Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Towering Inferno

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) circa 1890
Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) circa 1890

We mark the birth on March 25, 1867 – 157 years ago today – of the cellist and conductor Arturo Toscanini, in the city of Parma, in what was then the Kingdom of Italy.  He died, at the age of 89, on January 16, 1957, at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, in New York City.

(Properly embalmed and, we trust, adequately chilled, his no-doubt well-dressed corpse was shipped off to Milan, Italy, where he was entombed in the Cimitero Monumentale.  His epitaph features his own words, words he spoke in 1926 after conducting the posthumous premiere of Giacomo Puccini’s opera Turandot, which had been left unfinished at Puccini’s death:

Qui finisce l’opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto.” (“Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died.”)

The Toscanini family tomb at the Monumental Cemetery of Milan
The Toscanini family tomb at the Monumental Cemetery of Milan

What Made Toscanini So Special

Arturo Toscanini lived a long life, and he lived it to the hilt.  Firmly in the public eye from the age of 19 (in 1886) until his death in 1957, he travelled everywhere, seemed to have performed with everyone, and had more affairs than Hugh Heffner had bunnies.  This is my subtle way of saying that even the most cursory examination of his life is far, far beyond the purview of a 2300-word post.  Consequently, we will focus today on the two aspects of Toscanini’s career that made Toscanini special and that together created the Toscanini legend: his revolutionary (at the time) style of conducting and his incendiary, Vesuvian temper.

In tomorrow’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, we will pick back up with Maestro Toscanini, first with his breakthrough performance on June 30, 1886 (when as the principal cellist in a travelling opera company he was called upon to conduct Aida in Rio de Janeiro in the middle what amounted to an audience riot) and then with recordings made and tantrums thrown during his final gig, with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in New York City.

The First “Modern” Conductor

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

As a conductor, Toscanini was a literalist. At the time he broke in as a conductor in 1886, at the age of 19 (to instant acclaim on the part of audiences and performers!), conductors typically treated the scores they conducted as vehicles for their personal self-expression and self-aggrandizement.  For those conductors, that meant milking every piece of music they performed for as much expressive Sturm und Drang, and Schmerz und Angst as was possible.  If such conducting meant constantly speeding up and slowing down in a manner not indicated in the score, so be it; if it meant exaggerating the dynamics, so be it; if it meant playing movements at speeds vastly different from those indicated by the composer, so be it; and if it meant altering a composer’s indicated instrumentation, yes: so be it as well.  

It was said that hearing Toscanini conduct a familiar work – be it an opera by Puccini or a symphony by Beethoven – was like seeing a familiar painting cleaned and restored: with centuries of grime stripped away, viewers could experience and revel in its original colors for the first time.  …

Continue reading, and listen without interruption, only on Patreon!

Become a Patron!

Listen and Subscribe to the Music History Monday Podcast

The Robert Greenberg Store