilege of conducting the first performance. Unfortunately for New York listeners, a major thunderstorm virtually obliterated the NBC radio signals there, but the performance was heard elsewhere and preserved on transcription discs. It was later issued by RCA Victor in the 1967 centennial boxed set tribute to Toscanini, which included a number of NBC broadcasts never released on discs. In Testimony Shostakovich himself expressed a dislike for the performance, after he heard a recording of the broadcast. In Toscanini's later years the conductor expressed dislike for the work and amazement that he had actually conducted it.
In the spring of 1950, Toscanini led the orchestra on an extensive transcontinental tour. It was during that tour that the well-known photograph of Toscanini riding the ski lift at Sun Valley, Idaho was taken. Toscanini and the musicians traveled on a special train chartered by NBC.
The NBC concerts continued in Studio 8-H until 1950. That fall, needing 8-H for television broadcasting, they were moved to Manhattan Center, then soon thereafter moved again to Carnegie Hall at Toscanini's insistence, where many of the orchestra's recording sessions had been held due to the acrid acoustics of Studio 8-H. Toscanini's final broadcast performance, an all-Wagner program, took place on April 4, 1954, in Carnegie Hall. During this final concert, the aging Toscanini suffered a minor lapse of concentration which became a cause célèbre when broadcast technicians panicked and took the broadcast off-air for about a minute, making the lapse appear much worse than it was.
In June 1954, Toscanini participated in his final recording sessions, remaking portions of two Verdi operas so they could be commercially released. Toscanini was 87 years old when he finally retired. After his retirement, the NBC Symphony was reorganized as the Symphony of the Air, making regular performances and recordings, until it was disbanded in 1963. It was heard one last time (as the NBC Symphony Orchestra) in the 1963 telecast of Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
On radio, Toscanini conducted seven complete operas, including Fidelio, La bohème, La traviata, and Otello, all of which were eventually released on records and CD, thus enabling the modern listening public to have at least some idea of what an opera conducted by Toscanini sounded like.
With the help of his son Walter, Toscanini spent his remaining years evaluating and editing tapes and transcriptions of his performances with the NBC Symphony for possible future LP release. Many of these recordings were eventually issued by RCA Victor.
Sachs and other biographers have documented the numerous conductors, singers, and musicians who visited Toscanini during his retirement. He enjoyed watching boxing and wrestling matches, as well as comedy programs on television.
Toscanini died on January 16, 1957 at the age of 89 at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City. His body was returned to Italy and was buried in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan. His epitaph is taken from one account of his remarks concluding the 1926 premiere of Puccini's unfinished Turandot: "Qui finisce l'opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto" ("Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died"). During his funeral service, Leyla Gencer sang an aria from Verdi's Requiem.
In his will, he left his baton to his protégée Herva Nelli, who sang in the broadcasts of Otello, Aida, Falstaff, the Verdi Requiem, and Un ballo in maschera.
Toscanini was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
Toscanini married Carla De Martini on June 21, 1897, when she was not yet 20 years old. Their first child, Walter, was born on March 19, 1898. A daughter, Wally, was born on January 16, 1900. Carla gave birth to another boy, Giorgio, in September 1901, but he died of diphtheria on June 10, 1906. Then, that same year (1906), Carla gave birth to their second daughter, Wanda.
Toscanini worked with many great singers and musicians throughout his career, but few impressed him as much as Vladimir Horowitz. They worked together a number of times and recorded Brahms' second piano concerto and Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto with the NBC Symphony for RCA Victor. Horowitz also became close to Toscanini and his family. In 1933, Wanda Toscanini married Horowitz, with the conductor's blessings and warnings. It was Wanda's daughter, Sonia, who was once photographed by Life playing with the conductor.
During World War II, Toscanini lived in Wave Hill, a historic home in Riverdale.
Despite the reported infidelities revealed in Toscanini's letters documented by Harvey Sachs, he remained married to Carla until she died on June 23, 1951.
At La Scala, which had what was then the most modern stage lighting system installed in 1901 and an orchestral pit installed in 1907, Toscanini pushed through reforms in the performance of opera. He insisted on dimming the house-lights during performances. As his biographer Harvey Sachs wrote: "He believed that a performance could not be artistically successful unless unity of intention was first established among all the components: singers, orchestra, chorus, staging, sets, and costumes."
Toscanini favored the traditional orchestral seating plan with the first violins and cellos on the left, the violas on the near right, and the second violins on the far right.
Toscanini conducted the world premieres of many operas, four of which have become part of the standard operatic repertoire: Pagliacci, La bohème, La fanciulla del West and Turandot; he took an active role in Alfano's completion of Puccini's Turandot. He also conducted the first Italian performances of Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Salome, Pelléas et Mélisande, and Euryanthe, as well as the South American premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Madama Butterfly and the North American premieres of Boris Godunov and Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7. He also conducted the world premiere of Samuel Barber's most famous work, the Adagio for Strings.
Toscanini made his first recordings in December 1920 with the La Scala Orchestra in the Trinity Church studio of the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey and his last with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in June 1954 in Carnegie Hall. His entire catalog of commercial recordings was issued by RCA Victor, save for two recordings for Brunswick in 1926 (his first by the electrical process) with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra and a series of excellent recordings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1937 to 1939 for EMI's His Master's Voice label (which was RCA Victor's European affiliate). Toscanini also recorded with the New York Philharmonic in Carnegie Hall for RCA Victor in a series of recording sessions in 1929 and 1936. He made a series of long-unissued recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra for RCA Victor in Philadelphia's Academy of Music in 1941 and 1942. All of Toscanini's commercially issued RCA Victor and HMV recordings have been digitally remastered and released on compact disc. There are also recorded concerts with various European orchestras, especially with La Scala Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra. In 2012, RCA Red Seal released a new 84 CD boxed set reissue of Toscanini's complete RCA Victor recordings and commercially issued HMV recordings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. In 2013, EMI Classics issued a 6-CD set containing Toscanini's complete HMV recordings with the BBC Symphony. Toscanini disliked recording, especially the acoustic method, and for several years recorded only sporadically as a result. He was fifty-three years old when he made his first recordings in 1920 and did not begin regular recording until 1938, after he became conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra at the age of seventy. As the recording process improved, so did Toscanini's negative attitude towards making records and he eventually became more interested in preserving his performances for posterity. The majority of Toscanini's recordings were made with the NBC Symphony and cover the bulk of his repertoire. These recordings document the final phase of his 68-year conducting career.
Toscanini was especially famous for his performances of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Richard Strauss, Debussy and his own compatriots Rossini, Verdi, Boito and Puccini. He made many recordings, especially towards the end of his career, all of which are still in print. In addition, there are many recordings available of his broadcast performances, as well as his remarkable rehearsals with the NBC Symphony.
Charles O'Connell, who produced many of Toscanini's RCA Victor recordings in the 1930s and early 1940s, said that RCA Victor decided to record the NBC Symphony Orchestra in Carnegie Hall, whenever possible, after numerous customer complaints about the flat and dull-sounding early recordings made in Studio 8-H in 1938 and 1939. (Nevertheless, some recording sessions in Studio 8-H persisted as late as June 1950, probably because of alterations to the studio beginning in 1939, including installation of an acoustical shell in 1941 at Leopold Stokowski's insistence, before he would temporarily replace Toscanini as principal conductor in the fall.) O'Connell and others often complained the Maestro was little interested in the details of recorded sound and, as Harvey Sachs wrote, Toscanini was frequently disappointed that the microphones failed to pick up everything he heard as he led the orchestra. O'Connell even complained of Toscanini's failure to cooperate with him during the sessions. Toscanini himself was often disappointed that the 78-rpm discs failed to fully capture all of the instruments in the orchestra or altered their sound to such an extent they became unrecognizable. Those fortunate to attend Toscanini's concerts later said the NBC string section was especially outstanding.
O'Connell also extensively documented RCA's technical problems with the Philadelphia Orchestra recordings of 1941/42, which required extensive electronic editing before they could be released (well after Toscanini's death, beginning in 1963, with the rest following in the 1970s). Harvey Sachs also recounts that the masters were damaged, possibly because of the use of somewhat-inferior materials imposed by wartime restrictions. Toscanini had listened to some of the test pressings and had given his approval to some of the recordings, rejected others and was prepared to re-record the rejected sides. Unfortunately, the Petrillo/AFM recording ban from 1942 to 1944 prevented immediate retakes; by the time the ban ended, the Philadelphia Orchestra had left RCA Victor for Columbia Records and RCA apparently was hesitant to promote the orchestra any further. RCA had declared the defective masters unsalvageable and Toscanini eventually re-recorded all of the same music with the NBC Symphony. When told that RCA had finally decided to scrap the Philadelphia recordings, Toscanini vehemently exclaimed, "I worked like a dog!". The best sounding of the recordings is the Schubert Symphony No. 9 (The "Great"), which had been successfully restored and issued by RCA in 1963. In 1968, the Philadelphia Orchestra returned to RCA and the company was more favorable toward issuing all of the discs. RCA finally released a complete edition of the recordings in 1977 and, as Sachs noted, by that time some of the masters may have deteriorated further. As for the historic recordings, even on the CD versions, first released in 1991, some of the sides have considerable surface noise and some distortion, especially during the louder passages. Nevertheless, despite the occasional problems, the sound has been markedly improved on CD, and the entire set is an impressive document of Toscanini's collaboration with the Philadelphia musicians. A second RCA CD reissue from 2006 makes more-effective use of digital processing in an attempt to produce better sound. Longtime Philadelphia director Eugene Ormandy expressed his appreciation for what Toscanini achieved with the orchestra.
In the late 1940s when magnetic tape replaced direct wax disc recording and high fidelity long-playing records were introduced, the conductor said he was much happier making recordings. Sachs wrote that an Italian journalist, Raffaele Calzini, said Toscanini told him, "My son Walter sent me the test pressing of the Ninth from America; I want to hear and check how it came out, and possibly to correct it. These long-playing records often make me happy."
NBC recorded all of Toscanini's broadcast performances on 16-inch 33-1/3 rpm transcription discs from the start of the Maestro's broadcasts in December 1937, but the infrequent use of higher fidelity sound film for recording sessions began as early as 1933 with the Philharmonic, and by December 1948, improved high fidelity made its appearance when RCA began using magnetic tape on a regular basis. High fidelity quickly became the norm for the company and the industry. NBC Radio followed, adopting the new technology in the fall of 1949 for its NBC Symphony broadcasts, among others. The first Toscanini recording sessions in Carnegie Hall followed immediately thereafter, although individual takes continued as with 78's, each running only about 4-1/2 minutes. RCA continued in this vein with 7-inch tape reels until 1953 when long takes on 10-inch reels were finally implemented for the recording of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. With RCA's experiments in stereo beginning in early 1953 when two-track decks were first delivered by the engineers to the record producers (per Jack Pfeiffer, 11/77 interview, NYC, by CWR), stereo tapes were eventually made of Toscanini's final two broadcast concerts, plus the dress rehearsal for the final broadcast, as documented by Samuel Antek in This Was Toscanini and by Pfeiffer. These followed test sessions in New York's Manhattan Center in December of Delibes with members of the Boston Symphony under Pierre Monteux, in February 1954 with the full Boston Symphony under Charles Munch in Berlioz' Damnation of Faust , and in early March with the NBC Symphony in Manhattan Center again under Stokowski doing the Beethoven Pastoral symphony. For Toscanini, later in March and in early April, the microphones were placed relatively close to the orchestra with limited separation, so the stereo effects were not as dramatic as the commercial "Living Stereo" recordings RCA Victor began to make in March with the Chicago Symphony a couple of weeks earlier . (The two Toscanini concerts recorded in stereo have been issued on LP and CD and have also been offered for download in digitally enhanced sound by Pristine Classical, a company which produces digitally enhanced versions of older classical recordings.) Two days after the final concert, Guido Cantelli took the podium in a hastily organized session to record the Franck SYMPHONY for RCA Victor using the same microphone and equipment set-up put in place for the Maestro, and the stereo version of the recording was finally released on LP by RCA in 1979 (EMI holds the rights and has issued several CD versions). Toscanini's June sessions were done monophonically, the tapes being intended as inserts in otherwise complete monophonic recordings.
One more example of Toscanini and the NBC Symphony in stereo now also exists in a commercially available edition. This one is of the January 27, 1951 concert devoted to the Verdi Requiem, previously recorded and released in high-fidelity monophonic sound by RCA Victor. Recently a separate NBC tape of the same performance, using a different microphone in a different location, was acquired by Pristine Audio. Using modern digital technology the company constructed a stereophonic version of the performance from the two recordings which it made available in 2009. The company calls this an example of "accidental stereo".
Among his most critically acclaimed recordings are the following (with the NBC Symphony unless otherwise shown):
(Many of these were never released officially during Toscanini's lifetime)
There are many pieces which Toscanini never recorded in the studio; among these, some of the most-interesting-surviving recordings (off-the-air) include:
Many hundreds of hours of Toscanini's rehearsals were recorded. Some of these have circulated in limited edition recordings. Many broadcast recordings with orchestras other than the NBC have also survived, including: The New York Philharmonic from 1933 to 1936, 1942, and 1945; The BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1935 to 1939; The Lucerne Festival Orchestra; and broadcasts from the Salzburg Festival in the late 1930s. Documents of Toscanini's guest appearances with the La Scala Orchestra from 1946 until 1952 include a live recording of Verdi's Requiem with the young Renata Tebaldi. Toscanini's ten NBC Symphony telecasts from 1948 until 1952 were preserved in kinescope films of the live broadcasts. These films, issued by RCA on VHS tape and laser disc and on DVD by Testament, provide unique video documentation of the passionate yet restrained podium technique for which he was well known.
A guide to Toscanini's recording career can be found in Mortimer H. Frank's "From the Pit to the Podium: Toscanini in America" in International Classical Record Collector (1998, 15 8–21) and Christopher Dyment's "Toscanini's European Inheritance" in International Classical Record Collector (1998, 15 22–8). Frank and Dyment also discuss Maestro Toscanini's performance history in the 50th anniversary issue of Classic Record Collector (2006, 47) Frank with 'Toscanini – Myth and Reality' (10–14) and Dyment 'A Whirlwind in London' (15–21) This issue also contains interviews with people who performed with Toscanini – Jon Tolansky 'Licia Albanese – Maestro and Me' (22–6) and 'A Mesmerising Beat: John Tolansky talks to some of those who worked with Arturo Toscanini, to discover some of the secrets of his hold over singers, orchestras and audiences.' (34–7). There is also a feature article on Toscanini's interpretation of Brahms's First Symphony – Norman C. Nelson, 'First Among Equals Toscanini's interpretation of Brahms's First Symphony in the context of others' (28–33)
In 1969, Clyde J. Key acted on a dream he had of meeting Toscanini by starting the Arturo Toscanini Society to release a number of "unapproved" live performances by Toscanini. As the magazine Time reported, Key scoured the U.S. and Europe for off-the-air transcriptions of Toscanini broadcasts, acquiring almost 5,000 transcriptions (all transferred to tape) of previously unreleased material—a complete catalogue of broadcasts by the Maestro between 1933 and 1954. It included about 50 concerts that were never broadcast, but which were recorded surreptitiously by engineers supposedly testing their equipment.
A private, nonprofit club based in Dumas, Texas, it offered members five or six LPs annually for a $25-a-year membership fee. Key's first package offering included Brahms' German Requiem, Haydn's Symphonies Nos. 88 and 104, and Richard Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, all NBC Symphony broadcasts dating from the late 1930s or early 1940s. In 1970, the Society releases included Sibelius' Symphony No. 4, Mendelssohn's "Scottish" Symphony, dating from the same NBC period; and a Rossini-Verdi-Puccini LP emanating from the post-War reopening of La Scala on May 11, 1946, with the Maestro conducting. That same year it released a Beethoven bicentennial set that included the 1935 Missa Solemnis with the Philharmonic and LPs of the 1948 televised concert of the ninth symphony taken from an FM radio transcription, complete with Ben Grauer's comments. (In the early 1990s, the kinescopes of these and the other televised concerts were released by RCA with soundtracks dubbed in from the NBC radio transcriptions; in 2006, they were re-released by Testament on DVD.)
Additional releases included a number of Beethoven symphonies recorded with the New York Philharmonic during the 1930s, a performance of Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 27 on February 20, 1936, at which Rudolf Serkin made his New York debut, and one of the most celebrated underground Toscanini recordings of all, the legendary 1940 broadcast version of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, which has better soloists (Zinka Milanov, Jussi Bjoerling, both in their prime) and a more powerful style than the 1953 RCA Victor studio recording, although the microphone placement was kinder to the soloists in 1953.
Because the Arturo Toscanini Society was nonprofit, Key said he believed he had successfully bypassed both copyright restrictions and the maze of contractual ties between RCA and the Maestro's family. However, RCA's attorneys were soon looking into the matter to see if they agreed. As long as it stayed small, the Society appeared to offer little real competition to RCA. But classical-LP profits were low enough even in 1970, and piracy by fly-by-night firms so prevalent within the industry at that time (an estimated $100 million in tape sales for 1969 alone), that even a benevolent buccaneer outfit like the Arturo Toscanini Society had to be looked at twice before it could be tolerated.
Magazine and newspaper reports subsequently detailed legal action taken against Key and the Society, presumably after some of the LPs began to appear in retail stores. Toscanini fans and record collectors were dismayed because, although Toscanini had not approved the release of these performances in every case, many of them were found to be further proof of the greatness of the Maestro's musical talents. One outstanding example of a remarkable performance not approved by the Maestro was his December 1948 NBC broadcast of Dvořák's Symphonic Variations, released on an LP by the Society. (A kinescope of the same performance, from the television simulcast, has been released on VHS and laser disc by RCA/BMG and on DVD by Testament.) There was speculation that the Toscanini family itself, prodded by his daughter Wanda, had sought to defend the Maestro's original decisions (made mostly during his last years) on what should be released. Walter Toscanini later admitted that his father likely rejected performances that were satisfactory. Whatever the real reasons, the Arturo Toscanini Society was forced to disband and cease releasing any further recordings.
Arturo Toscanini was one of the first conductors to make extended appearances on live television. Between 1948 and 1952, he conducted ten concerts telecast on NBC, including a two-part concert performance of Verdi's complete opera Aida starring Herva Nelli and Richard Tucker, and the first complete telecast of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. All of these were simulcast on radio. These concerts were all shown only once during that four-year span, but they were preserved on kinescopes.
The telecasts began on March 20, 1948, with an all-Wagner program, including the Prelude to Act III of Lohengrin; the overture and bacchanale from Tannhäuser; "Forest Murmurs" from Siegfried; "Dawn and Siegfried's Rhine Journey" from Götterdämmerung; and "The Ride of the Valkyries" from Die Walküre. On the very same day that this concert was telecast live, conductor Eugene Ormandy also made his live television concert debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra. They performed Weber's overture to Der Freischutz and Rachmaninoff's Symphony no. 1, which had been recently rediscovered. The Ormandy concert was telecast by rival network CBS, but the schedules were arranged so that the two programs would not interfere with one another.
Less than a month after the first Toscanini televised concert, a complete performance by the conductor of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony was telecast on April 3, 1948. On November 13, 1948, there was an all-Brahms program, including the Concerto for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra in A minor (Mischa Mischakoff, violin; Frank Miller, cello); Liebeslieder-Walzer, Op. 52 (with two pianists and a small chorus); and Hungarian Dance No. 1 in G minor. On December 3, 1948, Toscanini conducted Mozart's Symphony No. 40 in G minor; Dvořák's Symphonic Variations; and Wagner's original overture to Tannhäuser.
There were two Toscanini telecasts in 1949, both devoted to the concert performance of Verdi's Aida from studio 8H. Acts I and II were telecast on March 26 and III and IV on April 2. Portions of the audio were rerecorded in June 1954 for the commercial release on LP records. As the video shows, the soloists were placed close to Toscanini, in front of the orchestra, while the robed members of the Robert Shaw Chorale were on risers behind the orchestra.
There were no Toscanini telecasts in 1950, but they resumed from Carnegie Hall on November 3, 1951, with Weber's overture to Euryanthe and Brahms' Symphony No. 1. On December 29, 1951, there was another all-Wagner program that included the two excerpts from Siegfried and Die Walküre featured on the March 1948 telecast, plus the Prelude to Act II of Lohengrin; the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde; and "Siegfried's Death and Funeral Music" from Götterdämmerung.
On March 15, 1952, Toscanini conducted the Symphonic Interlude from Franck's Rédemption; Sibelius's En saga; Debussy's "Nuages" and "Fetes" from Nocturnes; and the overture of Rossini's William Tell. The final live Toscanini telecast, on March 22, 1952, included Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, and Respighi's The Pines of Rome.
The NBC cameras were often left on Toscanini for extended periods, documenting not only his baton techniques but his deep involvement in the music. At the end of a piece, Toscanini generally nodded rather than bowed and exited the stage quickly. Although NBC continued to broadcast the orchestra on radio until April 1954, telecasts were abandoned after March 1952.
As part of a restoration project initiated by the Toscanini family in the late 1980s, the kinescopes were fully restored and issued by RCA on VHS and laser disc beginning in 1989. The audio portion of the sound was taken, not from the noisy kinescopes, but from 33-1/3 rpm 16-inch transcription disc and high fidelity audio tape recordings made simultaneously by RCA technicians during the televised concerts. The hi-fi audio was synchronized with the kinescope video for the home video release. Original introductions by NBC's longtime announcer Ben Grauer were replaced with new commentary by Martin Bookspan. The entire group of Toscanini videos has since been reissued by Testament on DVD, with further improvements to the sound.
In December 1943, Toscanini made a 31-minute film for the United States Office of War Information called Hymn of the Nations, directed by Alexander Hammid. It was mostly filmed in NBC's Studio 8-H and consists of Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony in a performance of Verdi's Overture to La Forza del Destino and Verdi's "Hymn of the Nations" (Inno delle nazioni), which contains national anthems of England, France, and Italy (the World War I allied nations), to which Toscanini added the Soviet "Internationale" and "The Star Spangled Banner". Tenor Jan Peerce and the Westminster Choir performed in the latter work and the film was narrated by Burgess Meredith.
The film was released by RCA/BMG on DVD in 2004. By this time the "Internationale" had been cut from the 1943 film, but the complete "Hymn of the Nations" can still be heard in all releases of the audio recording of the film issued by RCA. Hymn of the Nations was nominated for a 1944 Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.
Toscanini: The Maestro is a 1985 documentary made for cable television. The film features archival footage of the conductor and interviews with musicians who worked with him. This film was released on VHS and in 2004 on the same DVD with Hymn of the Nations.
Toscanini is the subject of the 1988 fictionalized biography Il giovane Toscanini (Young Toscanini), starring C. Thomas Howell and Dame Elizabeth Taylor, and directed by Franco Zeffirelli. It received scathing reviews and was never officially released in the United States. The film is a fictional recounting of the events that led up to Toscanini making his conducting debut in Rio de Janeiro in 1886. Although nearly all of the plot is embellished, the events surrounding the sudden and unexpected conducting debut are based on fact.
Throughout his career, Toscanini was virtually idolized by the critics, as well as by most fellow musicians and the public alike. He enjoyed the kind of consistent critical acclaim during his life that few other musicians have had. He was featured three times on the cover of Time magazine, in 1926, 1934, and again in 1948. In the magazine's history, he is the only conductor to have been so honored. On March 25, 1989, the United States Postal Service issued a 25 cent postage stamp in his honor. While online critics such as Peter Gutmann have dismissed much of what was written about Toscanini during his lifetime and for about ten years afterwards as "adoring puffery", it neverthleless remains a fact that composers and others who worked with the Maestro readily acknowledged what they felt was his greatness, and audio interviews containing the praise of such luminaries as Aaron Copland still exist.
Over the past thirty years or so, however, as a new generation has appeared, there has been an increasing amount of revisionist criticism directed at Toscanini. These critics contend that Toscanini was ultimately a detriment to American music rather than an asset because of the tremendous marketing of him by RCA as the greatest conductor of all time and his preference to perform mostly older European music. According to Harvey Sachs, Mortimer Frank, and B. H. Haggin, this criticism can be traced to the lack of focus on Toscanini as a conductor rather than his legacy. Frank, in his 2002 book Toscanini: The NBC Years, rejects this revisionism quite strongly, and cites the author Joseph Horowitz (author of Understanding Toscanini) as perhaps the most extreme of these critics. Frank writes that this revisionism has unfairly influenced younger listeners and critics, who may have not heard as many of Toscanini's performances as older listeners, and as a result, Toscanini's reputation, extraordinarily high in the years that he was active, has suffered a decline. Conversely, Joseph Horowitz contends that those who keep the Toscanini legend alive are members of a "Toscanini cult", an idea not altogether refuted by Frank, but not embraced by him, either.
Some contemporary critics, particularly Virgil Thomson, also took Toscanini to task for not paying enough attention to the "modern repertoire" (i.e., 20th-century composers, of which Thomson was one). It may be speculated, knowing Toscanini's antipathy toward much 20th-century music, that perhaps Thomson had a feeling that the conductor would never have played any of his (Thomson's) music, and that perhaps because of this, Thomson bore a resentment against him. During Toscanini's middle years, however, such now widely accepted composers as Richard Strauss and Claude Debussy, whose music the conductor held in very high regard, were considered to be radical and modern. Toscanini also performed excerpts from Igor Stravinsky's Petrouchka, two of Dmitri Shostakovich's symphonies (nos.1 and 7), and three of George Gershwin's most famous works, Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, and the Piano Concerto in F, though his performances of these last three works have been criticized as not being "jazzy" enough.
Another criticism leveled at Toscanini stems from the constricted sound quality that comes from many of his recordings, notably those made in NBC's Studio 8-H. Studio 8-H was foremost a radio and later a television studio, not a true concert hall. Its dry acoustics lacking in much reverberation, while ideal for broadcasting, were unsuited for symphonic concerts and opera. However, it is widely believed that Toscanini favored it because its close miking enabled listeners to hear every instrumental strand in the orchestra clearly, something that the conductor strongly believed in.
Toscanini has also been criticized for metronomic (rhythmically too rigid) performances:
Others attacked the conductor on the ground that he was a slave to the metronome. They said that his beat was inexorable, that his rhythms were rigid, that he was an enemy of Italian song and a wrecker of the art of bel canto.
"When he was young as a conductor, it was complained of Toscanini that he held the tempo and rhythm of the music firmly to its course and that it had the mechanical exactitude of a metronome. "
Others state (and there is some evidence from the recordings) that Toscanini's tempos, quite flowing in his earlier recordings, became stricter as he got older, although this is not to be taken as a literally true statement.
Beginning in 1963, NBC Radio broadcast a weekly series of programs entitled Toscanini: The Man Behind The Legend, commemorating Toscanini's years with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The show, hosted by NBC announcer Ben Grauer, who had also hosted many of the original Toscanini broadcasts, featured interviews with members of the conductor's family, as well as musicians of the NBC Symphony, David Sarnoff, and noted classical musicians who had worked with the conductor, such as Giovanni Martinelli. It spotlighted partial or complete rebroadcasts of many of Toscanini's recordings. The program ran for at least three years, and did not feature any of the revisionist commentary about the conductor one finds so often today in magazines such as American Record Guide. The series was rebroadcast by PBS radio in the late 1970s.
In 1986, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts purchased the bulk of Toscanini's papers, scores and sound recordings from his heirs. Named The Toscanini Legacy, this vast collection contains thousands of letters, programs and various documents, over 1,800 scores and more than 400 hours of sound recordings. A finding aid for the scores and sound recordings is available on the library's website. In-house finding aids are available for other parts of the collection.
The library also has many other collections that have Toscanini materials in them, such as the Bruno Walter papers, the Fiorello H. La Guardia papers, and a collection of material from Rose Bampton.
In 1967, The Bell Telephone Hour telecast a program entitled Toscanini: The Maestro Revisited, written and narrated by New York Times music critic Harold C. Schonberg, and featuring commentary by conductors Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, Erich Leinsdorf and Milton Katims (who had played with the NBC Symphony Orchestra). The program also featured clips from two of Toscanini's television concerts, in the days before they were remastered for video and DVD.
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