'Toscanini: Musician of Conscience' is a feast of music, culture, politics

Toscanini's life intersected with the lives of a range of fascinating figures, including Puccini, Verdi, Mahler, Horowitz, the relatives of Richard Wagner, and  diabolical characters like Mussolini and Hitler.

Toscanini: Musician of Conscience By Harvey Sachs Liveright 944 pp.

“When you see that man conduct, you feel that there is only one thing for you to do: take your baton, break it in pieces, and never conduct again.” This assessment of Arturo Toscanini, offered by the esteemed composer and distinguished conductor Richard Strauss, was hardly unusual, for Toscanini routinely mesmerized his fellow musicians.

Critics also regularly celebrated Toscanini as one of the world’s most gifted and consequential artists. Even Albert Einstein weighed in, lauding the Italian conductor as “a man of the greatest dignity.” In a letter to Toscanini in 1936, the renowned scientist explained to the musician what he meant to him. “I admire and honor you,” he wrote, calling Toscanini an “unmatchable interpreter” of music and a determined opponent of “the Fascist criminals.”

Einstein’s perspective, which underscores Toscanini’s significance as a superb artist and a key figure in the international arena, is brilliantly captured in Harvey Sachs’s absorbing biography Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, which is a sweeping exploration of both aspects of Toscanini’s life. In meticulous detail, Sachs, a music historian, considers the work of a conductor blessed with breathtaking musical ability while he also examines the life of an artist who grappled with dictators. With years of research and writing on Toscanini under his belt, Sachs, who teaches at the Curtis Institute of Music, paints a captivating portrait of the conductor, from his birth in Parma in 1867 to his final days in New York 89 years later. And while he traces themes both musical and political, Sachs does not neglect the maestro’s personal life, including his countless extramarital affairs, which are integral to the story.

Toscanini’s life was long, as is this book. But despite its heft, "Toscanini: Musician of Conscience" is altogether stimulating, not least because Sachs draws on a wealth of recently-discovered sources in the form of personal letters and home tape recordings of Toscanini’s conversations with friends and family. Sachs also allows the reader to encounter a range of fascinating figures with whom the conductor crossed paths: Puccini, Verdi, Mahler, Horowitz, and the relatives of Richard Wagner, along with diabolical characters like Mussolini and Hitler. The story is a feast for those drawn to music, culture, and politics – albeit a feast that requires a sturdy table.

Trained as a cellist, Toscanini ascended the podium for the first time at a moment’s notice in Rio, when the conductor of the Italian opera company with which he was touring was rejected by a disgruntled audience. The opera was "Aida" and Toscanini, plucked from the orchestra pit, conducted from memory. The performance was a triumph. He was 19.

Clearly, the young man had a gift, a point noted by a local reviewer: “This beardless maestro is a prodigy who communicated the sacred artistic fire to his baton.” Years later, Toscanini recalled the event rather differently: “I went to conduct in a stunned state, as if I were drunk.”

As Sachs documents in memorable fashion, the young Italian, blessed with an astounding musical memory and an acute understanding of musical structure and style, rose steadily through the ranks. By 1898, he was in charge of La Scala in Milan, Italy’s most important opera house, where he led unforgettable performances in a land where opera was received with near-religious devotion.

From there, he went on to lead the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and then the New York Philharmonic. After leaving the New York ensemble in 1936, claiming the workload was too much for a man his age, Toscanini was back on the podium within a year – in the same city – when the National Broadcasting Company established an orchestra just for him. The NBC Symphony was immediately among the best in the world, and for more than 15 years, Toscanini offered splendid performances to millions during weekly radio broadcasts. But wherever he conducted, the Italian maestro was adored by his musicians, despite a famously volcanic temper, which Sachs examines to great effect.

Beyond crafting exquisite performances, Toscanini was a fearless spokesman for democracy and freedom at a time when both were under siege. Over many years, his voice rang out forcefully in the public square, especially against Mussolini, whom Toscanini hated for debasing his beloved Italy.

In pages brimming with the political struggles of the twentieth century, Sachs reveals the fiery eloquence Toscanini directed against the evils of fascism. Indeed, no musician worked harder to help vanquish the malevolence unleashed by Hitler and Mussolini. At times, he risked his life to do so, refusing, in one horrifying episode, to conduct the “patriotic music” demanded by Mussolini’s lawless supporters.

Capturing the reverence many felt toward the heroic conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony’s legendary music director, protested the violent treatment Toscanini had suffered at the hands of fascist thugs: “Maestro Toscanini does not belong only to Italy but to the whole world.” As this engrossing volume demonstrates, throughout his remarkable life, millions looked to Toscanini for inspiration both inside and outside the auditorium.

Jonathan Rosenberg teaches U.S. history at Hunter College and the CUNY Graduate Center. 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.