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The genius of Italian maestro, Arturo Toscanini

Posted in Historical articles, History, Music, Politics, Theatre on Thursday, 20 December 2012

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This edited article about Arturo Toscanini originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 800 published on 14th May 1977.

Toscanini, picture, image, illustration

Arturo Toscanini

The warning came from Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy himself. It was passed on to the “world’s greatest conductor”, Arturo Toscanini, by the Mayor of Bologna. “You must play the Fascist national anthem at your concert tonight – or else expect serious trouble!”

The concert was due to start in three hours’ time and there was no question of cancelling it. However, 64-year-old Toscanini – with his fierce dark eyes and bristling moustache was not going to be bullied into conducting any music of which he disapproved . . . particularly the Fascist anthem, which he had publicly described as, “A vulgar tune for beasts to march to.”

The ultimatum was delivered to the maestro on the evening of May 14, 1931 – almost nine years since Benito Mussolini and his Blackshirts had marched on Rome and seized political power. During that time liberty and free speech had been clamped down upon, and anyone who did or said anything against the Fascists was liable to be beaten up or arrested.

But the bold Toscanini cared nothing for this. He declared that the anthem was “out” and that the “thugs and hooligans” could do their worst. Later that night, as he drove up to the concert hall in Bologna, his car was ringed by a shouting, jeering crowd. “Death to the traitor!” they cried as the conductor got out and tried to thrust his way through them.

Some of the men had sticks and they beat Toscanini about the head and shoulders, knocking his famous, curly-brimmed hat to the ground. Others spat and kicked at him. Some merely waved their fists and shouted more abuse. Finally, unable to reach the hall, the conductor forced his way back to his car and angrily returned to his hotel.

He was followed there by the mob, which stood beneath his window until well after midnight – shouting for his blood and brandishing clubs and spanners. As the hullabaloo continued so reports of it were wired to newspapers throughout the world. In the morning the Press was full of the “outrage”, and counter demonstrations were sparked off in cities from Turin to New York – everywhere where the maestro was loved and renowned as a superb conductor of operas and symphonies.

In Milan, students gathered in the main square shouting. “Long live Toscanini!” and “Down with Fascism!” Symphony concerts were interrupted by protestors. Opera performances were brought to a halt as people stood up and booed and gesticulated. And then the great Russian-American conductor, Serge Koussevitsky, cancelled a series of concerts in Italy “until amends have been made to my colleague”.

Embarrassed, Mussolini placed Toscanini in temporary “protective custody”. On June 7, the conductor was allowed to leave Italy and his final words as he crossed the frontier into Switzerland were, “You can kill me if you wish. But as long as I am living, I shall say and do as I think!”

It was to be fifteen years before the volatile musician would once more step in front of an orchestra in his homeland. But with one glorious career behind him, and another just about to start, the rest of the music-loving world reckoned that Italy’s loss was very much their gain.

Arturo Toscanini was born on March 25, 1867, in Parma, the son of a workshy and impoverished tailor. His mother was a cold, unfeeling person – “I never ever remember her kissing me,” he said in later life – and there was seldom enough money for the family to have meat. Instead, cheap fish was their staple diet and the budding young genius grew up to “hate the sight, smell and taste of it”.

He showed early talent as a cellist at the Parma Music Conservatory and later graduated from there with the highest honours. Then, playing what he called his “beloved instrument”, he joined a second-rate touring opera company. In June, 1886, he and his colleagues found themselves in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. And it was there the nineteen-year-old novice got his first big chance.

After some furious rows with the principal singers, the conductor walked out. Two very inadequate substitutes were tried, but they were howled down by angry and scornful audiences. It looked as if the opera season would come to a premature end. Then one of the tenors thought of the young cellist with the air of brilliant intensity.

“That Toscanini boy,” he said, “he knows the music by heart. Let him conduct it!” So, quivering with nerves, Toscanini mounted the rostrum on the night of June 30, and proceeded to conduct the long and difficult score of Verdi’s Aida. The performance was a triumph, even though Toscanini was afterwards angry with himself for having “made two mistakes”.

However, no one cared about those. From that night on, the teenaged maestro was in demand both in Brazil and in Italy. Before long the premiËres of important new operas were entrusted to him, and in 1896 he conducted the first performance of his fellow countryman Puccini’s La BoliËme, in Turin.

By this time stories were circulating about Toscanini’s phenomenal memory and how he carried scores of dozens of symphonies and operas around with him in his head. However, he did this by necessity and not out of choice. He was extremely near-sighted and equally as vain – so vain that he refused to wear spectacles.

From the turn of the century to the beginning of the First World War he continued to solidify his reputation as the most outstanding, if temperamental, conductor of his day. In May, 1915, he had one of several close escapes from possible death when, at the very last moment, he cancelled his booking aboard a liner bound from New York to Liverpool. The ship, the Lusitania, sailed without him and was subsequently torpedoed by a German submarine., with the loss of 1,201 lives.

A few months later, Toscanini, safely back home, took a military band to the front line to give concerts for the Italian troops. On September 1, 1917, he was in the middle of a selection of waltzes and marches when an Austrian artillery barrage started exploding all around him.

The Italian troops panicked and began to retreat. However, Toscanini kept on beating time and, inspired by his coolness and courage, the soldiers rallied, advanced, and then captured the Austrian trenches. “In the middle of the hand-to-hand fighting,” one of the men told him later, “we could hear your band. It was like a bugle call to us!”

The hostilities gave Toscanini a deep hatred of armed brutality, and this increased in the 1930s with the rise of Mussolini and the German dictator, Adolf Hitler. It culminated with the mob violence in Bologna in 1931, after which the conductor based his career in New York.

It was there, in 1937, that the National Broadcasting Corporation founded an orchestra, consisting of the best available musicians, especially for the maestro to conduct. He did so with great effect, gaining a staggering nationwide audience of more than three million people. But he still wasn’t through with what he called “the fascist swine”.

The following year he withdrew from the Salzburg Music Festival – despite, or perhaps because of, a personal letter from Hitler asking him to change his mind – and during the Second World War he went on conducting over the radio and at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.

He was noted for the speed and attack of the performances, and also for his unpredictable temper – when he would think nothing of throwing his baton at an offending instrumentalist, or of storming out of the studio if the orchestral sound was not “right”.

At the age of eighty he was still driving his artists like a slave-driver. But gradually his strength and vitality began to wane. He gave his last concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra on April 4, 1954, when he suffered a slight loss of memory while halfway through Wagner’s Tannhanser overture.

Three years later, after living in semi-seclusion in New York, he died aged ninety. His chosen successor was a young Italian conductor, Guido Cantelli, who had been killed in 1956 in a plane crash, before his career had got fully under way. As a respected musician said at the time: “It was as if the world was not meant to have another Toscanini – just one, and no more!”

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