The second session of the
The second session of the series Creativity and Exile features the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini who left fascist Italy in protest of Mussolini’s Racial Laws and settled in America where he left a profound mark on the way in which symphonic music is performed and understood.
Music director of the Los Angeles Opera, James Conlon will discuss Toscanini’s experience with his biographer, the renowned musicologist, Harvey Sachs.
Free and open to the public. Make a reservation.
Born in 1867 in Parma, Italy, Toscanini debuted very young on the international scene and, already in 1898, received important appointments at La Scala first and, in 1908 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he remained as musical director until 1915. He conducted the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra from 1928 to 1936 and appeared with orchestras all over the world, except those of Italy and Germany during the Fascist regimes. In 1939, after the promulgation of the racial laws and the outbreak of the war, he left Italy for good. He settled in the US where directed the NBC Symphony Orchestra until 1954.
Toscanini was staunchly opposed to the growth of fascism in Europe. In Italy in 1931, he was attacked for refusing to play the fascist anthem. Toscanini had been the first non-German to conduct at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, but he opted not to attend the festival in 1933 due to the Nazi regime. In 1936, Toscanini traveled to Palestine to conduct a group of Jewish musicians who had fled Europe.
The Toscanini’s Wars
David Denby, The New Yorker, July 10, 2017
What comes through in Harvey Sachs’s long chronicle is the extent of Toscanini’s role, witting and unwitting, in transforming the way that classical music was produced and consumed in the twentieth century. In his seventy years as a performer, he moved opera, as Sachs says, from entertainment to culture. The nineteenth-century conductor—a necessary time beater, presiding over a mixed lot of players—by degrees metamorphosed, in the most talented examples, into a spiritual mentor and charismatic culture god. The mechanical reproduction of music, which became popular with such novelties as a foggy four-minute recording of Caruso singing “Celeste Aida,” from 1902, gave way to complete recordings of symphonies and operas transmitted through every available medium. We are now immersed: the entire recorded history of music lies open, much of it free, to any listener who has the curiosity to discover it. But if Adorno and Horowitz are descriptively correct in asserting that Toscanini became part of advanced consumer patterns in the monopoly phase of late capitalism, and the rest of that Marxist bad news, Toscanini never saw himself in world-historical terms. As a nineteenth-century man charging through the twentieth century, he certainly welcomed stardom and wanted his concerts broadcast in America and Europe. The quintessential performer, he seized on every opportunity to make music under the best conditions.
For years, he was known principally as a man of the theatre, but in 1926 he began conducting the New York Philharmonic, and became its music director in 1929. He was over sixty; he had trained the La Scala musicians in the nineteen-twenties and taken the company on tour as a concert orchestra, but this was the first time that he had an orchestra of his own. Those who heard his work with the Philharmonic speak of a mastery beyond anything they had ever encountered. The “Essential Recordings” collection has a few examples of extreme refinement without any loss of vitality. There is the extraordinary Beethoven’s Seventh, recorded in 1936, a performance that the conductor James Levine considers to be the most perfect orchestral recording he knew of. (It’s certainly more relaxed, with sweeter string tone, than the driving, almost angry Seventh that the NBC Symphony recorded in 1951.) The collection also includes two Rossini overtures with the Philharmonic, “L’Italiana in Algeri” and “Semiramide,” that are breathtakingly nuanced in their shading of color and emphasis. Sachs reports that, when Toscanini took the Philharmonic on tour in 1930, European audiences and critics were astonished by the virtuoso playing in every section, the evenness of stroke, the dynamics seamlessly matched from one phrase to the next.
By 1936, Toscanini had grown tired of presenting every program four times for the Philharmonic’s subscription concerts, and he resigned, returning to Milan and vowing never to be the music director of an orchestra again. That’s when the capitalist miracle occurred. The following year, the head of RCA, David Sarnoff, sent an emissary asking Toscanini to come back and conduct a handpicked ensemble. Like the Hollywood studio bosses, Sarnoff, born in Eastern Europe and with little formal education, became a hard-driving entrepreneur in America. A businessman and an inventor, he was eager to be recognized as a patron of culture. In the event, Toscanini demanded, and got, complete control over repertory and soloists, and the right to approve or veto any recordings that came out of the broadcasts.
Live music was all over the radio in the thirties. NBC had a large staff ensemble that played light classics and dance music and appeared in various shows. In September, 1937, the network turned over auditions for the new orchestra to no less an eminence than Artur Rodzinski, the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, who selected the best players from the staff orchestra and added young string and woodwind players from around the country, raiding other orchestras, including his own. He rehearsed the musicians for weeks. Toscanini finally showed up in December, 1937 (…).
The NBC Symphony Orchestra, with its ninety-two players, never had the weight of the New York Philharmonic or the rounded, dark, burnished sound of, say, the Berlin Philharmonic. What it had was phenomenal accuracy, drive, and brilliance. It was the ideal instrument for Toscanini’s temperament. (…)
The creation of the NBC Symphony was celebrated at the time as a victory for American culture—the New World coming into its own musically—but Sachs also sees it as a product of Europe’s disintegration in the authoritarian nineteen-thirties. A good portion of the book is devoted to the social and what might be called the geographic structure of musical high life—Toscanini’s restlessness, the endless ocean voyages, the meetings with celebrities, the shuffling of family and mistresses, the frequent retreats to Lago Maggiore for a peace that was beyond his reach. But, throughout the hard work and the periods of respite, the atmosphere in Europe grows menacing.