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TOSCANINI'S PANORAMIC ART
In these days of specialization, even in the arts, it is hard to find a musician who is not a specialist. It is just as hard to find a musician who is, so to speak, a specialist in every manifestation of his art. It was quite different one hundred years ago, or even fifty. We read, with a certain amount of incredulity, that the famous soprano Lili Lehmann sang all the heroines of the world's operatie repertoire. She sang Isolde one night, Susanna the next, and Lucia another; and according to contemporary reports she was more than equal to the demands of each. Nowadays, a coloratura soprano sings florid roles only; a dramatic soprano sings dramatic roles only. A modern tenor generally sings either Wagnerian roles or Italian and French; but in the old days Jean de Reszke pleased the New York critics and the Metropolitan Opera House audiences in every variety of tenor role from Tristan to Edgardo.
Modern conductors are more versatile than singers of today, yet they too tend to be specialists. That is not to say that conductors do not play the usual symphonic repertoire. But they are generally held to be especially good in the music of a certain school or a certain composer. We hear of conductors who are Mozart specialists, or who are incomparable in the music of Bruckner and Mahler, or who have no peer when it comes to the works of Bartok and the ultra-modernists. Arturo Toscanini is the one exception. He is the one conductor who cannot be pinned down to any special kind of music. If he is a specialist, he is one in every kind. In other words, he is no specialist. For want of a better word one might perhaps call him a musical universalist.
There seems to be no form or school of music that is foreign to Toscanini's interpretive genius. In the field of opera the Maestro proved his catholicity in the very first week of his engagement at the Metropolitan Opera House back in 1908, when, in the opening week, he conducted Verdi's Aida and Wagner's Die Gotterdammerung, to the delighted satisfaction of the audiences and the unanimous approval of a highly critical press. In his seven years at the Metropolitan, and in his many seasons at Milan's La Scala, he performed operas of divergent schools and different nationalities, in every instance in the authentic manner of one completely fitted by knowledge, sympathy and temperament to reveal the salient quality and characteristic of each work. There were memorable performances of Italian opera ranging from Verdi to Montemezzi; German opera from Weber to Strauss; French opera from Meyerbeer to Dukas; Russian opera from Moussorgsky to Tchaikovsky. So protean an interpreter had not before, or since, appeared in the entire history of opera. Apart from his brilliance and virtuosity as an artist, which refurbished an operatic repertoire that had become routine and tradition-ridden, Toscanini proved that one did not have to be a German to realize the (German-ness of Die Meistersinger, a Frenchman to bring out the Gallic flavor of Massenet's Manon, or a Russian to re-create the Slavic soul of Czar and peasant in Moussorgsky's Boris Godounov. In Wagner's own stronghold of Bayreuth, Toscanini upset the complacency of the Wagner family by calling attention to moments in the staging of Tannhauser which were at variance with Wagner's instructionsj and gained the family's allegiance and admiration by citing the master's own writings in defense of his criticism. Thus it came about that an Italian conductor was hailed in Germany as the authoritative interpreter of Wagner (and also of Beethoven and Weber) and in France as the most Gallic exponent of Bizet and Debussy. And had he gone to Russia (Toscanini refused many invitations to conduct in both Czarist and Communist Russia) he would undoubtedly have been proclaimed the most Russian.
The reasons for Toscanini's extraordinary identification with music of every nationality must remain a mystery. But if exhaustive study of the history, art, politics and literature of a country can contribute to one's understanding of its music, Toscanini's intuitive interpretive genius was certainly sharpened by his curiosity to find out everything he could about the culture and mores of the nations whose music he played. That he confounded and impressed the Wagner family in Bayreuth by his knowledge of every word that Wagner had written relative to the correct performance of his music-dramas is only one instance of the Maestro's determination to know everything possible about his art.
I had the good fortune to witness a demonstration of Toscanini's
awareness of the interrelation of historical background and the
ideal stage representation of opera. It was in Salzburg in '37.
The Maestro was rehearsing Verdi's Falstaff. Ordinarily a conductor
of opera is content to leave the matter of scenery in the hands
of the designer. Not so Toscanini, who considers all elements
of an operatic presentation equally important. On a certain morning
he called for a special scenic rehearsal. When the second act
curtain went up on Ford's living room, Toscanini let out a yell
of rage which shook the auditorium and brought the terrified scenic
designer and the theater officials instantly to his side. For
untold minutes the outraged conductor denounced in a picturesque
melange of voluble Italian and fractured German the sets, the designer and the officials as ignoramuses who didn't know the difference between Austrian Baroque and Tudor architecture. "You call this a Tudor house?" the Maestro screamed. "Shame on you-shame!" And he stormed out of the place, vowing to have nothing to do with a theater so lacking in elementary knowledge of the history of British architecture. An hour later the designer, flanked by a half-dozen apologetic executives and the Mayor of Salzburg, appeared at the Toscanini villa with brand-new sketches for Mr. Ford's living room. The Maestro examined them carefully. "Ecco," he cried. "At last we have a Tudor house!" The performance took place as scheduled. All the elements of the Shakespeare-Verdi musical were present and wonderfully integrated.
It is, perhaps, quite possible to give an adequate account of the score of Falstaff without knowing the difference between Baroque and Tudor architecture. Yet a knowledge of the difference leads to an appreciation of the qualities of Tudor times, and this in turn leads to an awareness of Verdi's remarkable success in setting to music Shakespeare's lusty comedy. Like Verdi, Toscanini immersed himself in the English Renaissance spirit. And as Verdi gave faithful expression to this spirit, so Toscanini gave a faithful representation of Verdi's music. Toscanini's insistence on a Tudor interior was only a part of his insistence on complete fidelity to the Tudor spirit of the opera-a spirit compact of sensuality, tenderness, cruelty, courage, cowardice, crass sophistication and dewy innocence. These disparate ingredients are unified by the comic genius of Shakespeare and Verdi and made palpable for us by the encompassing understanding of Toscanini.
As with Falstaff, Otello, Aida, Rigoletto, so also with Carmen, Don Pasquale, La Forza del Destino, 0beron, Euryanthe, La Wally, Lorelei, Der Freischutz, Mignon, Hansel und Gretel and all the so-different items in this program. Here Toscanini exhibits fully his catholicity in the realm of music. We may no longer hope to hear him conduct an entire performance of Carmen, but his Carmen Suite is a timely reminder of the vitality inherent in an opera which routine performances have sometimes reduced to a spineless collection of overfamiliar tunes. As Toscanini begins the overture in the Carmen Suite, the exigent rhythm and plangent brilliance of the opening bars set against the "fate" motive with its insistent pizzicato warnings gives us the great opera in microcosm-the intrusion of fate into a world of clangorous, pulsating life. One is startled by the forces of the Fate motive and frightened by the shuddering intensity of the pizzicato notes that dog it. Some conductors "throw away" these notes by playing them "straight." But their importance in the phrase can hardly be exaggerated. Toscanini drives home their importance. He makes the bass fiddles pluck them with muted sound but with canny timing (each note held back for a fraction of an instant) and deadly insistence. Heard thus, the music seems to rise above its familiar self it assumes the proportions and reveals the depths of some noble Greek tragedy. Carmen is no longer a Hirtatious Spanish gypsy driving a peasant soldier to despair and murder. She is the agency of Fate, possesses no free will and is powerless to prevent her own destruction. All this is implicit in Bizet's score. Toscanini realizes it and makes it so for the listener.
In every one of the (light classial) compositions in this concert Toscanini goes to the heart of the matter. Where there happen to be no overtones of the secret kind which his sensitivity apprehends so unerringly, he does not impose any of his own, and is quite content to expose what is in the music and nothing more. The overtures to (Zampa), Don Pasquale, Mignon, and Poet and Peasant are cases in point. These overtures, like the operas they introduce, are quite innocent of the kind of significance that permeates such operas as Carmen, Boris Godounov, Falstaff, Die Meistersinger, and several other masterpieces. They are tuneful, expertly constructed pieces and Toscanini plays them for what they are. Even so, they emerge as much rnore under his baton, for his passion for making everything "sound," his distaste for obfuscation and his hatred for both tonal aridity and that excessive tonal opulence so vividly conveyed by the word "schmalz"-those two extremes of the tonal palette favored by many conductors-have a purifying effect on these innocent and often abused overtures.
On the other hand, Toscanini's treatment of an overture like La Forza del Destino is by way of being a restoration, the kind of thing a refurbisher of old paintings achieves when he uncovers for us the original colors in all their force and beauty. To be sure, Destiny in Verdi's opera is of less significance than Fate in Carmen. It is fortuitous and not, as in Carmen, implicit in the characters themselves. But here, too, there is a conflict-the conflict between human passion and the serenity of cloistered religion. Verdi, scorning subtleties, manages this conflict with directness and simplicity. It is, therefore, a wonder that conductors as a rule miss the point and mistake the opening phrase for a leisurely, pleasant configuration of notes. It remained for Toscanini to see the phrase for what Verdi meant it to be and so indicated-the expression of passion, restless, turbulent and all too-human.
Weber overtures like Oberon, Euryanthe, and Der Freschutz, are also, in a sense, "restored" by Toscanini, since they are too often performed with a heavy-handedness that is supposed to pass for the real thing-that is, for "echt Deutsch." The overtures are, of course, solidly built. But not heavily. Nor is the romanticism they embody either sentimental or inflated. The Romantic era in music was not inaugurated by Weber. There were other so-called Romanticists who went in for the bizarre, the sensational and the overblown sentimental. It was Weberts mission (as it was a little later Robert Schumann's mission) to embody in music the yearning for the strangely beautiful which we call Romanticism. And he accomplished this mission to such perfection that his works fully realize the Romantic instinct in us and show it to be universal and ever present, and not merely a "movement" of a certain defined period in the history of German music. There is nothing irresponsible and capricious about the Romanticism of Weber's music, and on Toscanini's part there is no intrusion of a personal "reading." The overtures are solidly projected in their beautifully strong architecture. With such a substantial base their Romantic content can never seem incongrnous or unreal. We are wooed into a world that for all its strangeness is, for the moment, as real as the one we live in.
Whether Russian music by Moussorgsky or Glinka or French music by Berlioz, romantic compositions of quite a different stripe, are two other examples of Toscanini's vivifying genius. The peculiar lilt of Glinka's dance is thoroughly Russian, and Toscanini's feeling for rhythm adds vitality to the jaunty tune, even in the composition's more delicate moments. A performance of say the Berlioz Queen Mab is nothing short of sensational from any aspect. It is not often that a composer, even a great one, can approximate in music a self-sufficient literary passage of a great poet. Berlioz' orchestral interpretation of Mercutio's soliloquy in Romeo and Juliet is one of the rare instances of such a transference of poetry into music. The gossamer quality of Shakespeare's lines, their definite evocation of the insubstantial, evanescent imaginings of a delicate and poetic mind are here completely realized in terms of melody, harmony and orchestral colors. This a virtuoso piece in the fullest sense of the word, and the conductor who would faithfully convey its wonders intact must match the virtuosity (virtuosity in the fullest sense of the word) of the composer. Queen Mab is one of Toscanini's favorites, and every time he undertook to conduct it he taxed the capacities of his players and himself to the utmost. Indeed, he was never to my knowledge completely satisfied with the result, either on his own part or on that of his orchestra. But for our lesser ears and musical standards the performance of Queen Mab by Toscanini is a piece of orchestral enchantment. Certainly no other interpreter so nearly conveyed the tonal delicacies and exquisite proportions of the Berlioz score.
Even with an overture of the type of Poet and Peasant Toscanini treats it as seriously as he does one of Beethoven's Leonore overtures, for the Maestro has only one approach to music he considers worthy of performance. I have seen him rehearse a so-called light piece -the Skaters Waltz, for example, or the Poet and Peasant Overture, if the latter can be so classified-as strenuously and with the attention to detail that he expends on some classic masterpiece. And because of this single-minded drive for perfection towards every kind of music, his performance of the overture to the Poet and Peasant also comes through as a miracle of restoration. This music, too, has been abused through the years by the shabby interpretations of sensationalists. Now, perhaps for the first time, we can hear the charming and innocent piece for what it is-a melodious prelude, dramatic in its contrasts, its proportions classically simple, a composition altogether worthy of our affection and Toscanini's deft and loving ministrations.
Many people regard the years 1937
through 1954, When the NBC Symphony Orchestra performed under
the direction of Arturo Toscanini, as the golden age of the symphony
orchestra in America. There were indeed many circumstances some
of them unique which made these seventeen years an era of unforgettable
We had succeeded, finally, in inducing
Maestro Toscanini to return to this country for what became the
most productive period of his distinguished musical career. Although
he was seventy when he again raised his baton before an American
audience and eighty-seven when he reluctantly laid it down forever,
he seemed to he immune to the vicissitudes of time. Music conferred
on him a sort of immortality, and he, in turn, repaid it by bringing
to each orchestral work the vitality and freshness of a premiere.
The orchestra which Toscanini came
to conduct was unique among its kind, for it was created to serve
expressly as the instrument of one man's genius. No effort was
spared in combing the world for the finest instrumentalists.
Individually, they had few peers. Collectively, under the Maestro's
exacting standards, they became a legend.
A medium already existed that was
to bring the music of Toscanini and the NBC Symphony directly
to the largest audiences in the world. Radio had created a concert
hall that extended across the continent and, by means of short
wave, circled the globe. The performances of the NBC Symphony,
listened to by millions and capable of being heard in every living
room on earth, established radio as the most powerful instrument
developed up to that time for cultural extension.
But there is nothing in the world
of art more transitory than a musical performance. It exists
at the instant it is being played and thereafter only in the
memory of the listener. The final task, therefore, was to assure
the preservation of the works performed in the NBC broadcasts,
many of which Toscanini had never recorded. Thus, at the time
the music of the NBC Symphony was being transmitted over the
airwaves, it also was being transcribed on tape or discs. Most
of these transcriptions have never been made public.
If there has been such a thing as the often-mentioned "cultural explosion" in America, then there must also have been the classic components to cause such a detonation. That would include, in the very first place, a fuse to ignite the dynamic force. Insofar as music nationwide is concerned, nothing, it seems to me, more merits the analogy than the long series or events in which Arturo Toscanini took part with the NBC Symphony Orchestra between Christmas night 1937 and April 4 seventeen years later. As one who attended both-joyfully the first, regretfully the second-I can personally vouch that the spark was present, the explosive material contained, in countless masterpieces between the first Vivaldi and the last Wagner. And the chain reaction to the diffusion of force thus released was extended nationwide (even worldwide) through the air to places where no comparable poucr had ever been experienced.
Like anything of so influential a nature, it had not only a history but a prehistory-which is to sas, other memorable events to precede the most memorable. In direct precedence was the afternoon of November 2, when Artur Rodzinski, who had been summoned from Cleveland where he was then music director, showed the first result of the molding proccss to which he had subjected the personnel assembled from far and near.
The one thousand or more who attended the "dress rehearsal" in NBC's Studio 8-H heard performances of Weber's Oberon Overture and Strauss' Ein Heldenleben. The six public trial runs that followed, shared by Pierre Monteux and Rodzinski, collfirmed the impression of the first-that this was indeed a fine orchestra. But it only became a great one after the relentless taskmaster took his place in December. What others could produce by molding and shaping could be fused into a totality only by the heat generated by Toscanini through the long association that followed the first encounter in Vivaldi (D Minor Concerto Grosso, Op. 3, No. 11), Mozart (G Minor Symphony) and Brahms (Symphony No. I ) .
What it sounded like to more than one listener was summarized in a report that appeared on Monday, December 27 (Christmas fell on Saturday that year), under the by-line of Oscar Thompson in The New York Sun: "All of the Toscanini magic was in the three performances of the evening. The slakeless care, the amazing equipoise of parts, the inerrable tracing of the essential lifeline of each composition, without either sacrificing or overstressing subsidiary voices; the cumulative momentum by which the music runs its allotted course with a rhythmic surety that loses all semblance of arbitrary pace; the organic growth in the revelation of structure, as if the last measure were predestined with the first, and the ignescent inner light, whereby the instruments are given an individual glow rather than merging in a welter of sound, all these played their familiar part in performances as personal as they were universal in the power and persuasion of their appeal."
I, like dozens of writers since, Thompson was endeavoring to re-create in words the effect Upon him of the music that Toscanini had released from the printed page. Of the conviction contained in his words there could he no question, and others who confronted the same challenge might envy the eloquence he summoned. In a very thick hook that could he compiled of the sensitive, illuminating, even accurate words descriptive of the Toscanini phenomenon they merit an honored place. But the best of them would lag leagues behind the approach to actuality conveyed by the recordings-and in the many others that followed. As year succeeded year and broadcast was added to broadcast,public concert to public concert, tour to tour, the reason for this became ever more apparent.This was no casual, business-hours relationship of men and maestro as such has ennobled the literature of reproduction from many sources. It was, rather a causal interaction of forces such as had never existed before-and very likely never will again. For beyond the number of men in the ranks who qualified by excellence of ability for positions they cherished were more than a few who sought out the opportunity and were gratefully accepted though they would not have taken a chair under any other conductor in any other orchestra in the world. Among them were the peerless viola virtuoso William Primrose; the prima inter seconda Edwin Bachmann at the head of the second violins; the excellent Karl Glassman, timpanist from first to last. In the changes that followed as the years slipped by, the Orchestra became a breeding ground for such later conductors as Milton Katims, Samuel Antek, Frank Brieff, Frank Miller, Robert La Marchina. It was, in short, an elite corps, whose officers included the legendary Harry Glantz as bugler extraordinary(first trumpet). The Brothers Berv (Arthur, Jack and Harry) in the horn section,not to mention such eminent chamber music players as Daniel Guilet, Felix Galimir, Giorgio Ciompi, Bernard Robbins and Sylvan Shulman among the violins; Carlton Cooley, Nicolas Moldavan (once of the Flonzaley (Quartet) and Nathan Gordon among the violas; Benar Heifetz (Roth (Quartet), Naoum Benditzky (Gordon Quartet) and Alan Shulman (Stuyvesant Quartet) in the cello section. Their presence week after week in the file of faces before him was a compliment to Toscanini, but it was also a compliment to the pride in profession that made them willing collaborators in a lifetime opportunity to achieve together what they could not achieve individually.
The above was based on recollections by one the greatest musical critics of the 20 th century - Mr. Irving Kolodin.
||List of the NBC Symphony members (click here).|
|Photos of Orchestra & Maestro Arturo Toscanini (click here)|
|The Symphony of the Air 'Stereo' era (click here).||The Great 20 th Century Soloists with the NBC (click here).|
|Toscanini and the NBC - RCA Victor cover art (click here).||Profile of early NBC Player - Samuel Rabinowitz|