Magazine | August 14, 2017, Issue

Maestrissimo

Arturo Toscanini (New York Times Co./Getty Images)
Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, by Harvey Sachs (Liveright, 944 pp., $39.95)

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.

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 this magazine, 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. To his detractors, he 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. Some people say that you can hear the fear in their playing.

I myself have a foot in each camp: the champions’ 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.

A man named George Sgalitzer attended the first performance ever at the Salzburg Festival: August 22, 1920. He kept 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.

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.

In 1978, Sachs wrote a biography of Toscanini. Then loads of 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 not. 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.”

Frankly, I think Toscanini was usually right, and I lean toward his way of doing things rather than Schnabel’s. But I am totally in sympathy with the pianist’s sentiment.

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 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 once shouted at Carla, his long-suffering wife, “You think that morality is something we have between our legs!” Such has been the cry of many such men, and their excusers. When she was old and ill, Carla said of her husband, “He’s always been a liar.”

Yet he had many good qualities — including generosity, including humility. Humility? Yes. Like all great artists, Toscanini had this quality in spades. 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 him 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 then repeats the statement. Piatigorsky begs him to stop, because, otherwise, “I will be a complete wreck.” Later, as they wait in the wings, Toscanini says, “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.

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. Also, Toscanini can be just plain funny, as when he told an interviewer, “Verdi passed away at my age, but you must remember that he ate a lot more.” (Or was he being serious?) Toscanini can be terribly interesting, on a range of subjects. California, he said, is “like Italy, but without a soul.”

Sachs packs his book with information, often usable, sometimes delicious. Some of the best material is in footnotes. 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.”

As is clear on virtually every page, Sachs is knowledgeable — deeply knowledgeable — about music, the music business, Italy, and more. I nodded my head at almost everything, 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 authoritative a biography as Toscanini has by Sachs. The author must have marinated in Toscanini for years and years. In the 2000s, Simon Sebag Montefiore 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.

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