NBC Symphony Myths Debunked

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Here are a couple of the worst ones.

No. 1: “The Acoustics Were Perfect”

From p. 97 of Donald Carl Meyer’s dissertation, The NBC Symphony Orchestra:

Engineers also have taken advantage of the daily rehearsals of the ninety-two-piece orchestra under Dr. Rodzinski to conduct an elaborate series of experiments in acoustics and microphone placement in the huge Studio 8-H at Radio City …In the course of these tests, N.B.C. marshaled critical musical experts to listen in on rehearsals over a loudspeaker system and “piped” the music into its laboratories where engineers under the supervision of O. B. Hanson made scientific tests of the absolute tone quality of the transmissions.

Studio 8-H, largest in the world, was carefully checked to detect any possible distortion of tone or loss of richness even when the music of the orchestra swelled to its greatest volume. Following these experiments, experts said they were satisfied that the studio was ideally designed for the performances of the new symphonic group.

Specially calibrated microphones, like those used in the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, have been installed to bring the symphony concerts to the radio audiences. These microphones receive sound from a heart-shaped area in front. All extraneous noises from rear and sides of the microphone are eliminated.[1]

Reality:

Studio 8-H had dry, boxy acoustics because prior to Toscanini’s arrival it had been a radio program studio, and the goal of most radio shows was to minimize sound reverberation in order to provide perfectly clear reception. In terms of a musical group, however, it tended to make the sound cramped and two-dimensional, as if all the instruments in the orchestra were linedupinarowjustlikethis. Ironically, this artificially dry and claustrophobic sound suited Toscanini to a T. The Italian conductor had suffered some hearing loss over the years, most notably when leading an Italian army band on the Western front during World War I, and although there were still some sounds he could hear more clearly than other people his ability to hear the upper range in instruments had become dulled. When listening to transcripts of his Studio 8-H broadcasts, he was very pleased whereas others were appalled because he could hear all the instruments just as clearly as he could on the podium.

As a result of this, NBC stopped trying to improve the studio for a few years, though it was “sweetened” a bit in 1941. But the dry, airless sound of Toscanini’s studio recordings and most of his broadcasts during those years are part of the reason so many modern listeners dislike him. The sound is not merely substandard for its time, it is wholly artificial. No orchestra in the world sounds, or sounded, like that. The cramping of sound made the strings, already rather bright due to the presence of so many first-chair players, sound brittle and even harsh at times, and the same thing applied to the winds and brass.

In addition to all this, the NBC Symphony had a quintessentially “American” sound. We are much more used to this sort of sound nowadays, particularly when our orchestras play in spacious concert halls where the natural reverb makes them more pleasant, but in the late 1930s people were used to the sweeter tones of most European musicians who dominated the Boston, New York and Philadelphia Orchestras. Even comparing the late-‘30s performances of the NBC Symphony to contemporary broadcasts and recordings of the Lucerne Festival and BBC Symphony Orchestras under Toscanini, playing the exact same repertoire, shows how different the basic sound of the orchestra was. Two very good comparisons are the 1938 performance of the Brahms Third Symphony and the Schubert Second to contemporaneous performances by NBC. Despite the maddening limitations of shortwave broadcast sound, where occasional stretches of the music are distorted by what sounds like a “washing”effect, the Lucerne strings (led by Toscanini’s close friend, Adolf Busch, as concertmaster) and winds not only sound sweeter but have greater sweep. Passages that sound a bit choppy when played by NBC sound wonderful and smooth when played by Lucerne. And then there are the BBC Symphony and NBC Syhmphony 1939 performances of the Beethoven Fifth. The former is one of the greatest recorded performances in Toscanini’s entire discography, while the latter’s rhythm is so metronomic and the sound quality so cramped that it sounds like a hack job.

The acoustics were undoubtedly the major factor in these differences. The Lucerne Festival performances were given in a fine concert hall with natural reverb while the BBC Symphony ones were given in Queen’s Hall, an acoustically perfect venue that was sadly destroyed by German bombs in World War II. In these settings, the wide dynamic range that Toscanini typically drew from an orchestra add greatly to our enjoyment. In Studio 8-H, these gradations of dynamics were severely circumscribed.

One can tell to a much greater extent how this impacted Toscanini’s performances in the overtures to Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride. These are well enough known to most classical listeners to illustrate my point perfectly. The almost whispering quietude required after the opening bars in both overtures is not heard in the transcripts of Toscanini’s broadcasts of them; on the contrary, the sound is “flattened out” so that the soft passages are only a bit softer than the loud opening. Yet we know that Toscanini was almost fanatically obsessed with dynamics as well as orchestral balance, which are probably the reasons he never allowed either overture to be released commercially. If you take the time to edit these recordings using an audio editor, however, following the score and carefully grading the volume up and down as the music indicates, you will find that they are superb performances. Yet they don’t sound that way in their raw state.

After a while, NBC/RCA just seemed to give up on Toscanini’s broadcasts and assigned whatever engineer was available at the time, with the admonition, “Make sure he can hear all the instruments.” Yet as B.H. Haggin pointed out, one sngineer with the last name of Slick found a perfect place to hang the microphones, and pushed a few rows of seats back just enough, to allow for some air around the instruments. He even left a detailed notation of where this microphone placement was. But his fellow engineers, wanting to show how clever they were, ignored his instructions and just did things their way. Sometimes they came close to the sound that Slick achieved, but never quite as good; most of the time, the sound was considerably worse. And this trend continued throughout the NBC Symphony’s 17-year career. Even such a master of acoustic balancing like Leopold Stokowski, when conducting the NBC Symphony, could just barely modify their sound enough to sound a tiny bit less harsh.

This is why I have referred to Toscanini’s NBC years as “the mirror of Narcissus.” Like the mythical Greek figure, the Italian conductor wanted the sound of his orchestra to reflect his idea of musical sound and his alone. It is true that he appreciated it when engineers were able to give more resonance to the sound while still retaining that X-ray clarity, but for him the X-ray clarity always came first. One infamous exmaple of Toscanini tinkering with a recording after it was made was his 1941 recording of the final scene from Götterdämmerung with soprano Helen Traubel. Traubel’s singing was magnificent, as was the playing of the orchestra, but when listening to the playback in his home Toscanini complained that the solo trumpet wasn’t clear enough. Haggin, listening along with him, said he could hear the trumpet just fine, and to dub it over again might damage the beautiful sound of the original recording, but Toscanini would not be deterred. He insisted on having RCA let him re-dub the trumpet part, and in doing so it somehow created a low-level electronic hum in the bass range which sometimes distorted Traubel’s singing. When she finally heard it, the soprano was incensed at what Toscanini had done, but the conductor was happier. Now you could hear the trumpet more clearly! Traubel wouldn’t even speak to him for six years after that.

Another reason the orchestra sounded better at times is that, after the first few years, the personnel changed, and depending on who was in the string and wind sections, the orchestra could sound considerably different. But by and large, one has to work at restoring a more natural sound to Toscanini’s NBC Symphony recordings in order for modern listeners to appreciate what he accomplished. Happily, a great many of his recordings have been so enhanced, although in the early days—meaning the hi-fi era of the 1950s—RCA sometimes went overboard in brightening the sound and adding reverb. Sometimes it worked, but many times it didn’t. The same was true of the “electronically enhanced stereo” added to Toscanini recordings in the late 1960s. As time has gone on, however, remastering techniques have improved, so much so that nowadays a musically sensitive listener can “genetically modify” Toscanini recordings to his or her own preferences.

And so they should be.

Myth #2: “All the critics thought Toscanini the greatest conductor.”

This has been pushed primarily by Joseph Horowitz, but even in 1959 Robert Charles Marsh made clear that there were critics as far back as 1929-30, when Toscanini was still at the New York Philharmonic, who complained that all he cared about was “the perfection of the machine,” i.e., that he only cared about perfect execution and clarity. A lot of this, however, was the work of those who preferred Willem Mengelberg’s looser approach to music.

But in the late 1930s, the anti-Toscanini press became more vociferous, particularly from the music critics of the New York Herald-Tribune. Happily, Meyer explains this as well. on p. 102 of his dissertation, he asserts that:

The New York Herald-Tribune, which was generally considered a partisan of the Philharmonic—its music critics were the program annotators [bold print mine]—now consented to review one of the benefits, as if performing in Carnegie gave the orchestra legitimacy. Of course, just the day before the Herald-Tribune had run a feature article on the problems with the “cult” of conductors. The animosity between the two orchestras, though subtle, still lingered.

This explains a great deal, particularly the extraordinary animosity shown towards Toscanini by The Herald-Tribune’s most famous and distinguished music critic, composer Virgil Thomson. For many decades, it was thought that Thomson went after Toscanini because the conductor never performed any of his works, and that may be true, but now I’m starting to think that Toscanini never performed any of Thomson’s music because he went after him. Most people fail to recall, if they ever knew, that in addition to the “trifles” of Ferde Grofé and George Gershwin, Toscanini also performed the music of such noted American composers as Samuel Barber, George Templeton Strong, Charles Loeffler, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Paul Creston, Charles Tomlinson Griffes and Morton Gould. Thomson’s essentially tonal style would certainly have appealed to him, but with the distinguished critic-composer bashing him weekly in the newspapers, why should he bother? (Even Haggin was puzzled by this, writing that in most things he wrote Thomson was an observant and accurate reporter on musical events, but when it came to Toscanini he brought out the bludgeon.)

And there was yet another critic, who chose to stay anonymous, who wrote for Time magazine. In the issue of December 11, 1939, there was a highly insulting article referring to the conductor’s audience as “Toscaninnies.” He insulted them for attending the concerts as if they were at church, taking cough drops to suppress their phlegm and holding programs printed on silk to avoid paper rustling during the concerts. (This part is true: NBC printed the programs on silk for this reason, later switching to cardboard.) They were cruelly mocked for “blindly” applauding anything and everything the Maestro did and of being part of a cult—undoubtedly the origin of the term, “The Toscanini Cult..” I’m pretty positive that this same critic, reviewing a 1945 concert in Time by Toscanini’s friend William Steinberg, said that he conducted much like his mentor, “loud and bombastic.”

As we can see, then, much of the Toscanini-bashing written during his active career was politically motivated. If we put two and two together, it’s quite possible that these critics were being urged, and perhaps even being paid, to do so by the ever-acrimonious Arthur Judson.

You have to take a lot of what you read about Toscanini, then, with a grain of salt, both the overhype and the bashing. Yes, much of the former came from the RCA publicity department, but we must recall that they gave the same treatment to conductors that Horowitz preferred such as Stokowski and Koussevitzky. Publicity was publicity, and exaggerated claims were made for every conductor that every record company was trying to promote.

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Before signing off, I just had to include this great letter. In the late 1930s a lot of “civic organizations” with high-minded cultural ideas in the U.S. were trying to book Arturo Toscanini to conduct in their towns and cities, but they somehow expected him to play for peanuts. I mean, after all, it was the DEPRESSION, you know, and we can’t all afford New York prices! But of course Toscanini wasn’t going to perform for nothing, or for union scale, so NBC had to try to negotiate a proper fee for him.

Eventually an NBC executive in charge of the orchestra, John Royal, wrote a mock letter to one such requester that he never actually sent, but it’s so funny I think you’ll get a laugh out of it:

Dear Sir:
We have your inquiry for ARTURO TOSCANINI, and shall be glad to book this artist with you at a fee of $1,000, which, you will agree, is entirely reasonable.
Out of this fee, however, we are obliged to pay the Federal Income Tax, Federal Surtax, New York Abnormal Tax, Excise Fees, Government Stamp Tax, Italian Emigration Visas, Military Taxes and AGMA license performance fees, making in all a total of $5,644.37, on which there will be due a Government Surtax of 42%, making the total $8,015.01. Adding this sum to Mr. Toscanini’s fee, we arrive at a grand total of $9,015.01, to which, since your engagement will take place in Cohoes, New York, we are obliged to add New York State Taxes of $2,933.67, bringing Mr. Toscanini’s fee to $11,948.68.
The artist’s fare to your city, or a point equivalent to Albany, New York, is included in the above quotation. If you wish Mr. Toscanini to bring his orchestra with him, please add $14,500 to the above figures, plus 22%, plus 9%, plus 38%, divide by 4, multiply by 14, deduct $2.80 for cash if paid within 10 days from receipt of bill-of-lading, and throw the whole thing into the Hudson River from a convenient point two and three-tenths miles above Troy, New York.
Please wire collect.

Sincerely yours,
John Royal (for the National Broadcasting Company)

—© 2017 Lynn René Bayley

[1] “Equipment Put To Many Tests,” New York Herald-Tribune, 14 November 1937, sec. 7, p. 12, col. 3. Rumor has it that Toscanini complained about the rumbling of the subway, more than eight floors below. NBC engineers solved the problem by giving the room independent structural integrity–Studio 8-H thus became the world’s first “floating” studio.

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