Why did Arturo Toscanini Come to NBC?

Toscanini 1940 by Horst p. Horst

Toscanini 1940 by Horst P. Horst

One of the most puzzling moves in the history of Arturo Toscanini’s long career, which has long stumped those who knew his proclivities, was why he agreed to a long-term contract with NBC and its house symphony orchestra. The reason it is puzzling is that throughout his career to that point (1937), he had stubbornly and consistently resisted most attempts to record him and even to limit attempts to broadcast him. After his initial flurry of acoustic recordings in 1920-21, which he detested and called “a waste of precious time and energy, worthless,” he did not record again until 1926, a single disc (two sides) for the American Brunswick company. Apparently he had been intrigued to let them record him due to positive results he had heard in others’ recordings for the label, but after hearing the finished record he decided not to pursue them. That same year his son Walter had recorded him, without his knowledge, in rehearsal at La Scala. When the old man found out about it, he hit the roof and forbade him to try any such thing again.

The tentative relationship that Toscanini had with recording began to thaw, just a little, with a very fine series of recordings—including full recordings of the Mozart “Haffner” and Haydn “Clock” Symphonies—for Victor in 1929. RCA, the parent company, then entered into a sensitive relationship with the Maestro, offering to record—in live concert—a performance of the Beethoven Fifth. Two attempts were made, in 1931 and 1933; both survive but both were rejected by the conductor because the softest passages were almost inaudible. When he was in London conducting the BBC Symphony in 1935, he was approached by the BBC to let them record his concerts, the decision to issue them being his and his alone, but Toscanini adamantly refused. Fortunately for posterity, his close friend Adrian Boult ignored his recording ban and had several outstanding performances recorded, which were issued by EMI many years later.

AT BBCWhen Toscanini broadcast from Salzburg in 1936 and ’37, he insisted that they be shortwave broadcasts only because he knew that shortwave distorted the sound just enough that most people wouldn’t be encouraged to record the broadcasts. Then, when he returned to London in 1937, he was finally persuaded to record with the BBC Symphony (an orchestra he loved as much as his own New York Philharmonic) as long as RCA Victor, to whom he had become quite loyal, be the ones to issue the records in the U.S. Yet there were still many concerts secretly recorded that only came to light decades later, such as a fabulous Beethoven Fifth from 1939, a Missa Solemnis from the same year, and his greatest performance of the Verdi Requiem from 1937.

Thus it has always seemed inconsistent with his temperament that Toscanini suddenly agreed, in early 1937, to a long-term contract with a radio orchestra, and moreover agree in this contract to allow NBC-RCA to record him constantly…not just studio recordings and the broadcasts, but also all rehearsals, something he had theretofore resisted like the devil.

Little pieces of the truth as to why he agreed to this came out of Harvey Sachs’ 1978 biography, Toscanini, as well as from Norman Lebrecht’s book Who Killed Classical Music?, but some of the missing links were still missing.

Quite a few of them are now provided via an amazing doctoral dissertation written by Donald Carl Meyer at the University of California, Davis in 1994. The NBC Symphony Orchestra takes the story far beyond that of just Toscanini and his NBC broadcasts. It even goes further than to debunk the theories of hard-line foes of Toscanini like Joseph Horowitz (Understanding Toscanini) and Lebrecht (The Maestro Myth) that Toscanini was “bad” for American music because he conducted so few modern works during his tenure there. Possibly the most amazing part of this very long dissertation is the revelation that there was an NBC Symphony well before Toscanini came to the network, that this NBC Symphony participated (even during Toscanini’s tenure) on other arts programs such as the Magic Key broadcasts as well as The Voice of Firestone and other programs featuring opera and concert singers, in addition to Walter Damrosch’s musical education shows and a ton of other programming. And in these programs there was a great deal of new music, particularly American music, premiered. Moreover, Meyer’s appendix and chronology of the Toscanini years, which runs over 100 pages, gives us the full programs of every single NBC Symphony broadcast including those of all the guest conductors. And guess what? There was a TON of new music, and music seldom heard in America at the time such as Mahler, Delius, Griffes and Tailleferre, being broadcast REGULARLY by the NBC Symphony under its guest conductors. I started to make a list and just ran out of time, but here’s a sampling of just the first couple of years:

11-20-1937 Pierre Monteux:
Griffes: Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan

11-27-1937 Pierre Monteux:
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite
Tailleferre: Overture to an Opera Buffe
Isadore Freed: Adagio from Jeux de Timbres (cond. by the composer)

12-4-1937 Artur Rodzinski
Albeniz: Triana

3-12-1938 Carlos Chávez
Chávez: Sinfonia India
Chávez: Sinfonia de Antigone

3-19-1938 Carlos Chávez
Halffter: Sonatina – Danse de Bergère

3-26-1938 Howard Hanson
Hanson: Symphony No. 3 (first complete performance)

4-2-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Dohnányi: Suite for Orchestra

4-9-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5 (American premiere)
Albéniz: Ibéria – Fête Dieu à Seville

4-16-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Schreker: The Birthday of the Infanta – Orchestral suite

4-23-1938 Hugh Ross
Delius: The Mass of Life (soloists Julia Peters, sop; Lillian Knowles, alto; Fred
Hufsmith, tenor; Robert Nicholson, baritone)

4-30-1938 Pierre Monteux
Dukas: Le Péri

5-8-1938 Magic Key Variety Hour, NBC Symph. cond. by Walter Damrosch
Lekeu: Adagio for Strings
Honegger: Pacific 231
Philip James: Radio Station WGZBX: 4th mvmt

5-21-1938 Adrian Boult
Holst: A Fugal Concerto
Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 4
Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad

12-10-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Starakodomsky: Concerto for Orchestra (first NY performance)
Stravinsky: Firebird Suite

12-17-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Hindemith: Mathis der Maler

12-31-1938 Artur Rodzinski
Scriabin: Symphony No. 3 (Le Divin Poème)

4-8-1939 Bruno Walter
Mahler: Symphony No. 1

4-22-1939 Opera broadcast, Alberto Erede
Menotti: The Old Man and the Thief (world premiere)

5-21-1939 Hans Wilhelm (William) Steinberg:
Singalilia: Overture to Le Baruffe Chiozzote

5-25-1939 Frank Black
Gilbert: Riders to the Sea
Harold Morris: Violin Concerto (world premiere)
Spialek: Sinfonietta

5-28-1939 “Summer Symphony,” Hans Wilhelm (William) Steinberg
Langstreth: Scherzo
Haussermann: Symphony No. 1

You (and Joseph Horowitz) may complain that these were not TOSCANINI broadcasts, and he was the flagship conductor of the orchestra, but so what? They were played by the NBC Symphony, and I’m willing to bet you that the majority of music lovers tuned in every week to see who was conducting and what was being played, not just the 12-15 concerts per years conducted by Toscanini.

But what I found most interesting about this dissertation, when put together with what I learned from Harvey Sachs’ Toscanini and Norman Lebrecht’s Who Killed Classical Music?, is something not exactly spelled out by any one of them but a cross-reference of implications that seem to be conclusive. And that is this:

Arthur Judson, founder and head of Columbia Artists’ Management, also had an iron grip on the New York Philharmonic-Symphony as it was known in those days. He was a ruthless autocrat who appreciated good talent but did not like strong-willed artists. He demanded that all artists he promoted buckle under to him. Toscanini did not fit this mold. Neither did Wilhelm Furtwängler, but Judson brought Furtwängler over to the Philharmonic for the express purpose of nudging Toscanini to quit.

But the opposite happened. Although Toscanini disapproved of Furtwängler’s wild tempo fluctuations in symphonic music, he admired him as a “serious artist” whereas he began to think that Willem Mengelberg, his co-music director, was a charlatan. Judson purposely sabotaged Furtwängler at every turn, and thought he had created a feud between him and Toscanini when the Italian conductor could not begin one season on time because of bad arthritis in his conducting shoulder. The Beethoven Ninth that had been promised to Toscanini was thus given to Furtwängler, who conducted assiduous rehearsals of the orchestra, chorus and soloists.

The plan backfired in a way when Toscanini suddenly announced that he was feeling much better and would be able to return to New York in time for the Beethoven Ninth. Judson immediately pulled Furtwängler from the project and gave it back to Toscanini. The Italian conductor was amazed at the high level of technical proficiency to which they had been rehearsed, and asked them who had done this work. They told him, Furtwängler. But the German conductor, thinking that Toscanini had demanded that the Beethoven Ninth be returned to him, was very bitter and held it against him…this, then, was the origination of the bitter Toscanini-Furtwängler feud.

It also didn’t help that after two seasons, Judson decided not to renew Furtwängler’s contract. His concerts didn’t draw as many people as did Toscanini’s, he reasoned, so the German conductor could just go back to the Berlin Philharmonic. What he didn’t count on was that Toscanini blew up and insisted that Furtwängler stay; it was Mengelberg he wanted gone. This was the first real open battle between Toscanini and Judson.

The second battle came from within. Mengelberg began talking badly about Toscanini to the musicians in rehearsals; eventually it got so bad that Toscanini demanded that he be fired. In a rare concession to Toscanini, who was a major meal ticket, Judson and the Board agreed, but the war was just starting. During the early 1930s Judson hired guest conductors of whom Toscanini did not approve, such as Sir Thomas Beecham, and this angered Toscanini even more.

AT NYPO farewell concert 1936

People camping out to buy tickets for Toscanini’s “farewell” concert with the New York Philharmonic, April 1936

By the time his contract was to expire at the end of the 1936 season, Toscanini had had enough. He resigned as much as a thumb in the eye of Judson as for any other reason. But he had two last parting shots upon leaving. One was that, when he was asked who he would recommend as his successor, he named Furtwängler. A lot of people think he was being facetious, but Toscanini wasn’t that kind of man. He recommended Furtwängler because he knew he would maintain the musical discipline he had worked so hard to build up in the orchestra and also because he wanted to give him a way out of the Third Reich.

Furtwängler gladly accepted, but the heavily Jewish board members of the Philharmonic opposed him on the grounds that he was a Nazi, which he was not. Furtwängler was crushed by their decision, but Toscanini was told that Furtwängler had turned down the position. His next recommendation was his friend Artur Rodzinski. Rodzinski was just as strong-willed as Toscanini, so that was out, too.

The naming of the pleasant but ill-equipped John Barbirolli as the new music director of the Philharmonic made Toscanini very angry. He knew Barbirolli and liked him personally, but knew he was a tyro at leading a large, strong-willed group of virtuosi like the Philharmonic. Thus, through all of this, the seeds of revenge began to grow in him.

This explains a great deal as to why Toscanini, who had just left the New York Philharmonic, agreed to return to New York to lead an orchestra to directly compete with them and Judson. When you combine this with the fact that Toscanini had “brand loyalty” to NBC’s record division, Victor, even recording with them while “his” orchestra was being broadcast on CBS (when asked to make records in London with the BBC Philharmonic, Toscanini was only mollified when he learned that Victor would have the rights to issue the records in the United States), plus the fact that his friend and supporter Samuel Chotzinoff was the liaison for David Sarnoff in the negotiations with Toscanini to come to NBC, you start to realize that he was anxious for revenge and long viewed NBC-RCA as a congenial entity rather than as a big, evil corporation.

AT & Horowitz

Toscanini and his son-in-law, Vladimir Horowitz, c. 1941

Another factor, often ignored, is that from 1942 through 1945, during the years when Toscanini was conducting less concerts with the NBC Symphony (this includes the period during which Leopold Stokowski was its music director), is that he conducted some major concerts with the New York Philharmonic, some of them unrecorded. One such was the American premiere of Berlioz’ Romeo et Juliette Symphony, with Jennie Tourel as soloist…not a modern work, to be sure, but with the exception of Monteux no one else in America at that time was performing much, if any, Berlioz in America.

You can find information on the dissertation here for your edification. It is a fascinating read, written in a lively style most unlike many such papers I have read, and covering many interesting facts, nooks and crannies of the American radio broadcasting industry during the NBC Symphony era.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I have!

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

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2 thoughts on “Why did Arturo Toscanini Come to NBC?

  1. Slick Slick says:

    When the NBC SO was auditioned/formed in 1937, 1/3 of the selected musicians (31) were already NBC (radio) staffers. The NBC SO players were salaried for 30 hours a week, but only 15 of those hours budgeted for NBC SO—so they were playing not only other “classical” orchestral performances, but the radio entertainment shows, too. With the postwar ramp-up of TV, some were even doing programs like “Howdy Doody,” Cities Service Band, etc. I haven’t read Meyer in a while, but I believe he notes that in 1937 everyone (except for the occasional “extra”) who played for Toscanini was on full-time contract at NBC. By the early 1950s, there was just a medium-sized “core” (an orchestra of about 55) getting the full-time salaries; the rest (string players, basically) were per-service hires to fill out “Toscanini’s” orchestra to 90-ish players. Even some NY Phil strings did some of this playing when schedules permitted (NY Phil noted, “we can’t forbid them.”).


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