The Electric Conductor



Back in the day, was there anyone more famous than Arturo Toscanini?  Everyone knew who he was, what he did, and what he looked like.  He was more famous than Walt Disney and got coverage like a movie star.  And even the sight-challenged were aware of his performances and recordings.  The first recording I ever acquired for myself was a Toscanini, of course, and that was never to be regretted.  And there were quite a few pieces that I learned from his recordings: the Brahms First and Fourth Symphonies, the Beethoven Ninth, and the terzetto that ends Verdi’s I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata with the violin as a fourth voice—so it was.  As a latecomer to the phenomenon, I was soon to learn that Toscanini had disappeared from public view.  In 1954, the man who had played for Verdi himself reached the end of his strength, and he died in 1957, just short of his 90th birthday.

I distinctly remember talking about Toscanini with some music lovers in the late 1960’s, but not since then.  Toscanini lost much of his hold on the audience for two reasons: One was that there was a sense that his recordings were harsh, and the other was that in his severity and inflexibility, he had been musically harsh himself.  Furtwängler, Mengelberg, Weingärtner, Bruno Walter, and others from the early 20th century had qualities that Toscanini did not display, or wish to.  Toscanini was not forgotten so much as he was reduced to his singularity.

There are a lot of good things to say about Harvey Sachs’s new or latest biography of Arturo Toscanini, and I want to indicate some of those good things, because a lot of work went into it.  So this is Sachs’s second biography of Toscanini, the first having been published nearly 40 years ago, not counting his other anthologies of Toscaniniana, and I guess we are beginning to get the picture.  Another way of putting it is that this biography of Tos canini is, though bound in one volume, very nearly 1,000 pages long, and it retails for very nearly 40 bucks before taxes—these two aspects making another statement of a kind.

Another statement of another kind would be the title: Toscanini: Musician of Conscience.  Those last three words are a big deal, but they are not an altogether satisfactory one.  Though this volume is the product of extensive research on three continents, it is limited by its regression to what we must call a political agenda.  That agenda was to a degree Toscanini’s, but it is Sachs’s even more.

We will necessarily return to this challenging theme after we dispense with another aspect of Toscanini’s life that has been emphasized by the biographer, after having been emphasized, as it were, by the maestro himself.  I refer to Toscanini’s vigorous and extensive love life—a program of adulterous libertinism that was pursued for many decades.  Sachs is clear about the epic amount of lying that was required to sustain the various fictions, and in at least one case, I wish he had been less honest about the atmosphere of the obsessional agenda.  The biographer, having read a grotesquely impassioned letter of many years ago, was not required to quote the exact words of that letter—he could easily have paraphrased and characterized the message—but he insisted on the quotation, and I think he was wrong to do so, for several reasons.  The grossness of the language—of the reality—is degrading to the great man himself, to his paramour, to the biographer, and to the reader.  Toscanini was wrong to have written it, his mistress to have preserved it, the biographer to have quoted it, and the reader to have scanned it.  And all four of these personae have been besmirched by it.  There are some truths that are beneficial to no one—and sometimes, as here, a biographer has to exclude as well as include and document.  Then let the insistent reader find the passage for himself or herself!

The “Musician of Conscience” portrayed in Sachs’s biography is not the one that was implied in David Ewen’s Dictators of the Baton, back in 1943—though if you watch out for that Dictator, you will find him often enough.  Toscanini’s greatest gift was his absolute memory; the extent of that power threatened credibility, but that is just the point.  For Toscanini, the score was in his head, accessible down to the tiniest detail.  In effect, he was the score—and in some cases he had direct personal knowledge of the composer as well.  His authenticity and insight being thus certified, there wasn’t much left to argue about, or even discuss.  Yet this situation did not eliminate any need for extended and abusive tantrums if the master were provoked.  If you guessed that he was also the absolute judge of tantrum appropriateness, then you are on the path to comprehension.  A viewing and audition of a Toscatantrum is easily found on YouTube—it does not confirm the image of a “Musician of Conscience,” but rather the image of an afflicted person subject to bizarre episodes or torrents of hysterical abusiveness.  I think it is reasonable to reflect that, since people have been killed for less, the orchestra in question had probably been frisked; but then Toscanini was special, was he not?

No great insight is required for us to know that professional musicians sometimes make mistakes—and they know it quite well when they do.  They do not need to be rebuked for what they already know; they do not need to be humiliated in order to make up for their error or lack.  A Musician of Conscience would know this from experience, from common decency, and from familiar and ordinary codes of politeness, yet Toscanini was exempt from obvious standards.  Perhaps, then, “conscience,” being subjective, is only what you can get away with.  But I don’t think that Harvey Sachs meant any such thing by his use of the word conscience.  He did not mean that Toscanini ever resolved not to humiliate further or embarrass any of his orchestral players.

He seems to have meant instead that Toscanini was against fascism, both by refusing to accept Mussolini for what he was and by refusing to be co-opted by Hitler in Bayreuth, as well as by supporting and conducting the symphony orchestra that was assembled in what was then Palestine.  Toscanini had conducted at Bayreuth, of course, and that was fine until Hitler took such an interest.  How Toscanini reconciled his enthusiasm for Wagnerism with Verdi’s association with the Risorgimento is still a stretch, even today.

The context that is provided shows the noble Toscanini, politically correct in liberal ideology and financed by corporate capitalism, doing much to resist fascism and Nazism, but without much sense of a background, other than an odd fondness for Italian anticlericalism.  There is no assertion of what the Nazis and the Zionists had in common, as far as the displacement of Jews was concerned.  There is no assertion that the Roman symbol of the fasces is displayed on the Mercury dime and on many buildings in Washington and elsewhere.  There is no assertion that Wagner’s musical authority was used with perverse unjustifiability to impose his political vision.  Does musical intensity mean political insight?  Hitler agreed with Wagner on that point.  Did Toscanini?

I was disappointed by a lack of historical perspectives for the twin stories of the unification of Germany and of Italy in the 19th century, and their parallel collapses into disastrous fascism in the 20th century, after World War I.  Toscanini’s indignation is not supported by citations of the Italian tradition of political analysis (Machiavelli or Mosca or Pareto or even Robert Michels, his relocation in Italy, his Iron Law of Oligarchy, or his commendation of the fascists as “honest”).  I did not see any critical treatment of Italian nation-building and how Italy remains imperfectly unified, even today.  All of these points teach political lessons made of sterner stuff than the “conscience” of a celebrity of violent temper, whose pockets were lined with dollars, not lire, as he tyrannized an orchestra formed for him by a broadcasting corporation some thousands of miles away from Italy.

On a lesser scale, I was puzzled to see the author lose control of his book in such a way as to draw his editor’s alertness into question.  Sachs is quite aware of the presence of Vladimir Horowitz—possibly the greatest pianist of the 20th century—who was married to one of Toscanini’s daughters, Wanda.  Having put these facts on the page, he then neglects them, dropping not only the subject, but also the associated Horowitz/Toscanini concerts and recordings.  The relations were strained, and the performances and recordings even more so, but these striking matters are mostly passed over.  Yet these three people are buried in the family vault in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan.

A political analogue, perhaps, to Sachs’s treatment of Toscanini as a political saint would be Leonard Bernstein’s role as the self-appointed revisor of Schiller’s “Ode to Joy” after the fall of the Berlin Wall: Freiheit instead of Freude was the word of the day, and somehow the American conductor had become the center of a major European political revolution or social evolution—and he used Beethoven to do it.

Despite all this, anyone interested in Toscanini should look at Sachs’s new book.  Though Toscanini’s reputation is not what it was, the extensive research—as, for example, into Toscanini’s early visits to South America—is interesting and even remarkable.  And then there are Toscanini’s relationships with La Scala, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.  Today, Toscanini’s recordings have lost much of their appeal.  His “objectivity” is now seen pretty much as another ego trip, among many others.  If musical objectivity is questionable, then Toscanini was a subjectivist in objective drag, and maybe he, or at least his recordings, will survive that way.        


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