Toscanini: A Brief Biography
The job of an orchestra conductor is to try to take the black dots and squiggles of musical notation on a page and try to make a group of musicians bring about a unified, coherent interpretation of those symbols to recreate in some manner the original sound world heard in the composer's head. One of the supreme masters of this art was Arturo Toscanini. His performances are generally shaped by a strong forward drive emphasizing the overall structure of the piece but with incredible attention to even the smallest detail often overlooked by lesser conductors. The single most important aspect for him was that a piece should sing. Music should have passion. One should put their blood into it. As a person, he despised and stood up to tyranny and fascism around the world, but on the podium everyone was expected to bend to his will. He expected his musicians and singers to put their entire being into a performance just as he thrust himself into his art. Yet he always had a relentless dissatisfaction with own abilities.
Few conductors of the pre-stereo era are covered as extensively as Toscanini in the discography. Many of the recordings he made in the waning years of his career are still considered legendary. In the current era of conductors and performances that are indistinguishable from each other, Toscanini's legacy still shines brightly.
Arturo Toscanini was born to Claudio Toscanini and his wife Paola Montani, who enjoyed music but were not musicians, in Parma Italy on 25 March 1867. Claudio was a tailor by trade but spent much of his time as a partisan of Giuseppe Garibaldi who lead the fight in overthrowing the Papal States that controlled Italy and reunited it under republican ideals. Arturo grew up listening to his parents and the shop workers reading aloud literature and singing their favorite arias from the operas popular at the time. One of his second grade school teachers, Signora Vernoni, noticed that Toscanini could memorize poems after a single reading and could pick out on the piano the songs and arias he had heard people singing. She suggested to his parents that he be enrolled in the Conservatory. The first year he studied at home and the second year he was given a full residency scholarship. The conditions at the school were extremely unpleasant but Toscanini excelled at cello and composition. Although the school did not offer conducting as an academic subject, all composition students were instructed in coaching other students to play. He spent as much time as he could studying scores, playing cello, singing and composing short works. Rather than diligently practicing the cello, he preferred to sit at the piano playing extracts from operas. He would hold clandestine meetings with other students where he would conduct them in his own arrangements of symphonies and operas. In July 1885 he graduated after earning the maximum number of points on his exams and receiving the highest honors in cello and composition as well as a prize of 137.50 lire for the most outstanding graduate.
After graduating, he joined with the impresario Claudio Rossi who was putting together a travelling opera company for a tour of Brazil. The tour was not going well and after what can best be described as some Marx Brothers style events, the Brazilian conductor hired to conduct quit and the Italian assistant conductor was booed from the stage in Rio de Janeiro. Toscanini had helped rehearse the operas and his musical knowledge and memory were well known among the orchestra. With the podium empty and the audience stamping and yelling to hear the Verdi's Aida that they had paid for, the audience was stunned into silence to see the 19 year old cellist pulled from the orchestra and sit at the podium. The rest, as they say, is history, and the tour proceeded and this time with great success.
After returning to Italy, his reputation spread rapidly. He conducted at many opera houses giving the world premieres of Leoncavallo's Pagliacci and Puccini's La Bohème as well as the Italian premiere of Wagner's Die Götterdämmerung. He debuted as a symphonic conductor in 1896 with a program of Schubert's 'Great C Major' Symphony, Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker Suite, the Italian premiere of Brahm's Tragic Overture, and Wagner's 'Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla' from Das Rheingold. He also began to eradicate the tradition of the bis where the audience would yell for singers or the orchestra to repeat a favorite aria or section. In 1898 at the age of 31, Toscanini was appointed head of La Scala, the most famous opera house in the world. He brought it to new heights and conducted some of the greatest opera singers of all time including the young Enrico Caruso and Feodor Chaliapin. Additional concerts of symphonic music were also given. After a falling out with the La Scala management in 1908, he went on to great success in America with the New York Metropolitan Opera during the period that is considered the "Golden Age" of opera at the Met.
In 1915 he left the Met for a variety of reasons, some real and some imagined. Mostly likely it was that he did not want to be away from his beloved homeland that was falling into the First World War. There were numerous concerts but most notably Toscanini conducted military bands on the front line in the midst of battle! After the war, Toscanini helped reform the La Scala Opera and took it on tour to New York. It was at this time that Toscanini made his very first recordings. He was 53 and had been conducting for 34 years to great acclaim, setting the standard for opera performance to which all others were measured, and would live to conduct yet another 34 years. These early acoustic recordings of short orchestral pieces and excerpts were made under technically and artistically difficult conditions and set Toscanini into a lifelong distaste for the process. The next few years were marked by travel between the US and Europe. By 1926 fascism was on the rise in Italy and Germany causing Toscanini trouble because of his complete opposition to their philosophy. He accepted an appointment to the New York Philharmonic. During his tenure he made many excellent recordings.
In 1937, David Sarnoff, the head of NBC and its parent corporation RCA, which had made Toscanini's New York Philharmonic recordings, decided that he wanted to have a radio orchestra along the lines of the BBC in London to bring classical music to the masses. Sarnoff knew little of classical music but he did know that the then 70 year old Toscanini represented the height of the art and would be a tremendous draw. This 17 years with the NBC Symphony documents the last period of Toscanini's 68 year long career. The recordings made in the "Hi-Fidelity" period beginning in 1949 when the conductor was 82 have been in the catalogs almost continuously since they were first issued. Toscanini's last concert on 4 April 1954 has been preserved in true stereo when RCA started using one of the first stereo tape recorders.
Toscanini spent the last three years of his life visiting friends as well as working on editing some his recordings for RCA. He died at his home in Riverdale, New York on 16 January 1957 after a series of strokes, surrounded by his children and grandchildren and was buried in the family tomb in Italy.