Arturo Toscanini, Warts and All

Toscanini book

TOSCANINI: MUSICIAN OF CONSCIENCE / By Harvey Sachs (Liveright Publishing Corp., 2017, 923 pp.) List price $39.95 USA, available at discounts in online markets

When I got this book, I was indecisive as to whether I wanted to review it or not. Having had Sachs’ 1978 biography of the great conductor since it came out, I assumed that this new, larger book would have more information but was unsure of how much of it would give a different spin on Toscanini. In addition, I was a bit angry that, despite two emails from me to the publishers, they chose to ignore my requests for a review copy. I doubt very much that the reviewer for the New York Times, who admitted to having a hand in Joseph Horowitz’ trash-talking 1987 condemnation of the conductor, Understanding Toscanini, paid for his review copy, and he was only too glad to claim that Toscanini was indeed a prodigy but, in his view, this didn’t equate to musical sensitivity.

But as I read the book, I realized that I had to review it: to praise Sachs for his new, more conversational tone, which despite its extreme length made the book enjoyable to read (his earlier bio was more clinical, almost academic in style) as well as to react to much of what I read and to note a few puzzling omissions.

The short version is that Toscanini emerges here as a study in contradictions, even moreso than in Sachs’ earlier bio as well as in the previous books by B.H. Haggin and Robert Charles Marsh. Clearly the most offensive aspect of his personality was his aggressive, lifelong pursuit of women, mostly sopranos but also wives and girlfriends of his friends and professional colleagues. He didn’t care a whit if his wife found out or not, as most of the time she did, and his letters to several of them went well over the line from passionate expressions of love to vulgar pornography. If I had to read one more letter in which he was imagining fondling someone’s breasts with his “expert hands” or asking his paramour to send him her panties stained with menstrual blood to smell, I was going to puke. Apparently he was a musician of conscience but not a human being of conscience. Although I still admire and am frequently astonished by his masterful performances (more on those later), as a woman, he came down quite a few notches in my estimation as a person.

Nor was he, apparently, alone. In one brief moment Sachs admits that his great German rival, Wilhelm Furtwängler, also chased the ladies. Well, that was an understatement. Unlike the short, handsome, charismatic Toscanini, the tall, gangling, ostrich-like Furtwängler didn’t have women throwing themselves at him. The Nazis supplied him with a steady stream of paramours to excite his libido and keep him conducting in good ol’ Germany, which is the real reason he did not and would not leave his country to come and live in the U.S. to conduct the New York Philharmonic or, later, stay in Zurich with Friedelind Wagner when he was there with her during the war. Moreover, many of Toscanini’s friends, colleagues and relatives were also fooling around with other women constantly. The famed conductor believed an old adage that said a man should have an orgasm a day in order to remain virile. Apparently this was a trend that circulated in classical musical circles with pretty wide latitude back then (and probably now).

To his credit, Sachs now finally admits that, despite the heavy workload and his desire to go back to Italy during the World War to help boost his country’s morale, the real reason Toscanini left the Metropolitan Opera in 1915 was Geraldine Farrar, with whom he was going at it hot and heavy. Unlike the other lovers in his life, Farrar insisted that Toscanini leave his wife and marry her, something he was never, ever going to do. In one sense, it would have worked out well if he had: Carla Toscanini was an absolutely terrible manager of her husband’s money, converting his huge Met salary from dollars to Italian lire, which greatly devalued after the War, then setting up a Rube Goldberg-styled family foundation that also bled money. Farrar, much more practical and conscientious with a buck, would have kept his vast fortune from hemorrhaging. But the Toscaninis were a truly “Italian” clan, and in this respect she wouldn’t have fit in. (Toscanini tried desperately to stop his daughter Wanda from marrying Vladimir Horowitz because he was of both a different ethnicity and religion.) Sachs’ only omission in his description of the notorious Rosina Storchio affair was in not including the scandal that happened when, in the world premiere of Madama Butterfly, she brought out little Trouble in the last act. The audience burst into derisive laughter and hoots, yelling out, “Il piccolo Toscanini!”

But the Storchio-Toscanini affair really wasn’t funny, as none of them were funny. When Storchio gave birth, the baby had to be taken out with forceps on the head, which damaged the baby’s brain and left him mentally retarded for the rest of his life. Rosina was forced to raise a retarded son, to which Toscanini contributed some blood money to pacify his conscience, before moving on to more female conquests. Hr just didn’t care what happened to the women he had affairs with.

Sachs also, for some reason, omitted much comment on the Eugenia Burzio affair which, like Storchio’s, produced an offspring—a baby girl who was named Josefina. This was the same Josefina Burzio who sang in a performance of de Falla’s El Amor Brujo with the conductor in 1943. I can provide you with the full story if you’re interested. Another story that I think should have been included (told by an NBC musician on the radio program Toscanini: The Man Behind the Legend in the 1960s) was when he and the orchestra were sailing to South America for their 1940 tour. Some of the musicians spent nearly all day playing the on-deck slot machines, and the orchestra’s manager approached Toscanini and asked him if he would tell them to stop, as they were frittering away a fairly large sum of quarters. Toscanini stood and watched them for a couple of minutes, fascinated by the whirling cylinders that would then stop on three different icons, then turned to the manager and asked, “Do you have any quarters on you?”

One really interesting feature of this book is that it points out Toscanini’s fascination with jazz, which apparently began in 1921 when he toured America with the La Scala Orchestra. You’d scarcely think that an Italian classical musician who was also big on the German repertoire would be drawn to this music, but he was and he enjoyed it no end, though he admitted that the music’s basic style eluded him in its unusual looseness and flexibility of rhythm (not to mention the frequent improvisation). Sadly, Sachs leaves out the famous story where Horowitz brought his father-in-law to hear Art Tatum, who he thought was the greatest pianist in the world. (“If Tatum were white, no one would be saying that I am the world’s best pianist,” he once said, and he even had Tatum visit his posh New York apartment to play for him on occasion.) Sachs also leaves out the famous story of how jazz trumpeter Phil Napoleon, luckily attending a New York Philharmonic rehearsal when Toscanini was trying to get through Ravel’s Bolero, heard how the orchestra’s trombonist could not play the smears properly in his solo, and so recommended his good friend Miff Mole to play the part—which he did in the concert.

Having gotten these caveats out of the way, I can now concentrate on the many positives of this book. With so much to draw on from taped family conversations and the memories of the conductor’s late grandson Walfredo, we get a very different, fuller and more intimate picture of Toscanini. Once off the podium, he was a different man, no longer the “pig” (as he called himself) with “such a bad temper,” but a warm and gracious person, a genial host and generous to a fault with any musician or singer who ever performed under him (Carla had standing orders to give “loans,” most of which were never repaid, to any La Scala, Met or Philharmonic musician who came to her for a handout.) He helped set up a home for retired musicians, constantly conducted for free when he believed in the cause, and in 1933 was one of three major donors (along with Fritz Kreisler and Lady Ravensdale, not to mention dozens of lesser donors) who helped to buy a rare Guarnieri violin for the extremely gifted but ill-fated American violinist Guila Bustabo (the latter isn’t mentioned in the book). Yet he still had contradictions even there, taking a very hard line against friends and even lovers (like Ada Mainardi) who he felt weren’t fighting hard enough against Fascism, or Furtwängler, who he felt wasn’t fighting hard enough against Nazism, yet he conducted (for free) a memorial concert for Austrian chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss, an iron-fisted dictator who shut down parliament and ruled in what he called “autofascism,” when he was assassinated in 1934, merely because he hated the Nazis. Again, a man of contradictions.

AT and Sonia003

Toscanini was also very affectionate towards his grandchildren, once surprising them (and the rest of the family) by playing songs from Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarves at the piano for them. Sadly, he was the only family member who was affectionate towards Vladimir and Wanda Horowitz’ daughter, Sonia, who otherwise suffocated from lack of love and attention from her cold, self-absorbed parents and committed suicide at age 40.

The book also goes into great detail on Toscanini’s many theatrical reforms. Everyone knows that he, like Gustav Mahler (who he admired as a musician but not as a composer), ended the policy of encores, but I wonder how many people know that it was he who insisted—even against the protestations of his close friend, the great Arrigo Boito—on installing a curtain that opened and closed from the middle to the sides of the stage to replace the old-style curtain that descended vertically from above. He was also instrumental in insisting on a sunken or hidden orchestra pit, like the one at Bayreuth. He fought for more actual drama in performances, favoring singers who could also act and forcing those who couldn’t to at least try to portray a character on stage (he was completely blown away by Feodor Chaliapin, who he considered the greatest stage genius of his time). In his third, last, and longest stint as general director of La Scala, he also tried to promote modern stage direction, even hiring the pioneer dramatic theorist Adolphe Appia to stage and direct a production of Die Walküre in 1926. And he was a constant champion of modern works, at least up until the late 1920s when, in his view, modern music was passing him by. Five operas Toscanini championed that did not enter the repertoire in his time were Catalani’s La Wally, Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Dukas’ Ariane et Barbe-Bleue, Boito’s Nerone and Pizzetti’s Debora et Jaele. Sachs is correct in calling the last of these a poor pastiche of Pelléas et Mélisande (another opera than Toscanini championed that did enter the repertoire) and Parsifal, but I disagree with him on Nerone, a great musical (if not theatrical) masterpiece that is only now coming into its own. Of course, Toscanini’s Orfeo was not an orthodox version; he replaced the coloratura aria at the end of the first act with the same composer’s “Divinitès du Styx” from Alceste, as well as inserting some music from other Gluck operas into the score. When he presented it at the Met in 1910, he took the unusual move of writing the program notes to explain his thinking on this pastiche. Today such things would not be permitted, of course, but in his time such reworkings of older operas was commonplace (Mahler did the same in Vienna with other operas, particularly Weber’s Euryanthe and Die drei Pintos), and at least Toscanini had valid theatrical, if not musical, justifications for his changes and insertions.

Sachs also goes into some detail describing Toscanini’s input to the orchestration of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West, a weak opera but by far the finest orchestral score of any of his operas (even including Turandot). Although Toscanini thought very little of himself as a composer, his early works are quite interesting (see my article on this side of his art); had he had the time to study composition further, I really do think he’d have produced something outstanding in time, but the man literally worked night and day, day and night, rehearsing, staging and conducting operas in addition to giving occasional orchestral concerts when he could. The Toscanini-Furtwängler “feud” is also cleared up, to a point, although in this book Sachs curiously omits revealing the machinations of Arthur Judson to help get rid of Furtwängler at the Philharmonic by having him rehearse the Beethoven Ninth that was promised to Toscanini (yes, Furtwängler did know it was originally promised to the Italian) , who arrived late during his first season due to prolonged shoulder and arm pain and thus took the performance over, unaware that his German colleague had done most of the rehearsing. Despite their vast differences in musical style, Toscanini had the highest respect for Furtwängler as a conductor because he was, in his words, a “serious musician” (the highest compliment he could pay to a colleague). Sadly, the feeling was not mutual in the orchestral repertoire, though, as Sachs points out, the two conductors got along very well in Wagner. At the 1931 Bayreuth Festival, Furtwängler was music director and in charge of Tristan while Toscanini was hired to conduct Parsifal and Tannhäuser, and the two men met frequently to discuss matters of style and interpretation, apparently with no friction. (They also both detested festival manager Heinz Tietjens, a real weasel who enjoyed playing one against the other.) And, according to Sachs, “Another incorrect legend is that Toscanini wanted the Philharmonic to have nothing more to do with Mengelberg. Various documents in the orchestra’s archives demonstrate that Toscanini stated emphatically and repeatedly that Mengelberg should be reengaged as a guest conductor.” But the fly in the ointment, in both cases, was again Arthur Judson, who also insisted on hiring Sir Thomas Beecham as a guest conductor against Toscanini’s express wishes (his contract stipulated that he had final approval over such matters). Judson also fought him on hiring Otto Klemperer as one of his trusted assistant conductors of the orchestra. Finally, Toscanini had enough. He was indeed getting older, and conducting three concerts per week was beyond his capabilities, but Judson was the main reason he left—which Sachs confirms in his telegram to Bruno Zirato when the latter expressed shock that Toscanini would come back to New York and directly compete with them by leading the NBC Symphony: “Was surprised at your surprise my acceptance radio proposal (stop) I feel no obligation to be courteous toward the Board of the Philharmonic and that boorish individual [Arthur Judson]. (p. 642).”

Incredibly, Toscanini’s explosive temper in rehearsals did not extend to either of the British orchestras he conducted. Adrian Boult (another conductor who idolized him) was apprehensive at Toscanini’s first rehearsal with his BBC Philharmonic in 1935, but no blowup ever came—nor did it come in future rehearsals. Indeed, Toscanini went to the unusual length of holding a press conference to praise the orchestra, something he never did before or after. There were also no blowups when he conducted the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1952. To his dying day, he considered both organizations to be the “most intelligent” orchestras he ever led.

One of the most perceptive comments on Toscanini’s abilities as a conductor came from, of all people, his bête noir, Stokowski, who said in 1931 that he was struck by Toscanini’s “compelling rhythm—so subtle, so flexible and vibrant. His beat breaks every academic rule, yet is always clear and eloquent. But it is between the beats that happens something almost magical. One can always tell when he has reached the half-beat or quarter-beat or three-quarter-beat, even when he does not divide his beats, and it is this certainty and clarity of beat which create such a perfect ensemble when he conducts…His sense of harmonic balance is extraordinary (p. 498).”

In only one respect is the book incomplete, and that is in Sachs’ glossing over the NBC Symphony years…an even greater glossing-over here than in his earlier bio, despite a few tidbits from family records that are new. Sachs, like Haggin and many others, view Toscanini’s 1929-42 period as his best because it was the “most flexible” in rhythm and the most nuanced in rhythmic treatment. I agree with him that several of the NBC performances are quite stiff in rhythm, but we’re talking maybe 10-15%. The remaining 85% are quite marvelous, and to throw out the baby out with the bath water takes an incredible amount of nerve. I could give you a litany of Toscanini-NBC performances that were as great, if not greater, in nuance as well as orchestral control as his earlier recordings and performances, among them his very late recordings of some of the Beethoven symphonies, Strauss’ Don Quixote with Carlton Cooley, the 1953 Berlioz Harold in Italy, the 1954 Mefistofele Prologue, symphonies by Schumann and Mendelssohn, the Martucci piano concerto with Horszowski as soloist, even his broadcasts (especially the 1945 one) of the second act of Gluck’s Orfeo. Even in many (but not all) of the “stiff” performances there are things to admire that no other conductor has ever brought off as successfully. Moreover, I feel that some of the earlier performances are overrated. So many people think that his 1936 broadcast of the Beethoven Ninth with the Philharmonic is his best, but that is only true in terms of orchestral sonority, and much of that is disguised by the dull, lackluster sound quality. Brighten up that recording by boosting treble until you can hear the “bite” of the winds (a Toscanini trademark), and I think you’ll find that his 1952 studio recording is almost identical in phrasing and has much the same (if somewhat differently stressed) nuance. The same holds true of his 1936 Act I of Fidelio. Once past the overture, and until you arrive at the “Abscheulischer!,” it is no better a performance than his 1944 NBC broadcast; the difference is that the singers in 1944 were markedly inferior to their 1936 counterparts, and of course the dry, dull, boxy Studio 8-H sound works against it. I also don’t care much for the Salzburg Zauberflöte, despite mostly correct tempi, because Helge Rosvaenge had much too large a voice for Tamino and Julie Osvath was a clumsy, incompetent Queen of the Night. I appreciate what Toscanini wanted—a larger-than-normal soprano voice that could project menace—but Osvath was a terrible choice. (And, since he was always promoting Jewish artists, why on earth didn’t he hire Richard Tauber to sing Tamino?) Toscanini’s 1948 Verdi Requiem is just as flexible as the one he led in Queen’s Hall, London in 1938, but again, the 1938 soloists are perfection (this time, Rosvaenge was well chosen) while the 1948 singers are just pretty good. Yes, Toscanini made some mistakes: he conducted quite a bit of ephemera, his 1953 broadcast of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis is markedly superior to the studio recording, and he messed up both the Nutcracker Suite by adding notes to the “Waltz of the Flowers” and Tchaikovsky’s Manfred by chopping the score up. But as I said, an 85% batting average beats anything any modern conductor could accomplish.

The modern-day hatred of Toscanini’s musical style is based on three things. 1) He generally, but not always, conducted works at the outer edge of the score-permitted tempi, sometimes going over that edge in speed; 2) His focus on extremely clarity of orchestral texture led him to hear music both vertically and horizontally, which meant that sometimes his legato flow was transformed into a note-by-note progression of completely integrated and meticulously coordinated orchestral sound; and 3) his use of rubato and other modifications to the musical line were almost always subtle and not obvious, as in the case of his German and Austrian colleagues. Allied to this was the fact that he was an Italian peasant, thus looked down upon for reasons of class as well as ethnicity, particularly by Cultured Germans and Austrians, despite the fact that he modeled his performances, particularly in the first half of his career, on such Teutonic conductors as Hermann Levi, Hans Richter, Hans von Bülow, Fritz Steinbach, Richard Strauss, Felix Weingartner and Artur Nikisch (the latter a Hungarian, but music director of the Berlin Philharmonic). This allowed his critics to lambaste him for “insensitive,” “surface” readings that supposedly had no “soul.” Both Joseph Horowitz and his idol, cultural critic Theodor Adorno, a dour churl who hated not only Toscanini but American culture, actors, and jazz music, were thus able to accuse him of missing the point of this great and holy music by his insistence on orchestral clarity and an incredible sense of powerful, almost burning intensity. As far as I’m concerned, they can go fructify themselves.

Toscanini’s admirers were legion, including not only most conductors active at that time (including stylistic opposites such as Bruno Walter and Klemperer, his assistants at the New York Philharmonic) but also by quite learned musicologists (Sir Donald Tovey and Jacques Barzun), composers (including Stravinsky, Kodály, Debussy, Prokofiev, Copland and Roy Harris), literary men like Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig, famous soloists (Yehudi Menuhin, Jascha Heifetz, Rudolf Serkin, Mieczyslaw Horszowski, Emanuel Feuermann, etc.) and even physicist Albert Einstein. His only enemies, aside from Furtwängler, were German conductors Karl Muck and Clemens Krauss, British conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, composers Edgard Varèse, Arnold Schoenberg and Virgil Thomson (because he didn’t conduct their music and, in fact, ridiculed Varèse’s scores), and a few members of the press who took it upon themselves to ridicule him for his Toscanini Treasuryinsistence on textural clarity and what they perceived as an “atmosphere of over-reverence” at his NBC concerts. Even Leopold Stokowski, who Toscanini came to hate for his preening podium manner and his gauche orchestrations of Bach, continued to admire him, though in this case the feeling was anything but mutual. Toscanini-hatred on a widespread level was a child of the 1960s, and started, in my view, upon the release of his performance of the Shostakovich Seventh Symphony in the 1967 boxed LP set, A Toscanini Treasury of Historic Broadcasts (LM-6711). Of course, it wasn’t just the Shostakovich performance than was lambasted: so, too, were his versions of the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante and the Sibelius Symphony No. 2. We were close to, but not quite at, the creation of the historically-informed movement in classical music, of which Toscanini was clearly also a pioneer.

Overall, however, this is a compelling biography of the great conductor and his family. You really need to read it to appreciate his many good qualities, but be forewarned that you will not be happy with his constant love affairs.

—© 2018 Lynn René Bayley

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