Arturo Toscanini – the Quintessential Italian Maestro

Short, dapper and elegant, the Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867 – 1957) cut a spritely figure; polite and attentive in congenial company but famous for his fiery outbursts in rehearsals, he marshalled his orchestral forces with a hitherto unheard of precision and intensity to produce a soundscape that was unmistakeably his own. In a long career that spanned seven decades, he was one of the 20th century’s most respected and admired conductors and thanks to his regular radio broadcasts he was one of its best known. “When you see that man conduct,” wrote Richard Strauss, “you feel that there is only one thing for you to do: take your baton, break it in pieces, and never conduct again.”

Toscanini’s conducting career got off to an early and auspicious start. Aged nineteen and playing cello with a travelling opera company in Rio de Janeiro, he was asked at a moment’s notice to conduct a performance of Aida which he did from memory. It was a triumph and he was asked to conduct for the remainder of the season. On his return to Italy, he soon came to prominence as a uniquely gifted and talented conductor and in 1898 he was appointed musical director of the most prestigious opera house in Italy – La Scala in Milan. A busy career followed with notable appointments at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1908-1915), the New York Philharmonic (1926 – 1936) and famously with the orchestra that was created for him and which made him a household name through its radio and television broadcasts, the NBC Symphony (1937 – 1954).

In his 68 years on the podium, he conducted the world premieres of numerous operas including Puccini’s La Bohème, La Fanciulla del West and Turandot; and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (to this list could be added the premiere of Verdi’s Otello in which the young Toscanini played the cello). He also conducted the Italian premieres of Wagner’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, Strauss’s Salome, and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Toscanini adopted a no-nonsense, “back to basics” approach to musical interpretation, eschewing indulgent performance practices by sticking to the letter of the score come scritto (“as written”). Combined with the iron discipline he imposed on the orchestra, this led to lean, incisive and vivid performances bristling with tension and drama which left little time for wistful reflection or wallowing in sound. Some were critical of this approach but few could deny the compelling nature of his performances. The distinguished Viennese critic Julius Korngold (father of the composer Erich Korngold) described Toscanini as an old-fashioned conductor “who wants to present the work and nothing but the work, which emerges sacrosanct through his individuality, through his subjectivity, through his temperament, although often as if newly discovered, newly thought out.”

Rehearsals with Toscanini were often charged occasions and not for the faint-hearted as he could fly into rages and hurl insults as well as sundry objects at the hapless musicians. (Some of these heated exchanges, complete with colourful language can be heard in YouTube clips). His relationship with soloists could be fractious and while many of the stories of his hectoring behaviour have been exaggerated, Toscanini seemed to revel in his notoriety and admitted as much in a letter when he wrote of the Stockholm Philharmonic: “because of the immense pride of these players, who understood that they would have to play under a musician whose reputation is almost that of a pestiferous ball breaker, they have … given the best of themselves.” In any case, musicians learned to live with his moods; during Toscanini’s residence at La Scala, the doorman would advise the musicians as they entered “Oggi calmo” or “Oggi tempesto” (“today calm”/”today tempest”).

On starting at the Metropolitan Opera, Toscanini overlapped for a while with the great (albeit crotchety) conductor and composer Gustav Mahler and the two had an amicable working relationship even if rumours which circulated after the composer’s untimely death suggested otherwise. Toscanini had a longer standing friendship with Giacomo Puccini and was quite distraught at his death; at the first performance of his last unfinished opera Turandot, Toscanini left off in the score at Puccini’s last written notes as a mark of respect. But theirs was not always a smooth relationship. One Christmas, Puccini sent him a pannetone as a gift but on remembering that they were not currently on speaking terms he followed up with a telegram “Pannetone sent by mistake. Puccini”. Toscanini fired back “Pannetone eaten by mistake. Toscanini”.

Toscanini disliked making studio recording, especially the constraints of having to record in four-minute segments for 78 rpm records and many of his early recordings are essentially transcripts of live performances. But it is quite astonishing to listen to recordings from the 1950s in which Toscanini, already well into his eighties, conducts with a vitality and passion undimmed by the passage of time, making the performances an edge of the seat experience.

In the words of a local reviewer from his conducting debut in Aida in 1886 “This beardless maestro is a prodigy who communicated the sacred artistic fire to his baton.” Few would disagree with this assessment of his entire career.


Kevin Painting

Published 13 August 2017 on primephonic.