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Music, Maestro, Please!


My God, what a life!” Arturo Toscanini wrote in 1936. “And to think that many people envy me! They see nothing but the exterior, which glitters in appearance, but a person’s interior, soul, heart—what unknown, unexplored things they are!!!”

He was sixty-nine then, still on the verge of a long career leading the NBC Symphony. What a life, indeed. His fame belongs to another age, when classical music was not so remote from popular entertainment. Twice on the cover of Time magazine—inconceivable for an orchestra conductor today—Toscanini inspired a veneration in the press that mass-market magazines now lavish only on television or movie stars and pop musicians. “The greatest musical interpreter who ever lived,” a critic wrote in the New York Herald Tribune in the 1930s.

The hyperbole was accompanied by an inevitable backlash, most interestingly, although somewhat eccentrically, from the philosopher Theodor Adorno and also from Virgil Thomson. Both heard him perform in New York and for different reasons disliked what they regarded as his mechanical perfection. Critics from later generations then came to know Toscanini through recordings and film and television appearances converted to videotapes, and they sometimes crudely extrapolated from what Adorno and Thomson thought. They blamed Toscanini for, among other things, embalming the classical repertory and, by virtue of his enormous success, establishing an economic model for the mass-marketing and commercialization of classical performers, which in turn precipitated a decline of serious musical culture in America. Toscanini became, like Picasso, the symbol and root of all things.

His alleged virtues—fanatical dedication, unprecedented standards of accuracy, utter commitment to canonical composers like Beethoven, Wagner, and Verdi, and perfectionist demands on orchestral players—became vices, depending on which side of the debate one was listening to. The argument was bound up with the myths surrounding his personality: he was seen from afar as the epitome of the egocentric artist—a description that his letters, now compiled, edited, and translated by Harvey Sachs, both confirm and undermine, since they make him seem more human and appealing.

The letters, many of which Sachs didn’t even know existed when in 1978 he was writing what remains the standard Toscanini biography,1 are immensely enjoyable to read and an exceptional record of a man and an era. Toscanini was not a stylish writer—he was often the reverse—but in his correspondence he was passionate, sometimes comically juvenile, often seething with rage, misanthropic, not intellectually sophisticated but widely curious, heroically principled about certain big issues, and wholly unprincipled when it came to issues like marital fidelity.

You sense him playing a role, the Great Maestro. Life seems to have been a Puccini opera for Toscanini, in which he absorbed something of Cavaradossi, something of Mimì: he saw himself as a hot-tempered lover, the last good man, a martyr—long-suffering, uncompromising. His ego clearly thrived on excess. Everything that happened to Toscanini and everyone important who crossed his path had to be either sublime or contemptible. Wagner was a “genius,” Furtwängler was a “clown,” Stokowski a “gangster” and a “charlatan.” Sachs jokes in his introduction that Toscanini would probably be on Prozac today; but I suspect he needed to whip himself up into a frenzy in order to be productive for as long as he was and to make the kind of music he did.

That’s how he courted women, too. The connection between sex and music is a leitmotif of his letters. “Music has the same effect on me that you have,” he writes to a lover. “What you have given [me] comes from another sphere. It’s like music.” His tendency to create melodrama can be tiresome (I am referring now both to what you hear on some of his recordings as well as to what you read in the letters), but this, I suppose, also had much to do with his spectacular magnetism and energy.

I have a nasty character, which makes me suffer a lot and makes others suffer,” he also writes, typically self-dramatizing, although that description is not entirely fair. If he could be, as the letters show, merciless about people he considered fakes, cowards, or opportunists, musicians he didn’t respect or who he thought didn’t respect music enough, and politicians he despised, his generosity was extreme, too. As Sachs writes (his notes to the letters are exemplary), Toscanini left standing instructions with his wife to assist financially any member of the La Scala orchestra who came to her, no questions asked. More famously, in 1936 he paid his own way to fly to Palestine to conduct the inaugural concerts of an orchestra of Jewish refugees from Central Europe that became the Israel Philharmonic, an act that puts in perspective the conventional, offhand anti-Semitism in some letters, which seems akin to the jokes he makes about Germans or Italians. (After hearing Bruno Walter’s rehearsal of the second-act love scene in Tristan, he turned to the stage director Margarete Wallmann and said, “If they were Italians, they would already have seven children; but they’re Germans, so they’re still talking.”)

Toscanini was an egomaniac, but he could also write to a lover in 1938, “I don’t know why, but this morning I looked at myself in the mirror, after I don’t know how many months, and I looked old, ugly, and unwell.” Theatrically depressive, relishing his misery, he enjoyed moaning to correspondents about his children, to whom he was, clearly, utterly devoted:

Ah, this eternal gnawing, this nightmare that never leaves me…. I’m a real wretch. I inherited from my mother the unhappiness that oppressed her all her life.

He passed this depressive trait on, he believed, to his daughter Wanda, who became engaged to Vladimir Horowitz:

Horowitz has asked to marry Wanda. What an idea—a foreigner, and of a different religion!! What should I do? Continue to suffer! My children certainly don’t fill my life with joy!!

About Italian politics he was even more apoplectic. Like other bourgeois Italians, he supported Mussolini in 1919, sharing his anti-monarchic, anti-clerical views, but by 1923 had begun to change his mind. When the director of the Milan Conservatory, a friend, was fired by Mussolini’s minister of education and jumped off a roof, Toscanini wrote to the ministry: “This suicide will weigh upon your consciences forever.” He complained to Mussolini when another professor was fired from the conservatory for protesting the ministry’s handling of the suicide. That letter was signed “with unchangeable devotion and affection.”

In 1931, however, having repeatedly antagonized the Fascists by refusing to play their national hymn before concerts, he was assaulted by Fascist hooligans. This was a national scandal. Toscanini said he would not conduct in Italy until Mussolini was ousted. From then on he became an icon of anti-fascism. He scorned other musicians who continued to perform in Germany after 1933. Thomas Beecham, simply for defending Furtwängler, became “that nazi-sympathizer.” Strauss, whose music Toscanini much admired, was obviously beneath contempt for cooperating with the Nazi regime.

When Victor Emmanuele III declared himself emperor of conquered Ethiopia, Toscanini wrote: “Cursed Rome. Mussolini, the Emperor-King, and the Pope. Pigs, all of them.” To a lover who remained in Italy and traveled to Berlin, he wrote in 1941,

you are too poisoned by the atmos- phere that surrounds you, you are all living now too much amid shame and dishonor, without showing any sign of rebellion, to be able to value people like me, who have remained and will remain above the mud, not to give it a worse name, that is drowning the Italians!!!

And he wrote in 1938:

I’ve never been and will never be involved in politics; that is, I became involved only once, in ‘19, and for Mussolini and I repented…. I’ve never taken part in Societies, either political or artistic. I’ve always been a loner. I’ve always believed only an individual can be a gentleman…. Everyone ought to express his own opinion honestly and courageously—then dictators, criminals, wouldn’t last so long.

Shame (about having first embraced Mussolini, perhaps, certainly shame for his beloved Italy) seems to be behind much of Toscanini’s ardor, a shame that evaporated when he turned to the task of seducing women, which in the letters is as great an obsession. About sex Toscanini was tireless; he had no gift for writing love letters, but he wrote literally thousands. (The artist Kiki Smith tells me that her mother, the actress and singer Jane Lawrence Smith, received several although she had never even met him. A student of a mistress of his, she sang for Toscanini over the telephone once and at his request sent him a photograph of herself, whereupon he began to write to her.)

He cast his nets wide,” his grandson, Walfredo, said. Cesira Ferrani, Lotte Lehmann, Lucrezia Bori, Rosina Storchio (with whom he had a son who died at sixteen), Geraldine Farrar (her ultimatum to choose between herself and Carla, his wife, hastened his departure from the Met in 1915), Herva Nelli, Alma Gluck—one could make up a Who’s Who of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century sopranos from the women with whom he had affairs. He often pursued more than one at a time, if not physically then by mail. His wife intercepted some of the letters but gave up asking him about them after a while. Their marriage, as it emerges through his correspondence, remains mysterious, but he writes that it was largely sexless, and his philandering must have been privately humiliating for her.

During the early 1980s Sachs first learned of several love letters: pornographic notes to Elsa Kurzbauer, the wife of a composer and pianist, Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli (that is, until Pick-Mangiagalli learned of the affair and divorced Elsa). In one characteristic letter Toscanini writes (in broken English) to Kurzbauer that she “put on fire my blood which is stormful into my veins…. I am dying and lusting for every part nookcreviceholeholy hole of your lovely person.” Kurzbauer, after the affair, befriended Carla; this did not stop Toscanini from occasionally propositioning her.

In 1995, Sachs learned of more amorous correspondence coming up at auction in Berlin: a trove of letters and telegrams mostly from the 1930s (more than 240,000 words), written to Ada Mainardi, an occasional pianist and the wife of a prominent Italian cellist, Enrico Mainardi. Ada Mainardi was thirty years younger than Toscanini. They met during the 1920s but their affair evidently began in 1933, when he was sixty-six and a towering personality in the music world.

I decided to restrict the ravings to a few choice examples,” Sachs writes in his introduction. Toscanini’s letters to Mainardi still take up more than two hundred pages, the heart of the book. They are intermittently, embarrassingly, obscene. Toscanini pesters Mainardi about sending clippings of her pubic hair (“tiny flowers”) and a handkerchief (his euphemism is “holy shroud”) stained with her menstrual blood. “And the little red handkerchief?” he writes. “Since I can’t quench my thirst directly at the delightful fount, I’m hoping for the surrogate. Don’t forget.”

  1. 1

    Harvey Sachs, Toscanini (J.B. Lippincott, 1978).

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