The Perfectionist

Toscanini Estate
Arturo Toscanini conducting his last concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, April 1954

Biographers are understandably tempted by the idea of revisiting their subjects. In the years after a life story is completed, doors open and new details, clarifications, and documents become available. Myths are dispelled and mysteries solved—or deepened. As time and reflection leave their marks, we feel there may be something else to say.

When Harvey Sachs’s Toscanini was published in 1978, it was greeted as the most serious portrait of the conductor that had yet appeared, a judgment that has largely remained unchallenged. But an enormous amount of material about Toscanini has come to light in the past four decades, including roughly 1,500 personal letters as well as numerous tape recordings of him in private conversation with friends and relatives. Previously underexamined archives at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic—places where he reformed musical standards—have been opened to Sachs, as have the papers of the Mussolini government in Fascist Italy, which recognized the conductor as an implacable enemy early on and kept voluminous notes on him. “In short,” Sachs writes in his preface to Toscanini: Musician of Conscience,

this book is a completely new biography, not a revision or an expanded version of the earlier book. Apart from quotations from other sources, I don’t believe that a single entire sentence from the old book is to be found in this one. I have examined new sources, reexamined old ones, and produced what I hope is a close-to-definitive account of a long life filled with artistic, personal, and political drama….

Toscanini’s was a ninety-year life that began before the invention of the phonograph and the incandescent light bulb and ended at the dawn of the space age; an eighty-year musical immersion that began before Wagner and Verdi had written their final masterpieces and that ended in the era of Boulez and Stockhausen; a sixty-eight-year career, carried out in twenty European, North and South American, and Middle Eastern countries; and a private existence that was torn between love of family and erotic restlessness.

Sachs’s lifelong studies (his fascination with the conductor dates from his teens and he is now in his seventies) have paid off in his gigantic and extraordinary new book. Indeed, I cannot think of another biography of a classical musician to which it can be compared: in its breadth, scope, and encyclopedic command of factual detail it reminds me of nothing so much as Robert A. Caro’s The Power Broker. I once described Caro’s book jokingly as “1,366 pages about the man who built the Cross-Bronx Expressway” (among the book’s multiplicity of tales about Robert Moses, the sixty-some pages devoted to that unfortunate construction stand out in their horrible fascination). But The Power Broker attracted a passionate group of readers who never suspected that they were interested in…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.