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The Maestro on the Market

Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music

by Joseph Horowitz
Knopf, 492 pp., $30.00

Joseph Horowitz’s new book ranges far beyond the limited expectations raised by its misleadingly specific title. Three decades after Toscanini’s death not many music lovers can be seriously concerned with “understanding” him. And if they were, in what sense—since neither he nor his music making is in any way enigmatic, and since this very absence of mystery constitutes part of Horowitz’s criticism of him as an interpreter? The real subject of the book, we are told when well into it, “is less Toscanini than the manner in which he was perceived, procured, appreciated, marketed.”

Understanding Toscanini is a history of the United States as consumer of European music and musicians; an analysis of the effects on the culture of assorted American entrepreneurial types from P.T. Barnum to the manager of Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic, Arthur Judson; a socioeconomic study of the classical music industry and of the growth, through radio, recording, and television, of musical mass culture; and an indictment, intentional or otherwise, of the quality of music journalism in America during the first half of this century. On another level, the book exposes the promotional processes by which big business becomes the enlightened benefactor of high culture (“nearly all of the world’s great music [is] Victor recorded”), “great music” and “Toscanini” become fused, and the conductor’s name is equated with Beethoven’s.

Horowitz’s thesis is that America and Toscanini deserve each other, that by the time of his debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1908, aged forty-one, the publicity machinery with its developed tradition of hyperbole was ready and lying in wait for just such a “genius” quarry—the legendary photographic memory, the awesome precisionist, the inspiring dictatorial leader—and that Toscanini’s subsequent career at the New York Philharmonic in the 1920s and 1930s, and, ultimately, as the godlike conductor of the NBC Symphony (1937–1954), corresponds to the development of the broadcasting media for whose corporate interests he was both a comprehensible and a salable symbol of high culture. At this point, musical values were misled, and Toscanini’s influence became corrupting.

The book criticizes in depth the values of the society as a whole as exemplified in its selling or, rather, selling out of its musical culture. Understanding Toscanini is intelligently argued and thoroughly documented—overdocumented in some instances, and toward the end, when the case has already been won, run-on. The book, moreover, is clumsily organized and repetitive, reaching all the way back to Tocqueville and devoting more time than needed en route to the Mark Twain syndrome of defensive Americans obsessively fascinated with Europe. Then, too, while the discussions of Middletown, Sinclair Lewis’s novels, and the writings of C. Wright Mills and Richard Hofstadter are more immediately relevant to the growth of American mass culture and anti-intellectualism, general readers will find little that is new in these discourses, while the musically minded will very likely skip them as too remote from Toscanini.

The book’s main shortcoming, however, is that Horowitz places too much responsibility on a person of Toscanini’s limited intellectual, moral, and artistic stature. Not being a creative artist, the conductor does not have a historical position, and, so far from being a representative figure of his age, he was an anachronism. The book could be rewritten from the very different perspective of an old-fashioned prima donna conductor as the victim of his success, his press, his manipulators and exploiters. Nevertheless, and these reservations notwithstanding, no one concerned with the fate of the arts in our jingoist and dangerously confused society can afford to ignore Joseph Horowitz’s courageous, necessary, and for the most part irrefutable cultural case history.

In considering Toscanini simply as a musician, as distinguished from the public totem of him, one must also say that he receives somewhat less than his due. If only as a corrective he merits the highest place, having established unsurpassed standards of ensemble playing. True, his repertory was limited—nonexistent as regards significant modern music—and he was unable to differentiate periods and styles, turning Mozart into Rossini. Yet during a brief spell in the late 1940s, not long enough to mitigate the criticisms, he did present important twentieth-century music through his guest conductors; or, at least, permitted them to present it. Thus Ernest Ansermet played works by Stravinsky (Symphonies of Wind Instruments) and Bartók (Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta) that Toscanini did not understand and could not perform. It must be mentioned, too, that he was not the only conductor to vent his scorn on conspicuous colleagues (“I cannot look at [Stokowski’s] stupid face without shuddering”), and that he deserves credit for having nominated Wilhelm Furtwängler, by far the most interesting of his 1930s rivals, to succeed him at the New York Philharmonic.

The Toscanini–Furtwängler polarity is the major musico-critical theme of Horowitz’s book, a purplish one when the nemesis-hero’s performances are under consideration: “[Furtwängler’s] immersion in subjectivity and deep structure consummates his immersion in Wagnerian inner space”; the Tristan Prelude, conducted by him, “pulsates with tireless engines of desire.” (For this reviewer, the marvel of Furtwängler’s Tristan Prelude is its “chastity” and the complete absence of “pulsing.”) Furtwängler, vacillator and self-doubter, awkward and unworldly, child of intellectual and artistic parents, educated by tutors and tours in Greece and Italy, was a contrast in every way to the decisive, sure-of-himself, down-to-earth, patchily educated child of poor parents, Toscanini. Furtwängler’s beat was vague but his performances were “profound,” while Toscanini’s was precise and his performances were spit-and-polished and spectacular. The antipodal positions are further defined by Furtwängler’s statement that “Beethoven’s subjects develop in mutual interaction like the characters in a play. In every single subject of every Beethoven work, a destiny is unfolded.” And by Toscanini’s statement about the Eroica: “To some it is Napoleon…to some it is philosophical struggle; to me it is Allegro con brio.”

What can be said of both conductors is that, for better or worse, their personal stamp is on every phrase of their music making. Horowitz dissects Toscanini’s performance style in a long chapter on the discography that music lovers may want to read first. Let it be said that the tally of hard-driven, rushed-through, landscape-leveling readings—perhaps best represented by the hurried and feelingless Pathétique Symphony, which is not singled out—is near the total number, and that Furtwängler’s Beethoven and Wagner, at least, are immeasurably greater.

Horowitz traces the roots of the Toscanini–Furtwängler rivalry to the beginnings of American symphony orchestras with their overwhelming predominance of German conductors and players, and, later in the nineteenth century, with increasing Italian immigration, to the establishment of Italian opera in New York. The contest, ethnic and cultural, at the Metropolitan Opera between Mahler and Toscanini in the years between 1908 and 1911—“small excitable men whose ruthless idealism stirred achievement, turmoil and intrigue”—became the prototype for the Furtwängler–Toscanini feud. What should be said about this today is that although our sympathies are naturally with Mahler—the creative mind, the loser, and in declining health—Toscanini, at that time, was no less highly esteemed as a Wagnerian (Tristan, Götterdämmerung) and as a reformer with progressive ideas about integrated theater.

World War I aggravated nationalist prejudices to the extent that Karl Muck, Furtwängler’s fellow countryman and then conductor of the Boston Symphony, was incarcerated in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, as an enemy alien, partly on suspicion of plotting to blow up the birthplace of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. After having been persecuted for not playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” in Providence, Rhode Island—on orders from the orchestra’s founder—thereby provoking Theodore Roosevelt to a statement inviting him “to go back where he came from,” the “Hun” did play it but only to be attacked for his “torpid rendition.” Furtwängler’s departure from New York in the 1930s was precipitated by some of the same sentiments.

The political conduct of Furtwängler and Toscanini during and before the Second World War cannot be placed in simple opposition, since the German’s personal freedom and safety were in danger. His record of resistance to the Third Reich appears to be somewhat blemished, as is Toscanini’s for having initially supported Mussolini in 1919. But no matter. In the 1930s, when it made a difference, Toscanini took sides, whether or not, as some believed, he was a political opportunist with his eye on the New York press. The anomaly is that the behavior in and out of music of this “law unto himself” was, by most definitions, fascist. New York critics, Horowitz writes, “thrilled to the spectacle of cowering players and smashed batons,” and one of them, Olin Downes, actually lauded Toscanini’s “glorious and despotic sway” as proof of his antifascism. At this point, Horowitz might usefully have introduced Elias Canetti’s discussion of the totalitarian relationship of conductor to orchestra in Crowds and Power.

In a reconsideration of the question of artists and politics, Harvey Sachs,1 author of a book on Toscanini and of a forthcoming one on music in Fascist Italy, challenges a new and widespread attitude as expressed by Erich Leinsdorf in a talk to students in Cleveland. Artists who lend their prestige to exert influence in politics, the one-time Toscanini assistant and esteemed conductor said, are in effect endangering their seriousness in both areas. But Sachs’s argument cannot be gainsaid: “When the issue is war, racism, or blatant oppression, professionalism is no excuse for carrying on as usual.” And Toscanini did speak out against Mussolini and Hitler, whatever one may think of his motives.

The David Sarnoff saga has long since entered into folklore,2 but Horowitz’s fresh account of how the ruler of the world’s “first great communications empire” and “the world’s greatest conductor” used each other is the best to date, above all in the reconstruction of the parallels between their rags-to-riches careers. As the man who returned the conductor to America, and who formed the NBC Symphony for him as his personal orchestra, primarily to broadcast great music to American homes, the RCA boss believed that he deserved almost as much credit as Toscanini, who became Sarnoff’s alter ego.

The Sarnoff story is still astonishing. By 1938, 88 percent of the 25 million radios in American homes were supplied by RCA’s child company, NBC. In the period 1933–1938, RCA’s sales rose 600 percent, and with symphonic rather than popular music on top. Whereas RCA produced only five thousand television sets in 1946, the figure jumped to seven million in 1950. By 1954, 20 million Toscanini recordings had been sold for a total of $33 million.

Almost as if to bring relief, Horowitz introduces an intelligent and musically sophisticated newcomer on the commercial music scene in the same period. Goddard Lieberson understood Toscanini long before Understanding Toscanini. And he supported new music by the simple expedient of making the popular pay for the unpopular. Oddly, one of Lieberson’s most significant achievements is not mentioned: in 1940, though still in a subordinate position at Columbia Records, he nevertheless managed to record Le Sacre du printemps and Pierrot Lunaire conducted by their respective composers, an event that changed the highest level of musical awareness in the United States.

Horowitz exposes the extremely poor quality of music criticism during the entire Toscanini period simply by quoting it. Only two exceptions need be mentioned. Here is Virgil Thomson’s voice in the wilderness:

[In Toscanini’s performance of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony] the second movement came out as a barcarole, the fourth rather in tarantella vein. In none of them was there any sense of mystery to make the Beethoven fury seem interiorly dramatic rather than merely of the stage.

The other, Theodor Adorno, is confined to his still unpublished Analytical Study of “The NBC Music Appreciation Hour,” which attacks radio

as an economic enterprise in an ownership culture…forced to promote, within the listener, a naively enthusiastic attitude toward any material it offers, and thus, indirectly, toward itself.

At least two of Adorno’s observations have lost none of their pertinence: “Living room reproduction, extinguishable with the flick of a wrist, undermined the enveloping experience of symphonic space”; and, “[Thanks to the radio symphony concert] there exists today a tendency to listen to Beethoven’s Fifth as if it were a set of quotations from Beethoven’s Fifth.” But Horowitz rightly scores Adorno’s “bullying stridence,” his “anger at commodity societies [which] seems mainly directed at its victims, whom he holds in contempt,” and “his rejection of jazz [which] exposes his own Eurocentrism and ill will.” As so often with Adorno, his editors’ brackets beginning with “i.e.” supply the word or words that make a statement intelligible.

Strangely, Understanding Toscanini does not offer a close-up examination of Toscanini’s conducting technique. For this, one must turn to Norman F. Leyden’s 1968 doctoral thesis.3 Leyden’s approach is uncritical and he accepts the long superseded notion that “objective” performances and “textual fidelity” are attainable goals. The book is not verbal, however, but a collection of diagrams tracing Toscanini’s beat as abstracted from his films with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, more importantly of diagrams placed above excerpts in music type connecting them to his movements. The beat, whether one or more to a measure, is always arc-shaped, fluid, and continuous—one reason why Toscanini could not have performed irregularly accented modern music—and it controls not only tempo but also articulation, phrasing, and various expressive nuances. The action is concentrated in the right hand and baton, with a minimum of motion in the axis of the right shoulder and elbow and only rare extensions of the arms to the vertical and lateral limits defined by the diagrams. The size of the beat corresponds to speed and dynamics, small for presto and pianissimo, larger for largo and loud. The bodily stance, with a spread of a few inches between the feet, remains steady, and the left hand participates only as an aid to balance, often merely holding the conductor’s lapel.

Today’s audience, accustomed to high jumping, bottom wiggling, artfully mussed hair and sprayed-on perspiration, eye mugging and the grimaces intended to convey the conductor’s feelings about the music and how everyone else should feel, can scarcely imagine the focal force of Toscanini’s Archimedean wrist. Not to have seen him, to know him exclusively from recordings, is an inestimable handicap to a full appreciation of the technical side of his art.

For a glimpse of a kind not found in the book, I beg leave to refer to my own experience when, during a misspent youth as a Julliard conducting student, I often watched Toscanini rehearse through a peephole at the back of the orchestra shell on the stage of NBC’s acoustically dead Studio 8H. The atmosphere was almost unbearably tense, the players never removing their eyes from Toscanini (orchestras today seldom glance at conductors), the quiet positively tomblike (most rehearsals today are characterized by a din of talk.) By this date (1946), many of Toscanini’s corrections were simply being repeated from past rehearsals. When he stopped the orchestra after the A major chord shortly before the Allegro in the finale of the Brahms First, and remarked that the second trombone’s C sharp was too high, the musicians were aware that this was not true and that Toscanini was simply correcting a traditional fault.

Three years later, on November 21, 1949, during a rehearsal in Carnegie Hall for a concert that evening, I felt the power of Toscanini-RCA firsthand when my pickup orchestra and I were ejected without warning to make room for a suddenly called rehearsal of the NBC Symphony. This incident came to mind eight years later when I heard the news of Toscanini’s death—from, of all people, the musical power broker Arthur Judson, during one of his business lunches with Stravinsky. The composer had always spoken disparagingly of Toscanini, though less contemptuously than Schoenberg, who dismissed him as “the Italian ‘Trommelmajor.’ ” But Stravinsky was moved by the death, partly because he had been gravely ill himself shortly before, partly because Toscanini’s performance of Petrushka in Rome in 1916, noisily acclaimed by Marinetti and the Futurists, had been a milestone in the composer’s life. He recalled that in September 1939, both he and Toscanini happened to be on the same overcrowded boat from Bordeaux to New York, and that while he shared a small cabin with three other men, Marx Brother style, Toscanini, with ill-concealed rage, preferred to pace the decks and sleep in the lounges.

The last two chapters, “Long-Term Legacies” and a personal “Conclusion,” might have been saved for an even better book, neither being immediately relevant to Toscanini, who cannot really be blamed for the state of a culture in which “Pavarotti is depicted…hobnobbing with…Rona Barrett.” American musical society, and not only musical, owes a great debt to Joseph Horowitz’s incisive mind and humanist spirit.

  1. 1

    See Sachs, “Salzburg, Hitler, and Toscanini” in Grand Street (Autumn 1986).

  2. 2

    See RCA by David Sobel (Stein and Day, 1987).

  3. 3

    A Study and Analysis of the Conducting Patterns of Arturo Toscanini as Demonstrated in Kinescope Films,” doctoral thesis, Columbia University. Reprinted in book form by University Microfilm International (Ann Arbor, 1984).

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