Cesare Civetta’s “The Real Toscanini”

The Real Toscanini

THE REAL TOSCANINI: MUSICIANS REVEAL THE MAESTRO by Cesare Civetta / Amadeus Press, 2012 (260 pp.)

This was one Toscanini book I had not read, so I decided to splurge for a copy. Cesare Civetta is an excellent conductor who currently leads the Beethoven Festival Orchestra in New York: you can hear some of his Beethoven performances on YouTube. He clearly admires Toscanini and spent several years interviewing as many surviving NBC Symphony musicians as he could, including many who were also interviewed by B.H. Haggin (for his book The Toscanini Musicians Knew) and Harvey Sachs (for his first Toscanini biography). In addition, he has used extensive excerpts, translated from Italian, from baritone Giuseppe Valdengo.s book, Scusi, conosco Toscanini?

I will get the negatives out of the way quickly. Unlike Sachs, who is a skilled writer and whose two biographies of the conductor “scan” very well, Civetta’s book is more of a hodgepodge, and several topics are covered over and over again within its 260 pages. For Toscanini-haters, this gives them easy fodder to bash Civetta’s tome, and it has indeed been criticized by reviewers on Amazon for its repetitiveness. I would also add that if you already own the Haggin book and the first Sachs biography, at least a third of this book will seem repetitious because it is. These same musicians made much the same comments to Haggin and Sachs, perhaps not word-for-word but saying pretty much the same things. To put it as kindly as possible, Harvey Sachs is a writer, and a good one, while Civetta is a compiler. To a certain extent, this book reminded me of what I heard about Philip R. Evans’ massive manuscript on jazz legend Bix Beiderbecke, that it rambled and was repetitious, needing a good editor to put it into a readable narrative. Richard Sudhalter was that editor; the publishers of the book gave him co-author credit because of it; and Evans was furious and would never speak to Sudhalter again, though the book benefited tremendously from his judicious editing and rewriting.

Those are the negatives. The positives are that the remaining two-thirds of the book have some very revelatory things to say about Toscanini and his methods, the best and most interesting part of it being the extensive translations from Valdengo’s book, which give the reader a very clear picture of how Toscanini viewed singers. Contrary to popular myth, the conductor did NOT just want docile robots who would bend to his will. Rather, he prized great voices above all but artistic imagination nearly as much. And although Haggin stated that Toscanini hated the singing of tenor Fernando de Lucia and baritone Mattia Battistini for their musical deviations from the score—and he did criticize them for this—the Valdengo manuscript makes it clear that he greatly admired them for qualities that had been lost after two World Wars, the ability to use their voices like perfectly-tuned instruments and their skill at constantly rehearsing certain lines within an operatic text to make it sound as if they themselves were “living” the emotions of the characters they portrayed. Toscanini especially liked de Lucia’s recording of “Addio, Mignon, ma core” for being able to sound as if he were spontaneously projecting the feelings of the character when in fact it was the result of many hours’ practice, and Battistini’s perfect legato and exceptional control of dynamics—even if he did say, in other contexts, that de Lucia “make everything andante” and that Battistini could ham up the music when he was in the mood to do so.

Among other revelations in the book is the one, which I had always suspected, that Toscanini’s Studio 8-H performances were generally faster than all of his others because of the extremely dry acoustics. Nathan Gordon, a violist with the NBC Symphony, states on p. 79 that 8-H was “an acoustically dead studio, which was like a vacuum. It was almost like canned music, horrible. You’d get a hollow sound out of the orchestra [so] his tempos were often on the fast side because he was subconsciously avoiding that vacuum.” Leon Barzin, a violist with the New York Philharmonic who Toscanini encouraged to become a conductor himself, confirms this: “Toscanini…always produced in the hall or in the theatre where there’s a reverberant bounce, and that little bounce is part of his interpretation. 8-H had no bounce at all, and therefore he was trying to re-create the interpretation with the bounce without having the bounce, so he speeded up. “ Civetta adds that there are exceptions to this rule, and that’s true, but not that many. As one example among many, Toscanini’s 1938 Beethoven Ninth Symphony, recorded in Carnegie Hall with good natural acoustics, is a little more than two minutes faster than the one he conducted in Studio 8-H in December 1939 as part of his Beethoven Symphony Cycle, and those two minutes make all the difference in the world between a performance that comes close to the score in tempi but also “breathes” as opposed to one that, especially in the first two movements, sounds like a computer playing the music in a strictly metronomic tempo. There are numerous other examples of this, and the fact that Studio 8-H always sounded better without the rows of seats and people sitting in them also had an effect on his rehearsals, which were generally more relaxed and, to my ears, more musical than the broadcasts of those same works.

There is also an interesting story, told by English horn player Filippo Ghignatti of the La Scala Orchestra, of the 1918 revival of Puccini’s Manon Lescaut. The story is on p. 91 of the book:

Toscanini called Puccini from the podium and told him to look over some harmonies he wrote in the score in a certain spot which showed emptiness, and see what he thought of it or, better still, listen to them. Puccini’s answer was, “I don’t have to. If you put those notes there, it’s because they are needed.” Toscanini replied, “But you wrote this opera, not me, and you must see if you like the correction I’ve written.” “The opera, yes, but you are a better musician than I, and I take any correction from you.” Toscanini asked the orchestra to play those penciled notes and Puccini listened very attentively and then he said, “Benissimo! I will call Casa Ricordi [Puccini’s publisher[ and tell them to insert that in all the scores.”

Thus our conception of Manon Lescaut, of which all complete recordings were made after 1930, is in part due to Toscanini’s amendments. We already know that he was partially responsible for the orchestration of La fanciulla del West—Puccini was a very slow worker, the world premiere at the Metropolitan Opera was coming up soon, and he couldn’t do it all in time—but now we know that some of the color in Manon Lescaut was his work as well…and to be honest, we have no way of knowing how much Toscanini worked on the orchestral score of Turandot before it premiered in 1926.

In addition to Puccini allowing Toscanini to make changes to his orchestration, Claude Debussy also gave the conductor permission to “fix up” La Mer for the same reason, that things “were not clear,” but unlike Sachs, Civetta omits any mention of the numerous times that Toscanini didn’t just change orchestration but added or, more often, omitted bars of music from certain compositions. This was considered standard practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but by the time Toscanini was recording and broadcasting in the 1940s it was already considered taboo, and some of those changes did the scores more harm than good. It is the one back mark on his lifelong devotion to presenting the music, supposedly, “exactly” as the composer wrote it.

Returning to the excerpts from Valdengo’s book, we learn that Toscanini agreed with the old-school voice teachers in Italy such as Manuel Garcia Jr. and the Lampertis, that young singers should not sing any actual songs or arias for the first two years of the study, but constantly practice solfeggio  in order to build up their vocal tone and breath support. Then, after two years, said Toscanini, they can sing some Monteverdi and arie antiche to continue work on their technique. But he was spitting into the wind of his time; by the post-World War II era, so many singers died or retired during the War that young voices were needed to fill the void, and as long as some people could sing a bit they were promoted to stardom, only to have their voices fall apart after about a decade of having a major career. It’s a sad but true tale, and if you listen to a great many of today’s singers—not just the famous ones, although some of them are pretty bad, but the numerous ones who make recordings but are not well known—you will hear wobbles, unsteadiness, poor breath support, poor diction, and any number of technical sins that would have gotten them nowhere less than 25 years ago. I don’t want to expand this into a monograph on the decline of singing, but it surely did happen and getting away from proper training of the voice was the beginning of the decline.

Another interesting comment from the Valdengo book was when he asked the baritone if he was nervous just before going out to sing. Valdengo replied that he wasn’t nervous, but had some butterflies in his stomach. Toscanini said that was the same thing as nervousness, and that he, too, was nervous before each and every performance. Then he added something interesting: “You know what I do to overcome it? I become nasty…and that’s really hard for me to do.” Yet both the musicians of the NBC Symphony and Robert Charles Marsh, in his excellent book Toscanini and the Art of Conducting, felt that the temper explosions were a way of breaking down all resistance in the musicians to his way of wanting a passage to go. It was one of his secrets in how he was able to “play” on an orchestra as one plays on an organ, with complete unity of sound yet also with every strand of the music coming through clearly.

We also learn what I had suspected for years, that RCA Victor “flattened out” his dynamics changes before issuing a recording to make the sound more “even.” The musicians admitted that, from a practical standpoint, this was necessary because a recording that had soft passages that one could barely hear and crashing fortissimos that could blow out people’s speakers wouldn’t have sold many records, but this didn’t mollify Toscanini who, listened to the recordings of his work, would complain, “Where is my pianissimo? Why does my crescendo sound so weak?” To which the RCA engineers would assure him that everything was all right. No wonder he hated recording, and no wonder that, even in his high fidelity recordings, there are passages like the opening of the last movement of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony that were meant to sound like a whisper but come across much louder than that. Likewise, RCA flattened out the long, slow, dazzling crescendo that Toscanini made in the finale of the Prologue from Boito’s Mefistofele—you can hear it recorded correctly in the 1948 live performance from La Scala—so that the issued recording doesn’t sound nearly as effective. RCA also damaged the LP release of his orchestral arrangement of the Beethoven Septet, making every movement sound pretty much the same volume when in fact Toscanini had conducted some of the inner movements at a quiet volume and with an elfin touch. In the studio recording of Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream music, they thought they were being very clever by putting the microphones at the very back of the hall, but this had the effect of making the soft passages almost disappear on the LP. You can hear exactly how Toscanini intended it to sound on the 1947 live performance of the same music.

One could go on with more interesting examples from the book, but I’ll leave you with one image: that of Toscanini the teacher and collaborator. Even when he had his temper tantrums, ripped handkerchiefs, broke watches and batons, the musicians had the utmost respect for him not just because of his phenomenal memory and superior knowledge of the score, but also because he made all of them feel like collaborators and not just peons. To Toscanini, his musicians were Artists, not just bodies up on the stage playing instruments, and he always tried to instill that feeling in them. They were in this together; you gave all your blood because he gave all his blood to a rehearsal or a performance. And that is something that scarcely if ever exists nowadays, and it’s a shame.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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