​​​​​​​Maestrissimo, Part I

Arturo Toscanini (New York Times Co./Getty Images)
On Arturo Toscanini

Editor’s Note: In the August 14 issue of National Review, we had a review by Jay Nordlinger of Harvey Sachs’s Toscanini: Musician of Conscience. This week, in his Impromptus, Mr. Nordlinger is expanding his review. He will do it in two parts.

Arturo Toscanini is the most famous conductor who ever lived. He was helped by his dates: 1867 to 1957. He lived into the age of recordings, and radio broadcasts, and television broadcasts. Arthur Nikisch, by contrast, died in 1922. He made a few recordings, and there is even a film of him, shot in 1913 (silent, of course). We have a sense of who he was — but only a dim one. Mahler, an immortal composer and a great conductor, to boot, died in 1911.

Today, we would call Toscanini a “rock star.” He attained a fame that is unimaginable for a classical musician in our own age. The founder of National Review, William F. Buckley Jr., described Toscanini as his “boyhood hero.” “I worshiped him,” he wrote. Millions of others did too, the world over.

‐Was he great, as well as famous? Oh, yes. But opinion on him is divided, as it is on everyone else. To his champions, he is the ultimate in musical integrity: a friend of composers and their scores; an enemy of interpretive self-indulgence. Stefan Zweig hailed him as “a genius of holy meticulousness and unbendingness in art.”

To his detractors, Toscanini is a ruthless machine: tight, cramped, rigid, sterile. I once heard a musician describe Toscanini’s recordings of Beethoven symphonies as “constipated.” Also, Toscanini was a podium tyrant, instilling fear in his players. On recordings, some people say, you can hear the fear in their playing.

Let me give you a line from Fritz Kreisler, about Toscanini’s handling of Beethoven’s Fifth, which was controversial: “I don’t believe Toscanini is wrong: but even if he were, I should rather hear it wrongly played by Toscanini than correctly by anyone else.”

I myself have a foot in each camp — the champions’ camp and the detractors’. I have a feeling that Toscanini was best in music that is sprawling and unwieldy, needing an iron hand. Like most people, however, I never heard him live and in the flesh. And a recording, especially an old one, is a poor substitute. If I could hear Toscanini in only one work, I would pick Falstaff, Verdi’s last opera. It is a complicated, subtle, unusual work (and one that I was slow to love). It was also Toscanini’s favorite opera.

‐I knew a man named George Sgalitzer — the senior patron of the Salzburg Festival. He attended the first performance ever at the festival, on August 22, 1920. He kept on attending until he died in 2006.

He told me that the greatest musical experience he ever had was a performance of Die Meistersinger — Wagner’s opera — conducted by Toscanini. The soprano, portraying Eva, was Lotte Lehmann. Years later, Sgalitzer met Lehmann, and told her of his regard for that Meistersinger. She told him that it was the greatest thing in which she had ever participated.

“Wagner kills you,” Toscanini once said. And what about Die Meistersinger, in particular? It is a long, long masterwork. In old age, looking back, Toscanini remarked on how he had felt, whenever he got to the beginning of the final scene: “I felt as if I’d begun a week earlier.”

‐Toscanini now has a great biography, written by Harvey Sachs, an American musicologist who used to be a conductor himself. In 1997, I read and reviewed the memoirs of Sir Georg Solti, the Hungarian-born conductor. At the end of my review, I said, “Many of us do not regard Solti as the finest conductor who ever lived. But surely no conductor — and few people — ever wrote memoirs more compelling or durable than these.” I had known Harvey Sachs for years before I learned that it was he who ghosted those memoirs.

He also wrote a biography of Artur Rubinstein, the pianist. And in 1978, he wrote a biography of Toscanini. Thereafter, loads of new material concerning Toscanini became available, and that 1978 bio has been replaced by the new one. The newly available material included more than a hundred tapes of Toscanini in conversation, made during his final years. They were made by his family, without his knowledge. Oh, would the maestro be mad!

‐The new biography is long — almost a thousand pages. I had a hard time holding the book. For the first time in my life, I thought, “Maybe I should get a Kindle.” I also thought of A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth’s novel from 1993 (a masterpiece, in my opinion). It is one of the longest novels ever published, at about 1,350 pages. Before his novel begins, Seth has a poem, which concludes, “Buy me before good sense insists / You’ll strain your purse and sprain your wrists.”

Book reviewers like to play with the words “exhaustive” and “exhausting.” Moreover, one man’s “magisterial” is another man’s “long.” Sachs’s book is almost a record — the record of a life — as well as a biography. It is sometimes diary-like. But it also has a biographical sweep. Could it interest non-musicians as much as it would musicians? I don’t think so, no. But Toscanini’s life would interest anybody.

‐Whether you want to spend a thousand pages in his company depends on whether you like him. I both do and don’t. There is a streak of self-righteousness in Toscanini that I’ve always found off-putting. On musical matters, he considered himself supreme. He despised the pope — whoever the incumbent happened to be — as he did religion in general. But he often held himself out as a pope of music. Artur Schnabel, the great pianist, once complained, “He thinks only he is pure.”

I often lean toward Toscanini’s way of doing things rather than Schnabel’s — but I know just what the pianist means.

Like other podium tyrants, Toscanini could be cruel to his players — gratuitously, inexcusably cruel. He was a hundred times more talented than they, and they usually worshiped him. It would not have cost him much to be more gracious, or at least less cruel. An “omaccio,” Puccini once called him: a nasty man. Toscanini himself once said, “I have a nasty character, which makes me suffer a lot and makes others suffer.”

‐Sachs subtitles his book “Musician of Conscience.” I’ll buy that. Toscanini was conscientious in music and other realms. He was a staunch foe of his country’s dictator, Mussolini. That is to his eternal credit. He was also an early friend of the Palestine Orchestra, later the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra. That too is to his eternal credit. He was a friend of the Jews when such friends were very thin on the ground.

But, in his book, Sachs tells a story that is disheartening. Late in his life, Toscanini was peeved at two American executives, David Sarnoff and Samuel Chotzinoff. (He was always peeved at someone, often without cause.) He referred to the men as “those Jews.” Why?

Sometimes, we know, old men, and old women, revert to what they grew up with — what they heard when they were kids. I don’t know.

When it came to his “personal life,” Toscanini was exactly like Mussolini. He loved his wife and children, after a fashion. But he was a world-champion adulterer. He had a Petacci in every port, and usually two or three. He made Mick Jagger look like a monk. He did sopranos, mezzos (usually sopranos), other men’s wives — anyone and everyone.

At Carla, his longsuffering wife, he once shouted, “You think that morality is something we have between our legs!” This has been the shout of countless men, and their countless excusers. When she was old and ill, Carla said of her husband, “He’s always been a liar.”

Yet he had many good qualities — which I will get into tomorrow, in Part II. Thank you for joining me, signori.



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