Some Comments about a Recent Biography of Toscanini
I heard Toscanini once in person. The music appreciation club of my high school, Brooklyn Tech, got tickets to the NBC Symphony, where we heard Toscanini conducting Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony in Studio 8H. I found out a great many years later—or thought I did— that Shosty (as we called him) had not at all liked that performance. But now know that this report of the composer’s opinion in Solomon Volkov’s Testimony was actually quite suspect.
I can’t say that this early NBC Symphony experience played a role in my getting to read the recent Harvey Sachs mega-biography of Toscanini, whom one might well call the paradigmatic conductor of the 20th century. I just finished that big book—on Kindle where, lacking page numbers, you can never find out just how big a book—and now want to make a number of remarks about it—reactions that in no way add up to a review.
The first considerable chunk of Toscanini’s conducting career had him almost exclusively conducting operas. While I was aware of this fact, I had no idea of the role opera played in those years before radio not to mention television. Large audiences expressed themselves by shouting, clapping, stamping their feet. But still, I was more aware of that involvement than I was of the actual operas that engaged these audiences. Of course, there were the operas of Verdi and then Puccini, but there were numerous operas that I had never heard of and, more shockingly, I was totally unaware of the existence many of their composers. Toscanini’s involvement was not only deep, touching on all aspects of the music and singing, but also broad, in that he was often concerned with various aspects of an opera’s staging.
Another news-to-me item was the revelation of the breadth of Toscanini’s repertory of orchestral music. It is true that that he never cottoned on to atonal music (he made very negative remarks about Alban Berg’s Lulu)—nor did perform music influenced by Schönberg, his repertory was much broader than the works of Beethoven, Brahms, and Wagner to which, to be sure, he turned again and again.
My final comments pertain what was for me the most revealing aspect of this biography. Toscanini’s political views were much more deep-seated than is suggested by the labels “anti-fascist” and “liberal” that have correctly been given to him. Both Mussolini and Hitler wrote wooing letters to him, reproduced in the book, to no avail whatever. He not only rejected all such approaches, but self-consciously shifted his career as a performer to make sure that he did not in any way support such ideologies. Moreover, he donated considerable sums of money to “anti” causes and actively and financially supported victims of fascist and Nazi persecution. In short, the Maestro put his money where his mouth is, distinguishing himself from many of his non-Jewish conductor-confreres.
The Harvey Sachs biography is detailed and consistently interesting. If you are interested in learning about the long and distinguished career of a musical giant, read his Toscanini: Musician of Conscience.