Maestrissimo, Part II

Arturo Toscanini (Interfoto/Alamy)
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. Part I is here. The series concludes today.

When we left off yesterday, I was saying that Toscanini had “many good qualities.” Like what? Like humility. Really? Humility, from the most arrogant person who ever lived? Oh, yes. Toscanini had humility in spades — a certain kind of humility. Harvey Sachs quotes him as saying, “I’m the eternal beginner, perhaps the only person who doesn’t hold me in esteem.”

And I cherish a story about Toscanini and Gregor Piatigorsky, the cellist.

Before a concert, Piatigorsky is trying to warm up and practice, and Toscanini is pacing the room, stewing and exclaiming. He turns to Piatigorsky and says, “You are no good, I am no good.” This shakes the already-nervous cellist. Toscanini continues to pace, stew, and exclaim. Again, he turns to Piatigorsky and says, “You are no good, I am no good.” Piatigorsky begs him to stop this, because otherwise “I will be a complete wreck.” Later, Toscanini probably realizes that he has made a mess of his soloist, which is undesirable. As they stand in the wings, waiting to go on, Toscanini says to Piatigorsky, “We are no good, but the others are worse. Come on, caro [dear fellow], let’s go.”

‐Toscanini revered music. Of the Adagio from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, he said, “One ought to conduct it on one’s knees.” Beethoven was evidently his No. 1. But Wagner and Verdi were not far behind. Toscanini read everything Wagner ever wrote — I mean, the writings about music and theater, in addition to the music itself. He made this statement, Toscanini did: “I can honestly say that whatever I am today as a conductor I owe largely to what I learned from him.”

And when Verdi died (in 1901), Toscanini felt that the world had come to an end.

‐His judgment about music was not infallible. Toscanini had some strange blind spots — deaf spots? — as we all do, I suppose. He did not see the point of Mahler. He dismissed that composer’s Symphony No. 5 as “trivial” (!). After listening to Arabella, Toscanini wrote in a letter, “What wretched stuff! What a shame for an artist like Strauss to sink so low!!!”

That opera will live forever, of course.

‐One of Toscanini’s heirs, James Levine, describes himself as a “teaching conductor”: He teaches as he goes; he knows no other way to lead an orchestra. So it was with Toscanini, and you can learn a lot from him, via Harvey Sachs. You can learn that which is general and that which is specific. Here is something general:

Toscanini said to a young conductor, “You must conduct a piece until the notes have marched off the paper and come alive in your head and heart.”

‐My eyes got wide when I read something. A grin spread across my face. For years, I’ve said, “A mediocre concert is worse than a bad concert.” I’m not entirely sure why this is so. It just is.

Toscanini once said to an orchestra, “It’s bad to play so-so. It’s better to play badly!”

Hear, hear.

‐Toscanini can be terribly interesting on a range of subjects. California, he said, is “like Italy, but without a soul.” And when he first conducted here — in the United States — people asked him, “What do you think of American orchestras?” He replied, “What’s an American orchestra?” In these ensembles, he found people from all over.

This is something that could launch a thousand essays.

‐He can be really funny. Emmy Destinn (the great soprano) “looked like a cook, but she sang like an angel.” In his old age, he went to La Scala, after a long absence. A staff member offered to hang up his hat. Toscanini cracked, “I’m not the prima donna — I’m not even the baritone.”

Toscanini told an interviewer, “Verdi passed away at my age, but you must remember that he ate a lot more.” (Actually, Toscanini may have meant this seriously, not humorously.)

And this is the most delicious anecdote of all. Puccini and Toscanini were tiffing. And the composer forgot to take the conductor’s name off his Christmas list. Puccini sent a panettone — a traditional Milanese cake, baked and enjoyed at Christmas — to a range of people.

When he discovered that one had gone to Toscanini, the composer wired, “Panettone sent by mistake — Puccini.” The conductor answered, “Panettone eaten by mistake — Toscanini.”

‐Sachs dots his book with marvelous trivia, to go with the weighty. Something reminded me of Jack Nicklaus — who always kept a banana in his bag, to eat at the turn (i.e., after nine holes). Toscanini liked to have an apple at intermission.

‐In this great, fat biography, some of the best material is in footnotes. Sachs’s footnotes are a book unto themselves. I reeled at the story about Helen Keller, who attended a concert of Toscanini’s. Afterward, she thanked him for letting her “feel the spirit of Beethoven,” and said of the conductor himself, “You are just as I always pictured you.”

‐Harvey Sachs is tremendously knowledgeable, tremendously authoritative. This is clear on virtually every page. He knows reams about music, the music business, Italy, and more. I nodded my head at almost everything he said — but I had to read one sentence three times, to be sure I understood it.

The anti-Fascist credentials of Ignazio Silone, Sachs writes, “were later tainted by allegations of his having been an informer for the Fascists and, after the war, for the American OSS (predecessor of the CIA).” The intelligence service of the nation that defeated Mussolini, Hitler, and Tojo? That one?

Yet this is one sentence in a thousand pages. Very few people have been accorded so thorough, skillful, and excellent a biography as Toscanini has by Sachs.

‐The author must have marinated in Toscanini for years and years. Toward the end of his earthly days, Toscanini himself said, “It bores me even to read my own name.” I think of Simon Sebag Montefiore, who in the 2000s wrote two long books about Stalin. When he was through, he quipped that he and his family would undergo their own personal de-Stalinization program. Perhaps Harvey Sachs is detoxing from Toscanini now.

‐I can say that I always appreciated and admired Toscanini, with reservations — but when I was done with Sachs, I appreciated and admired him much more. I recall a similar experience in 1996, when I read Curt Sampson’s biography of Ben Hogan. Like Toscanini, Hogan was an SOB, but he also had greatness in his soul.

Another person who read that book was Steve Jones, a professional golfer, though hardly a star. That year — 1996 — he won the U.S. Open. Afterward, he said he had been inspired by Sampson’s biography. Will this new book inspire conductors to Toscaninian heights? It will help.


A word from the National Review Store: To get Digging In: Further Collected Writings of Jay Nordlinger, go here.

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