Parma, 25 marzo 1867 – New York, 16 gennaio 1957

Arturo Toscanini

Toscanini was born in Parma, Emilia-Romagna, and won a scholarship to the local music conservatory, where he studied the cello. He joined the orchestra of an opera company, with which he toured South America in 1886. While presenting Aida in Rio de Janeiro, Leopoldo Miguez, the locally hired conductor, reached the summit of a two-month escalating conflict with the performers due to his rather poor command of the work, to the point that the singers went on strike and forced the company’s general manager to seek a substitute conductor. Carlo Superti and Aristide Venturi tried unsuccessfully to finish the work. In desperation, the singers suggested the name of their assistant Chorus Master, who knew the whole opera from memory. Although he had no conducting experience, Toscanini was eventually convinced by the musicians to take up the baton at 9:15 pm, and led a performance of the two-and-a-half hour opera. The public was taken by surprise, at first by the youth and sheer aplomb of this unknown conductor, then by his solid mastery. The result was astounding acclaim. For the rest of that season Toscanini conducted eighteen operas, all with absolute success. Thus began his career as a conductor at age 19.
Upon returning to Italy, Toscanini set out on a dual path for some time. He continued to conduct, his first appearance in Italy being at the Teatro Carignano in Turin, on November 4, 1886, in the world premiere of the revised version of Alfredo Catalani’s Edmea (it had had its premiere in its original form at La Scala, Milan, on February 27, of that year). This was the beginning of Toscanini’s lifelong friendship and championing of Catalani; he even named his first daughter Wally after the heroine of Catalani’s opera La Wally. However, he also returned to his chair in the cello section, and participated as cellist in the world premiere of Verdi‘s Otello (La Scala, Milan, 1887) under the composer’s supervision. Verdi, who habitually complained that conductors never seemed interested in directing his scores the way he had written them, was impressed by reports from Arrigo Boito about Toscanini’s ability to interpret his scores. The composer was also impressed when Toscanini consulted him personally about the Te Deum, suggesting an allargando where it was not set out in the score. Verdi said that he had left it out for fear that “certain interpreters would have exaggerated the marking”.
Gradually the young musician’s reputation as an operatic conductor of unusual authority and skill supplanted his cello career. In the following decade he consolidated his career in Italy, entrusted with the world premieres of Puccini‘s La bohème and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. In 1896, Toscanini conducted his first symphonic concert (in Turin, with works by Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner). He exhibited a considerable capacity for hard work: in 1898 he conducted 43 concerts in Turin. By 1898 he was principal conductor at La Scala, where he remained until 1908, returning as Music Director, 1921–1929. He took the Scala Orchestra to the United States on a concert tour in 1920/21; it was during that tour that Toscanini made his first recordings (for the Victor Talking Machine Company).
Outside Europe, he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1908–1915) as well as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1926–1936). He toured Europe with the New York Philharmonic in 1930; he and the musicians were acclaimed by critics and audiences wherever they went. Toscanini was the first non-German conductor to appear at Bayreuth (1930–1931), and the New York Philharmonic was the first non-German orchestra to play there. In the 1930s he conducted at the Salzburg Festival (1934–1937) and at the inaugural concert in 1936 of the Palestine Orchestra (later renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) in Tel Aviv, and later performed with them in Jerusalem, Haifa, Cairo and Alexandria. During his engagement with the New York Philharmonic, Hans Lange, the son of the last Master of the Sultan’s Music in Istanbul, who was later to become conductor at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the legendary founder of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra as a professional ensemble, was his concert master.
During his career, Toscanini worked with such legendary artists as Enrico Caruso, Feodor Chaliapin, Ezio Pinza, Jussi Björling, and Geraldine Farrar. Although he also worked with Wagnerian heldentenor Lauritz Melchior, he would not work with Melchior’s frequent partner Kirsten Flagstad after her political sympathies became suspect during World War II; it was Helen Traubel who sang with Melchior instead of Flagstad at the Toscanini concerts.
In 1919, Toscanini ran unsuccessfully as a Fascist parliamentary candidate in Milan. He had been called “the greatest conductor in the world” by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. However, he became disillusioned with fascism and repeatedly defied the Italian dictator after the latter’s ascent to power in 1922. He refused to display Mussolini’s photograph or conduct the Fascist anthem Giovinezza at La Scala. He raged to a friend, “If I were capable of killing a man, I would kill Mussolini.”
At a memorial concert for Italian composer Giuseppe Martucci on May 14, 1931 at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, he was ordered to begin by playing Giovinezza but he refused even though the fascist foreign minister Galeazzo Ciano was present in the audience. Afterwards he was, in his own words, “attacked, injured and repeatedly hit in the face” by a group of blackshirts. Mussolini, incensed by the conductor’s refusal, had his phone tapped, placed him under constant surveillance and took away his passport. The passport was returned only after a world outcry over Toscanini’s treatment. On the outbreak of the Second World War, Toscanini left Italy. He would return seven years later to conduct a concert at the restored La Scala Opera House, which was destroyed by bombs during the war.
With the help of his son Walter, Toscanini spent his remaining years editing tapes and transcriptions of his performances with the NBC Symphony. The “approved” recordings were issued by RCA Victor, which also has issued his recordings with the La Scala Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His recordings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (1937–39) and the Philharmonia Orchestra (1952) were issued by EMI. Various companies have issued recordings on compact discs of a number of broadcasts and concerts that he did not officially approve. Among these are stereophonic recordings of his last two NBC broadcast concerts.
Sachs and other biographers have documented the numerous conductors, singers, and musicians who visited Toscanini during his retirement. He was a big fan of early television, especially boxing and wrestling telecasts, as well as comedy programs.
Toscanini died on January 16, 1957 at the age of 89 at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City. His body was returned to Italy and was buried in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan. His epitaph is taken from one account of his remarks concluding the 1926 premiere of Puccini’s unfinished Turandot: “Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto” (“Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died”). During his funeral service, Leyla Gencer sang an aria from Verdi’s Requiem.
In his will, he left his baton to his protégée Herva Nelli, who sang in the broadcasts of Otello, Aïda, Falstaff, the Verdi Requiem, and Un ballo in maschera.
Toscanini was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
Toscanini married Carla De Martini on June 21, 1897, when she was not yet 20 years old. Their first child, Walter, was born on March 19, 1898. A daughter, Wally, was born on January 16, 1900. Carla gave birth to another boy, Giorgio, in September 1901, but he died of diphtheria on June 10, 1906. Then, that same year, Carla gave birth to their second daughter, Wanda.
Toscanini worked with many great singers and musicians throughout his career, but few impressed him as much as Vladimir Horowitz. They worked together a number of times and recorded Brahms’ second piano concerto and Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto with the NBC Symphony for RCA. Horowitz also became close to Toscanini and his family. In 1933, Wanda Toscanini married Horowitz, with the conductor’s blessings and warnings. It was Wanda’s daughter, Sonia, who was once photographed by Life playing with the conductor.
During World War II, Toscanini lived in Wave Hill, a historic home in Riverdale.
Despite the reported infidelities revealed in Toscanini’s letters documented by Harvey Sachs, he remained married to Carla until she died on June 23, 1951.

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