About a decade ago, a Manhattan friend of mine read the then recently published memoirs of Joseph Volpe, the Metropolitan Opera’s former general manager, and decided to follow up with those of Volpe’s predecessor Sir Rudolf Bing. In a moment that could only have happened in New York, my friend encountered Volpe soon thereafter and told him of his foray into the annals of arts administration. A curious Volpe asked how he and Bing were different. Intending to reply that Bing was more “autocratic,” my friend fell victim to a Freudian slip and pronounced the earlier general manager more “aristocratic.” Volpe, who suffered decades of snobbery for his blue-collar background, furrowed his brow and quickly disengaged.
Harvey Sachs’s thousand-page tome on the famous Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957) tackles a subject who had elements of both characteristics. Sachs’s feat is all the more impressive because this is in fact his second biography of the conductor, the first having appeared as long ago as 1978. What could safely be called a lifelong obsession continued after that first effort with an edited volume of hundreds of previously unavailable letters and an exploration of about one hundred hours of taped personal conversations from the final years of Toscanini’s life, many of which were recorded without his knowledge. The additional information is so comprehensive that Sachs claims that barely a single sentence from his first biography found its way into the second, which is three times longer and would have taken up even more shelf space if practical considerations had not forced Sachs’s citations and appendices onto an accompanying website.
To say that Sachs’s effort is comprehensive may be a great understatement, but we do live in an age of mammoth biographies of the great and the good. The world of music has not escaped this phenomenon. Toscanini’s rise emerges in meticulous detail, from a scholarship student at Parma’s music school to his striking yet totally unexpected debut as a conductor at age nineteen during a touring Italian opera company’s residency in Brazil. Easily a legend by age twenty-five, he saw his reputation soar on the wings of his domineering manner on the podium, as well as his photographic memory, which enabled him to memorize entire scores on short acquaintance.
Toscanini set a standard for the uniquely twentieth-century phenomenon of celebrity conductors.
Sachs credits Toscanini with doing more than anyone else to institutionalize, if not invent, many of the conventions of opera and concert-going that we now take for granted. Leaning heavily on Wagner’s theoretical writings, he gave us the darkened hall, the exclusion of latecomers, an insistence on silence throughout performances, and the conductor’s total control of every aspect of production, however minute. Toscanini was also responsible for lowering La Scala’s orchestra into a proper pit and introducing, or at least paying homage to, the modernist approaches to theatrical production pioneered by Max Reinhardt and Adolphe Appia. His recovery of Verdi’s early- and middle-period masterpieces, which had fallen into obscurity by the turn of the twentieth century, assured them an enduring place in the standard repertoire. At the same time, a fiercely cosmopolitan sensibility— Beethoven was his favorite composer followed more or less equally by Wagner and Verdi—enshrined German, French, Russian, and even a few American works in international musical life.
Mercurial in temperament, Toscanini set a standard for the uniquely twentieth-century phenomenon of celebrity conductors, many of whom indulged in banal narcissism without equaling his intellectual acumen and expansive humanity. The same Toscanini who routinely abused (and on one—but only one—occasion struck) performers and referred to them in his more generous moments as “dogs” and “pigs” could suddenly turn around and meet their financial needs or defend them from administrative caprice. As a committed family man who did not believe in divorce despite fervent anticlerical views, he drifted breezily in and out of passionate love affairs, ending them when things got too serious and resuming them when the white heat of passion had yielded to the warm embers of affectionate nostalgia. As the septuagenerian director of the nbc Orchestra—his longest-held post—he availed himself of Manhattan’s anonymity to carry on with at least four mistresses at the same time, three of whom were in their thirties.
Much of Sachs’s research goes beyond the purely artistic realm to embrace Toscanini as a public figure of, to quote the book’s subtitle, conscience. Supporting patriotic causes during World War I left him bankrupt in his early fifties, when his earlier tenures at La Scala and the Metropolitan Opera had already made him a figure of global importance. His well-known dust-up with fascist activists in Mussolini’s Italy—they physically assaulted him for refusing to perform their anthem Giovinezza (Youth) at a concert in Bologna in May 1931—led to a self-imposed exile from his home country until after World War II. He refused to return not just until conflict had ceased and Mussolini was dead, but until Italy became a republic, a political change that only occurred more than a year after the cessation of hostilities. Toscanini’s refusal to work in Germany after Hitler came to power, and in Austria after the Anschluss of 1938, stands as another distinct example of a politicized artistic statement with few parallels then or now. So, too, does the conductor’s unrelenting condemnation of colleagues of any nationality who failed to live up to his standard.
Perhaps inevitably, an authoritative biography of such a well-documented figure can suffer from some imbalance. About eighty percent of Sachs’s narrative falls after Toscanini’s fortieth year, leaving a number of unanswered questions about the conductor’s younger life. His meteoric rise to the pinnacle of Italian music, for example, seems to have simply happened within a few years of his unexpected conducting debut. We learn so little about how this happened that—to paraphrase Wagner’s quip about Meyerbeer’s operas—there was no apparent cause of this extraordinarily impressive effect. Similarly, the conductor’s deeply meaningful affair with the soprano Rosina Storchio—the first Madama Butterfly, among other achievements—begins with a scant passing mention and does not resume until we hear of the birth of their bastard child. One hopes they got to know each other better in between. By contrast, Toscanini’s seven years at the helm of the New York Philharmonic (1929–1936) sprawls over a mammoth chapter of nearly 150 pages. While many other interesting things happened during that time, Sachs does not appear to have encountered a single fact about Toscanini from those years that deserved exclusion from his book. The season-by-season listing of repertoire selections in a career that spanned seven decades also becomes rote.
The season-by-season listing of repertoire selections becomes rote.
The author clearly idolizes his subject for his conscience as much as for his musicianship. At times this clouds a truly critical approach to the conductor’s life and work. Sachs’s tone suggests that he rejoiced whenever he found archival material or other evidence disproving nasty—and now mostly forgotten—rumors about Toscanini’s professionalism or treatment of his colleagues in moments when it really mattered. A more dispassionate empirical report would have served as a better corrective. The narrative also tends to dismiss or minimize negative critiques of Toscanini’s work in a way that does not always do justice to the complexity either of his character or of musical performance generally. In another disappointment, Sachs never addresses the natural conclusion one might draw from Toscanini’s creative life: that his worldwide championing of the Romantic and late-Romantic repertoire for which he was most famous essentially froze it in a curatorial canon that few major arts institutions have yet escaped. These criticisms do not mar Sachs’s magnificent achievement, but I was left contemplating how unlikely it would be for our current era’s insistence on pervasive niceness to tolerate a figure like Toscanini and how many geniuses we have probably lost as a result.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 5, on page 75
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