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, 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 …

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