Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Dr. Bob Prescribes: Arturo Toscanini

Today’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post takes a different tack than usual.  Rather than prescribing/recommending a particular CD (or DVD, or book), today’s post will feature a series of links to various video performances of Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony, interviews with people who knew him, and audio recordings of a very few of his legendary temper tantrums!

Toscanini, circa 1937
Toscanini, circa 1937

Instant Fame

The story of Toscanini’s rise to almost instant fame is the stuff of legend.

At the age of eighteen, he was living at home and contributing to his family’s finances by working as a freelance cellist.  He looked younger than his years, so he grew a mustache in an attempt to look older.

During the 1885-’86 opera season, Toscanini played cello at the Teatro Regio in Parma (where, for our information, he had begun performing as a cellist cello at the tender age of thirteen).

Over his time in the pit, Toscanini had memorized all of his parts, which allowed him to watch the action on stage without ever having to look at the music on his stand. He later remembered:

“I never had to turn a page.”

Toscanini’s prodigious memory annoyed the conductor of the Teatro Regio – Nicola Bassi – no end. According to Toscanini:

Toscanini in 1885, at the age of 18
Toscanini in 1885, at the age of 18

“When we got to [Ponchielli’s] Marion Delarme, which was a brand-new opera, Bassi came over to me and said, ‘Now we’ll see if you can play this by heart!’ And I said, ‘Why not?  Isn’t it music, too?’”

Among Toscanini’s fellow musicians at the Regio that 1885-’86 season was a violinist named Carlo Superti.  Superti was helping to put together a pickup opera company to tour Brazil and, if things went well, some other South American countries.  Toscanini later recalled:

“One fine day, [Superti] comes up to me and says, ‘Wouldn’t you like go to South America with me?’ I said, ‘I can’t go to American because I’m only eighteen.  I need my family’s permission.’ ‘Ask for permission; I’ll take you to America as principal cello.’”

Toscanini received that permission, and was hired by Superti not just as the principal cellist but as the assistant chorusmaster (choir coach and conductor) as well.

The Brazilian conductor (and composer) Leopoldo Miguez (1850-1902) was hired to conduct the company while it was on tour in Brazil.

Alas, Maestro Miguez and Carlo Superti’s Parma-based opera company were not a good fit.   

By the time the company arrived in Rio de Janeiro – after a two-month engagement in São Paulo – the singers were entirely fed up with Miguez, and demanded that he make like a tree and leave.  Miguez responded by blaming his problems on the singers, and was then a last-minute no-show for company’s first shoiw in Rio, a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida.  (“That’ll show these Italian ingrates if they think they can do without me!” likely thought Maestro Miguez.)  But the performance was saved when Toscanini’s friend, the violinist Carlo Superti, stepped in and managed to conduct the opera.

The second performance of Aida was scheduled for June 30, 1886, and it was on that day that Leopoldo Miguez formally resigned, claiming that it was for “reasons of health.” So, Carlo Superti got ready to conduct that evening as well, unaware that word had spread among the locals that the hometown conductor – Leopoldo Miguez – had been treated with disrespect by the Italians.…

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