Harvey Sachs: Toscanini: Musician of Conscience. New York: Liveright Publishing 2017, 923 pages. Supplementary material available here.
BOOK REVIEW — Many years ago, I had a conversation about Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) with my friend and teacher Frederick Zimmermann (1906-1967), a long-time member of the double bass section of the New York Philharmonic. Fred had played under Toscanini in the 1930s and remembered playing in a performance of the Schubert Ninth Symphony that was so overwhelming that he couldn’t recall how he got home after the concert.
As memorable as that experience was, Fred said that never again would he put up with a conductor shouting and swearing at his musicians – not even Toscanini. Other musicians, while acknowledging Toscanini’s poor treatment of his players, often came to a different conclusion.
In his new book, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, Harvey Sachs quotes a member of the La Scala Orchestra: “Seeing him happy, we would forget the torture and the fear, the insults and the bad language, because although he maltreated us, we loved him.” He also quotes soprano Lotte Lehmann, who described Fidelio rehearsals with Toscanini as “a perpetual shaking and quaking in anguish and pain.” But while the stress level was high, Lehmann thought it was all worth it: “What a compensation that Fidelio was.”
Toscanini’s was a different time, a time when conductors had the power to do whatever they liked with their musicians. Although he was not the only conductor to misuse that power, Toscanini was probably the most famous and the most successful.
Widely admired in his time – and rightly so – Toscanini played cello in the orchestra for the premiere of Verdi’s Otello and conducted the world premieres of Pagliacci, La Bohème, and Turandot. He went on to become chief conductor at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony; the last was an orchestra created for him late in his career. Fame and success aside, Toscanini was a deeply flawed man, on and off the podium. In Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, Harvey Sachs gives us the most detailed and insightful account yet published of Toscanini’s life and music-making. And it is timely, for 2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Toscanini’s birth.
Sachs published an excellent Toscanini biography in 1978, which he followed up with several more books on this conductor. Then, in the mid-1990s, a large trove of Toscanini letters became available, as well as more than a hundred tape recordings of Toscanini made by his son, Walter. Finally, the Toscanini family archive was acquired and catalogued by the New York Public Library. In light of this staggering amount of new material, Sachs decided that a new Toscanini biography was required. His original biography of Toscanini ran to 380 pages; this new one, at 923 pages, is far more substantial. In fact, it is so long that the footnotes and bibliography are consigned to a companion website that also contains lists of all of Toscanini’s known performances and an alphabetical list of all the works in his repertoire.
Not only is it voluminous, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience is also an impressive work of scholarship. Sachs has studied in detail all the newly released data on Toscanini, explored numerous Italian sources including official documents from the Mussolini era, and interviewed nearly everyone still living who came in contact with Toscanini. Although he was too young to have seen Toscanini conduct, and many of the people who knew the conductor best have passed away, Sachs has left no stone unturned in producing this authoritative documentation of Toscanini’s life and career.
The subtitle of Sachs’ book is “Musician of Conscience.” During the 1930s and the lead-up to World War II, Toscanini became increasingly well known for his anti-Fascist views and became one of the most prominent musicians to speak out against both Mussolini and Hitler. Sachs’ painstaking research reveals that Toscanini was not always opposed to Mussolini; in fact, Toscanini actually ran as a candidate for Mussolini’s political party in 1919 when the Italian politician appeared to be some sort of leftist idealist. Only later when Mussolini revealed his true colors as a vicious dictator did Toscanini turn against him in a very public way. Mussolini loved music and admired Toscanini and did everything he could to retain the great conductor’s support.
Toscanini was a man of principle when it came to politics, but as Sachs makes abundantly clear, it was another story when it came to marriage vows. The most salacious new material in the book comes from Toscanini’s letters. An earlier Sachs book contains the author’s own translations and annotations for these letters (The Letters of Toscanini. Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2002). The new volume provides additional context.
The letters reveal that through most of the 54 years he was married to Carla De Martini, he was intimately involved with other women (among them sopranos Rosina Storchio and Geraldine Farrar) and often wrote them love letters in the most explicit terms. The longest-lasting object of Toscanini’s extra-marital affections was probably Ada Mainardi, wife of the famous cellist Enrico Mainardi. Toscanini met her for the first time in 1917, but it was not until 1933 that a relationship began in earnest. For seven years, they had an intimate liaison and according to Sachs, Toscanini wrote her more than 1,000 letters, telegrams, and postcards.
Sachs’ new biography carefully documents this relationship and fits it into the larger picture of Toscanini’s career. Clearly, Ada was more than an object of sexual attraction for Toscanini; she was a soul mate to whom he poured out his innermost thoughts about life and music. By contrast, Toscanini’s wife Carla scarcely comes to life at all in this book except as the mother of his children and someone to escape from when there was an attractive woman available. Perhaps the problem here is that Carla and Toscanini exchanged few letters to reveal what they discussed with each other.
While Toscanini’s correspondence with Ada consists mainly of love letters, he often talks music and politics. Here is a sample of a letter from Toscanini to Ada in which he writes about the persecution of the Jews in Austria: “My heart is torn in bits and pieces. When you think about this tragic destruction of the Jewish population of Austria, it makes your blood run cold. Think of what a prominent part they’ve played in Vienna’s life for two centuries!”
While biographies of many important conductors have been published, few are as comprehensive as Sachs’ biography of Toscanini. That said, some do come close: Peter Heyworth’s three-volume bio on Klemperer (Otto Klemperer: His Life and Times. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1983/1996), Richard Osborne’s massive book on Karajan (Herbert von Karajan: A Life in Music. Boston: Northeastern University Press 1998, 849 pages), and Humphrey Burton’s authoritative Bernstein biography (Leonard Bernstein. New York: Doubleday 1994, 594 pages).
In nearly every published book, one finds typos and at least a few minor factual errors. Thus far, I have only found one factual error in this book and it is indeed minor. Sachs states that Toscanini attended two concerts by Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic (p. 806) in Milan in June, 1950; in fact, the orchestra was the Vienna Symphony.
Toscanini: Musician of Conscience is packed with fascinating details about Toscanini’s career, his private life, and his views on music and politics. Yet in the final analysis, Toscanini’s importance rests on his music-making, and there is plenty of that available on CDs and DVDs.
A recently released 20-CD set titled Toscanini: The Essential Recordings (Sony Classical 537604) includes recordings selected by Harvey Sachs and British Toscanini authority Christopher Dyment, but many of the finest examples of Toscanini’s unique intensity and authority as a conductor are to be found elsewhere. These are primarily RCA recordings and broadcasts – available as either downloads or CDs at Pristine Classical – that have been expertly remastered to sound better than ever before.
[Below is a video of Toscanini in 1952, conducting Rossini’s Overture to William Tell at Carnegie Hall.]
Paul E. Robinson is a Canadian conductor and broadcaster and the author of four books on conductors. He writes regularly about music for www.theartoftheconductor.com, ludwig-van.com, and www.myscena.org.