Arturo Toscanini
Arturo Toscanini; drawing by David Levine


“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.”

The letters are also full of childish plots at subterfuge. (He was often this way with his lovers: to Rosina Storchio he wrote, “Send telegrams to poste restante at Valle di Cadore, to Mr. Icinio Artù-Rostan.”) How often Toscanini and Mainardi actually saw each other is unclear since she lived in Milan and Berlin while he was mostly elsewhere. Much of their relationship consisted of his speculating about their getting together. He was either receiving or dashing off love notes, sometimes at the very instant he left the stage, as if he were channeling the overflow of his tremendous energy from the performance to the affair.

Toscanini writes to Mainardi about many other matters: politics, art, the weather, New York, aging, sightseeing, the NBC orchestra, his children. He tells her about suddenly discovering, when he was seventy-one, how to play a trill at the end of the andante in a Brandenburg concerto. “You can’t imagine my joy at having discovered that I learn something every day,” he exults. He laments his marriage at a point when Mainardi seems to think of leaving her own husband. (Perhaps Enrico had a lover, too. They never divorced. Before she died in 1979, Ada passed along Toscanini’s letters to a woman named Sela Sommer-Mainardi, whom Sachs identifies as Enrico’s companion in later years.)

“I’m not religious, but I believe!!” Toscanini tells Mainardi in the letter:

I have my strange superstitions. I had one father, one mother, they were there when I first saw the light of day. I’ve always thought that the companion I chose in life, like my father and mother, should never be replaced by any other woman. I realized immediately, after a few years, that I had made a mistake in my choice; the fault was entirely mine.

In another letter he adds:

I’ve been a good, honest, but unfaithful husband. C[arla] has never understood me, nor has she ever tried to improve, but she has always been good, honest, and faithful. In a life lived together, that’s not everything.

Toscanini would be appalled that his love letters have been published. At one point he complains to Mainardi about a musicologist, Carlo Gatti, who was planning to write about Verdi’s sex life. “These poor great men aren’t left alone even when they’re in their graves!” he tells her. “For pity’s sake, [writers should] stop short at the bedroom threshold.” But in the very same letter he recounts gossip he heard as a young man about Verdi’s enjoying cunnilingus (“a certain kind of kiss“). He still has “an almost fetishistic love” for Verdi, he insists.

One turns pages wanting to learn what happens to the relationship with Mainardi. In 1940, he writes bitterly,

Shame!!! If my last letters didn’t speak to your heart, it means that God, in creating your body sterile, also wanted your soul to be sterile…. I believe, in fact I’m sure, that we won’t meet ever again during the few years of life left to me, but if the opposite were to happen I’m not the one who will have to blush!

In 1946, after Toscanini has returned triumphantly to Italy to perform at La Scala, he writes again, this time to “my dear friend of bygone times.” He complains,

You didn’t find a way of coming to greet me, at least as a friend!…I never heard anything about you during these long years of war…. If you want to give me your news, you will give me pleasure. In my heart there is nothing but goodness and simpatia for you.

She seems never to have replied.


Toscanini owes his enduring fame above all to mechanical reproduction. Perhaps Hans von Bülow or Hans Richter would loom as large in our imagination had they lived into the age of recordings. Toscanini was wary of the new technology of recording for much of his life (“my aversion to this type of work is so great,” he writes as late as 1930), and he made most of his records only during his last years, as conductor of the NBC Symphony, when he was already in his seventies. The letters show him frequently dissatisfied with the results. Contemporary accounts suggest his strongest, most consistent period as a musician may have been while he was conductor at La Scala, and as music director of the New York Philharmonic and at Salzburg during the Twenties and early Thirties. So to judge him from his later recordings may be unfair.

Neither recordings nor films can substitute for the real thing. Much of Toscanini’s reputation derived from his charisma on the podium. Players in his orchestras described him as creating stress, as exhausting to play for, but a preternatural leader. His baton technique could be demonstrative (see the 1948 film of Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Ninth, for example) but his movements were generally sharp, specific, and elegant (as one can see from his 1949 film conducting Verdi).2 “Almost all the conductors of the past stood absolutely still,” said the English conductor Adrian Boult, who was old enough to have seen Richter conduct. Toscanini conveyed expression partly through the tautness of his body and the intensity of the gaze he directed at the musicians. Television hastened the era of Leonard Bernstein, who accustomed people to conductors conducting the audience, which Toscanini did not do.

Toscanini was born in 1867, while Rossini was still alive. Verdi was finishing Don Carlos and Wagner was finishing Meistersinger; Brahms was thirty- four; Puccini and Debussy were not yet ten. Linked with Furtwängler by critics who unthinkingly presume them to be contemporaries, Toscanini was actually a generation older (likewise with Klemperer and Stokowski). He belonged to the generation of Gustav Mahler. When Toscanini made his professional conducting debut in 1886, Furtwängler was five months old.

When he grew up, opera and orchestra audiences still expected to hear new music, as audiences for popular music do today. Throughout the early 1880s, when Toscanini played cello in the orchestra at the Teatro Regio in Turin, the repertory included not a single opera more than fifty years old. Toscanini led the world premières of I Pagliacci, La Bohème, La Fanciulla del West, and Turandot (by the end of his life he had qualms about Puccini’s taste, however). He also conducted the first Italian productions of Wagner’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung and of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Stravinsky once said the turning point of his career was Toscanini’s performance of his Petrushka in 1915. At the Met, Toscanini conducted the American première of Boris Godunov. At the New York Philharmonic he performed Kodály, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Morton Gould, and Samuel Barber.

Toscanini could never see the virtues of Schoenberg or Mahler, but many musicians at the time also failed to see them. In 1905, he wrote in a letter to Enrico Polo, a friend from his conservatory days, that while reading through Mahler’s Fifth Symphony,

My initial joy and curiosity gradually waned, and by the end they were transformed into sad, very sad hilarity.

No, dear Enrico, believe me, Mahler is not a genuine artist.

On the other hand, he was ahead of other conductors in admiring Debussy, a composer “of whose very name I was barely aware,” he told Pietro Sormani, an assistant conductor at La Scala, also in 1905. “His art overthrows everything that has been done up to now.”

Toscanini’s contributions to modernizing Italian theater standards are easy to forget because an earlier time is hard to imagine. He installed the first orchestra pit at La Scala in 1907; the orchestra previously played at the main-floor level. He darkened the house during performances. He made audiences refrain from talking, eating, playing cards, and wandering around. The situation at La Scala when he arrived was hardly changed from what in 1824 Stendhal described in Life of Rossini as people “perpetually coming and going all evening,” using the theater “as a general rendez-vous.”3

Toscanini’s greatest campaign was for players to stick to the score, a self-evident task, you might think, but orchestras, singers, and conductors were notoriously sloppy in Italy before the turn of the century, as his letters repeatedly lament. Toscanini’s detractors saw his preaching of fidelity to the text as an excuse for his keeping music on a leash and for playing fast. His late recordings, when he was already in his eighties, do sound occasionally metronomic and brusque. But generalizations about Toscanini’s views on tempi are liable to be contradicted by other recordings and by his own words. He chastised the conductor Henry Wood in a letter in 1937 for playing the Scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth at a exceptionally swift speed (equal on the metronome to 138 beats per minute): “It’s all very well not to stick strictly to the letter,” he writes, “but at 138 you go completely off the rails!”

In any case, the issue was never speed for its own sake, but elasticity and drive. As Mortimer Frank writes, with only some exaggeration, in his fine, meticulous survey of Toscanini’s NBC years,

Toscanini’s tempos, rather than being unusually fast, were simply unorthodox in that they did not conform to typical parameters. In this regard he was no different from other conductors of his time, especially Wilhelm Furtwängler, who is often thought to be Toscanini’s interpretive opposite.

Listening to the recordings, you hear Toscanini, far from being mechanical, changing his mind repeatedly about the same composition. Frank, who has listened to virtually everything available by Toscanini on record and film—something few people have done—points out how Toscanini’s 1951 telecast and his studio recording of Brahms’s First Symphony, “though but a few days apart,” differ from each other, as they do from his recordings in the 1930s and 1940s. He was accused of literalism and pedantry but, as Frank shows, he made cuts to scores, doubled voices, and rearranged orchestrations when he thought it was useful. In his recording of Schumann’s Second Symphony, you hear the change he made in the trumpet part for the coda of the first movement as well as a trumpet flourish he added to the last movement in order to fill out a thin texture.

Frank also cites a rehearsal during which Toscanini admonished an NBC player for not playing “piano,” i.e., softly, to which the man protested that the music said “forte.” “What?” said Toscanini. “Forte? Forte?… What means forte?…Is a thousand fortes—all kinds of fortes. Sometimes a forte is a pia-a-a-no, piano is a forte.” Every thinking player knows exactly what he meant.

Far from unbending, and well aware of the value of theater, Toscanini could forgive a singer whose stage presence made up for weaknesses in her voice. “Nor does Sedelmayer make me forget Pasini,” he writes in a letter in 1896:

She has a better voice than the latter, but she lacks her grace, her flirtatiousness and the natural verve that’s necessary for bringing to life a character like Musetta.

In his performances he strove for drama, for constant propulsion even in slow music, and for sustained inner voices and layered textures. One hears these inner voices and clear textures when Toscanini conducts, and they are what make him seem so modern. The acoustics of Studio 8H, where the NBC orchestra played, were infamously dry, but that suited his desire for a secco sonority. He wanted little vibrato in the strings, crisp timpani (he told Karl Glassman, the NBC timpanist, to use hard sticks), and he gave prominence to winds and brass.

If this sounds familiar today, part of the explanation may be found in a letter in which he praises the performance of the Virtuosi di Roma at Town Hall in New York in November 1950 (“a group of magnificent Italian musicians who play early music,” he writes). Like the well-known I Musici, I Virtuosi was participating in what became by the 1960s and 1970s the period instrument movement, with its celebration of textual fidelity, its generally brisk tempi, conspicuous winds and brass, and smaller numbers of strings with reduced vibrato.

Toscanini was prescient in this respect and others; he was also exasperating, inspiring, endlessly striving and dissatisfied. His large, cranky humanity comes alive throughout his letters, as it does in his best recordings. “The antidote to my perfidy is to fling onto paper all that’s ugly, the worst of my ego,” he writes.

I tried to achieve the maximum, and I couldn’t do it, and I still can’t do it today—which is why neither your dear words of praise and enthusiasm nor the audience’s applause, not to mention exaggerated newspaper articles, can ever free me from the discontent and the torment that I have in me eternally!”

This Issue

November 7, 2002