'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. 

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.