Toscanini the Composer

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In his later years, Arturo Toscanini would always say that the reason he devoted his life to conducting the music of others was that he had no gift for composition himself. As proof of this, he would often cite his Berceuse for Piano and point to its structural weaknesses. Yet although he was correct about the inherent weakness of the Berceuse, overall it is not really a bad piece, just not a great one, and the songs he wrote are even more interesting, showing a musical mind that could have developed along interesting lines had he taken the time to develop it.

Eight of Toscanini’s songs, and the Berceuse, were recorded and issued on a Tactus CD, using three singers and a pianist from the Conservatory of Parma. These singers were sopranos Simone Cianchi, Dzenana Mustafic and Yuko Murakami along with pianist Raffaele Cortesi who acted as both accompanist and soloist in the Berceuse. The songs recorded were Spes ultima dea, Son gelosa, Fior di siepe, Desolazione, Nevrosi, Canto di Mignon, V’amo and Autumno, and they are surprising in several ways.

The first of these begins like so many Italian art songs of the period, except that Toscanini avoids the easy café-music style of F. Paolo Tosti and instead writes in an almost strophic form, using declamation more than a “pretty” melody. As sung here it is in F minor, with surprising modulations to A major and D-flat major. Indeed, as one goes through Toscanini’s music, harmonic restlessness is often a key factor in his compositional style. Perhaps he felt that this restlessness of harmonic movement prohibited him from writing music that his ear found acceptable, but I hear it as being influenced, or at least tinged, by the harmonic movement one finds in Wagner’s operas or Martucci’s orchestral music, both of which he greatly admired.

Son gelosa, in E major, is the most conventionally tuneful in form, an almost Tosti-like piece; even the bridge in the middle of the song resembles Tosti. This is perhaps the weakest of the songs he left us. Fior di siepe, on the other hand, begins in B-flat major but then quickly uses B-flat minor as a pivot to G-flat major before returning, but the harmony keeps slipping up and down chromatically in a most interesting manner. This is a style of writing music that did not really become common practice in Italy until the advent of the modernists like Ghedini in the 20th century, and their concept of musical form was far removed from this. I was reminded, when listening to Fior di siepe, of the kind of music that jazz composer Eddie Sauter wrote in the 1930s and ‘40s, music that sounded both tonal and harmonically fluid at the same time. The same sort of writing can be heard in Desolazione and Nevrosi (Neurosis), whereas Canto di Mignon returns to the strophic style of the first song, projecting more of a storytelling feeling to the song. V’amo uses the piano almost like a big guitar or lute, strumming arpeggiated chords behind the singer, while Autumno returns to the unusual shifting chord patterns of Fior di siepe.

Toscanini’s music, then, is not the work of an inspired genius, but it is far from the incompetent composer he said he was. It was a fair beginning for a young man who had already absorbed a great deal of the music around him and was soon to become one of the greatest and most influential conductors in the world. The bottom line is that he could have developed this talent if he devoted as much time and effort to it as he did to conducting. I don’t think that Toscanini could have really failed had he done so; but there is always the chance that he would not have gone too much further than he showed here, and he simply did not want to be a second-tier composer when he could be a first-tier conductor of others’ scores.

Interestingly, most of the conductors who were his contemporaries or a little younger who were also composers were even more staid and derivative than he. I have heard the music of Felix Weingartner, Bruno Walter and Wilhelm Furtwängler, and it is very derivative, lacking in inspiration and imagination. The only exception to this rule that I’ve ever run across was Igor Markevitch, whose music of the 1920s and ‘30s was utterly brilliant and original, but he ran into a “dark night of the soul” in the early 1940s, lost his muse, and then turned his full-time attention to conducting just as Toscanini had done. The sad thing was that Markevitch rarely programmed or conducted any of his music, and discouraged others from investigating it, thus it wasn’t until some decades after his death that listeners were re-introduced to his music, which even Stravinsky had praised.

I bring all this up because we so often read that one of the reasons Toscanini tampered with others’ scores, particularly in the orchestration but occasionally in adding or deleting bars of music, was because he was not a composer and therefore had no idea how music was really constructed. I hope that my analysis of his songs above will put some of that to rest, But I should also point out that although no one asked him to orchestrate Beethoven’s Septet or the String Quartet No. 16 in F, and he took quite a bit of heat for doing so, no one asked Felix Weingartner to orchestrate the same composer’s “Hammerklavier” Sonata, which is still occasionally played and recorded to this day, and which I find much more bombastic than Toscanini’s arrangement of the Septet, an early work that isn’t harmed in the least by his scoring.

Even more interesting, and not as commonly known, was Toscanini’s orchestration of Giuseppe Verdi’s 1873 String Quartet in E minor. This was given an outstanding reading by André Previn and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, and shows quite clearly that, whatever your opinion of the Beethoven Septet or the String Quartet, this is outstanding work. And I will tell you why. Giuseppe Verdi was no chamber music composer, however much he may have thought he was when he wrote this. He was an orchestral writer; his string quartet sounds like an orchestral piece in reductio because the cello and viola are used as counterpoint most of the time and not in any form of dialogue with the two violins. In other words, it’s an interesting piece but a mediocre string quartet per se, and Toscanini’s orchestration—following Verdi’s own methods of string writing very closely—brings this out magnificently. In his scoring, the quartet emerges as one of the finest Italian pieces for string orchestra of the 19th century, and the music is far from banal, as is often claimed when it is played by a string quartet. The extra color that Toscanini brought out in it makes it fully effective.

But what can we gain, or infer, from this? I would postulate that it shows that Toscanini had a dual nature: one that could appreciate and understand music of a dark and moody quality, but also one that could quickly and rationally analyze a score from a structural viewpoint and make adjustments therein. These qualities are what led him to judge all music by both its emotional impact on him (particularly if the music imitated nature, which he loved and was in awe of) as long as it had a rational and “understandable” structure. For this reason he was drawn, for instance, to the amorphous but still structured music of Wagner and Debussy, but not to the music of Mahler which consistently broke the rules and seemed to be “all over the place.” If it wasn’t orderly in his mind, it wasn’t music he cared much about; and if it was orderly but had no feeling in it, he would reject it as dull and unworthy of his energy, as he was eventually to do with the symphonies of Bruckner.

Before leaving a discussion of Toscanini the composer-arranger, I must bring up one of the most overlooked of all his projects, the orchestration of Giacomo Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. The composer was hard up against the deadline set for him by Metropolitan Opera manager Giulio Gatti-Casazza, and turned to his old friend and colleague to help him get the opera in performing condition in time for the scheduled premiere. Toscanini was busy rehearsing other operas and wasn’t very happy about being pressed into service this way, but he obliged. I would argue that, except for Turandot, La Fanciulla del West is the finest-scored of all of Puccini’s operas, with Madama Butterfly coming in third place. This does not mean that I like Fanciulla; I don’t. I find it a pretentious piece of overblown claptrap from first note to last, a piece of junk that doesn’t even come up to Puccini’s work in Il Tabarro or Gianni Schicchi, operas that are often considered second-drawer Puccini because they are not tuneful. But listen carefully to the orchestral score of La Fanciulla and I think you’ll hear what I mean. Particularly in the use of the brass and winds, it sounds nothing like any other score that Puccini himself wrote, not even Turandot. But Toscanini never put his name on the score, even as arranger; he left all the credit to Puccini. I don’t think this was false modesty. I think Toscanini’s ambivalent attitude towards Puccini’s operas—he had a soft spot in his heart for La Bohème, which he conducted and recorded in 1946 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the opera’s premiere, but always warned sopranos away from most Puccini roles as voice-wreckers and told colleagues that “Puccini was very clever, but only clever”—he just didn’t want his name connected with a work that, though he conducted the world premiere, he considered inferior music.

— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley

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