Confessions (And Tips) From An Unrepentant Collector Of Toscanini

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Arturo Toscanini conducting Verdi’s overture to “La forza del destino” in the 1944 film ‘Hymn of the Nations.’

PERSPECTIVE — The late Edward J. Smith, famous (or perhaps infamous) early purveyor of pirated opera recordings (and not to be confused with Titanic‘s captain), considered him the greatest musician since Beethoven. And since my earliest awareness of the broadcasts and recordings of the radio orchestra created for his use in 1937, conductor Arturo Toscanini has fascinated and amazed me as both a collector and a writer. This interest was sparked in 1957, when I was given a copy of Toscanini’s 1947 recording of Verdi’s Otello. This, I learned later, was a parental subterfuge, for Dad was alarmed that, at the age of 12, I had begun to develop an interest in rock ‘n’ roll — or maybe girls — or perhaps both. His ploy worked, in part. The diversion from pop to classical was total and virtually immediate, too. (Girls? Not so much.)

The person who conducted the two-part broadcast published (in part) on RCA had played cello in the work’s premiere in 1887 and discussed his part with the composer, a fact that — along with his extensive and well-documented history of first performances — debunks complaints that he performed no contemporary music.

That album came with gorgeous cover art taken from a print issued by John and Josiah Boydell and contained a little catalog of available RCA recordings by the maestro. This kid took the listings to a local — and locally owned — record store, where the proprietor offered a 20 percent discount on all purchases, and the rest is history, although it unfolded both circuitously and very slowly.

Scratching the surface of a critic’s massive collection of Toscanini recordings.

There was a time in my life when I thought I would be happy to have all the commercial records, including a Brazilian Victor 78 made in 1951 that had eluded me for years. Then there was a time when I hoped I would live long enough to get to New York’s Museum of Broadcasting (now the Paley Center) often enough to see the 10 telecasts that were available for viewing only there. Then I dreamed of living close enough to the New York Public Library’s Toscanini Archives (see here) to be able to hear all the surviving broadcasts and rehearsal recordings.

And then Al Gore discovered the internet, which changed everything. Really.

There’s a pre-history here, dating from back when mythical Norns still wove the thread of cultural fate, a tale passed down in the oral tradition by senior collectors, many of whom have subsequently taken their departures. There were rich guys with their very own disc cutters, taking down concerts off the air; the best relied on early FM stations in New York, established in the mid-1940s. Some of these guys had the equipment to duplicate their homemade records. A few also had some of the earliest tape recorders, brought to America after World War II. They were passionate music lovers who spent hours and hours dubbing tapes.

The principals included Anthony F. Janak, of CBS, the rival network (whose holdings included materials now retained by several presidential libraries); Willy Lerner, grand master of Music Masters, on West 43rd Street, famous for its (expensive) one-off tape copies of broadcasts; and Nate Brown, formerly of Connecticut but best known as the proprietor of Western Sound Archives, now at Stanford, who was more generous than some of his pals when it came to helping beginning collectors with limited means. From the standpoint of distribution, these were barely trickles, and tapes were expensive for kids in the South who were spending their lunch money on records.

Before the internet, finding out-of-print recordings involved perusing poorly mimeographed lists from dealers, dumpsterdiving at thrift stores and in the basements of old U.S.O. clubs, and swapping tapes with people who didn’t think you were totally crazy — fellow collectors, mostly, and mostly they were men. (Nell Hirschberg, the amazing lady who launched my career as a critic, used to say that the one way to determine gender was to assess how loud people played their stereos. Men prefer louder.) It helped to have friends who were librarians at institutions that were deaccessioning. It also helped to know older people and offer to help them dispose of their records.

Collectors could find each other everywhere and anywhere. Collectors could swap recordings digitally. Collectors could post whole concerts and operas on YouTube and elsewhere online. And may the guardians of copyright be damned because — since the subject here is Toscanini, the last great pre-stereo conductor — no one thinks going after white-collar dealers in old radio broadcasts is really worth the time, trouble, or money involved in chasing them down. Except in the U.S., with its hideously antiquated copyright laws.

The first big breaks actually came out of Dumas, Tex., for heaven’s sake, when the late Clyde J. Key launched the (U.S.) Arturo Toscanini Society. The Society (the ATS for short) gave wider distribution to off-the-air material, not only of American origin but from Europe, too. Then the (British) Toscanini Society was established by the late Michael G. Thomas, who must have had an interesting psychological profile, dealing with the Old Man after having made his name as one of the world’s leading specialists in the work of Willem Mengelberg. Key was ultimately shut down by legal beagles when he overreached in a deal with Olympic-Everest that brought his work much more visibility than he’d previously enjoyed. Death stopped Thomas. But BMG brought out all the U.S. commercial recordings, and Pearl (and then others, including Naxos) issued the English ones. And online trading and posting began.

There were around 244 NBC Symphony broadcasts involving Toscanini, starting on Christmas night 1937. Bits and pieces of these have been emerging from official, semi-official, and pirate sources for years, but the CD era and the transformation of the internet from a government operation to a truly worldwide media resource greatly accelerated the process. Publishers ranging from RCA/BMG/Sony to Appian, Dell’Arte, Guild, Hunt, Immortal Performances, Melodram, Memories, Music & Arts, Myto, Naxos, Pristine, Relief, RY, STR, and many others joined in the fun, with most of them frequently looking over their shoulders for copyright policemen. And then there were the U.S. government releases of tantalizing cuts from some broadcasts issued under the auspices of the V-Disc program.

Thus diligent and persistent collectors, even those with limited access to well-stocked stores — and those with limited means, too — could over time have picked up many, many individual broadcast performances and, along the way, more and more complete concerts. It took me 65 years, but these concerts have always been central to my musical being, and just recently I found several other collectors, located on three separate continents, who helped me complete the endeavor. I owe all who have helped me huge debts of gratitude.

The late Mortimer Frank, longtime custodian of the collection at one-time Toscanini residence Wave Hill and author of a useful book on the NBC broadcasts, was a stalwart supporter of the maestro’s legacy and one of his strongest advocates, so I was somewhat taken aback when, during a conversation with him years ago when I’d said I hoped eventually to be able to hear all of the radio concerts, he retorted, “Why?” He went on to say that not all of them were great, reminding me that some of the commercial releases had been patched up in their transitions from NBC air checks to RCA Red Seal LP records. He was right, of course — no one would argue that point (or many other points) with Dr. Frank!

But since I have now, at long last, heard all of these NBC Symphony broadcasts under Toscanini’s baton — since I managed to live long enough to do so — I can now affirm that they are endlessly fascinating artistic and historical documents, and that they all merit hearing, study, and ultimately enjoyment.

Now that I have filled the last few gaps in my collection with recordings that are as good as I have been able to find thus far, I look forward to revisiting all of them at least once again, in chronological order.

You, too, can do this, and without moving to Manhattan. I list three valuable web resources that are available for free to anyone with a computer and internet access:

Luciano Crivello

Daniela Dal Cortivo

Goodmanmusica

For more information on how to invest in ongoing digitization and preservation efforts by one of American’s leading engineers, send me an email at ncmusiccritic@gmail.com. Thanks for considering.

A short note to those who might wish to gather “complete” collections of — whatever. At the outset, you will of course know what you have; the trick is knowing what you don’t. The way to determine that is to obtain a reliable discography. The best American source for information on commercial recordings is the online site of Michael H. Gray, who has been plowing this fertile ground for years, starting with groundbreaking in-print bibliographies of discographies and a milestone study of the recordings of Thomas Beecham. Once you’re armed with a good discography, online searches may be pin-pointed, significantly enhancing the likelihood of success. More specifically, there are now numerous websites and Facebook groups devoted to individual conductors that address commercial, off-the-air, and in-house recordings; and once a would-be collector taps into organizations of fellow enthusiasts, the game is well underway.

The great resource for collectors of recordings has, since 1966, been the Association for Recorded Sound Collections, a non-profit organization that, among other things, is actively lobbying for copyright reform.

Do remember however that collecting is a disease for which, aside from more stuff, there is only one reliable cure. For a lengthy discussion, including suggestions about what to do with all that stuff, chaired by discographer Gray, click here.

Whatever you do, don’t blame me!

By the way, the best book on Toscanini, by miles and miles, is Harvey Sachs’ Toscanini: Musician of Conscience — one of the finest conductor biographies in the history of the universe. Read it if you are reading only one. Pace George Marek and especially Joseph Horowitz, whose books on Arturo Toscanini play up the commercialization of “the product” by reducing the conductor to something akin to a mindless tool in the hands of marketing managers at NBC and RCA. And forget Marek’s book on Toscanini. His book on Cosima Wagner, on the other hand, is OK.