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

Arturo Toscanini
Arturo Toscanini; drawing by David Levine

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.

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