Books: A socialist artistic tyrant

Written By: Stephen Kelly
Published: November 21, 2017 Last modified: November 26, 2017

Toscanini: Musician Of Conscience
by Harvey Sachs
Liveright £29.99

The Second World War brought inevitable moral conflicts for the orchestral world, particularly for musicians and conductors in Germany. Some, like Otto Klemperer, renounced fascism as early as 1933 and left for the USA, not returning until after the war. Bruno Walter, after skirmishes with Goebbels, set sail for America in 1939. Erich Kleiber also left, in his case for Argentina. But for others it was not so straightforward. Wilhelm Furtwangler was never a national socialist yet remained in Germany as principal conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic, a position that brought him into continual conflict with Goebbels. Furtwangler argued, much to the annoyance of Arturo Toscanini, that music was above politics and the two had to be separated. Others, like Richard Strauss, remained in Germany, enjoying an uneasy, often compromising relationship with nazism. Again Toscanini was not impressed. “To Strauss the composer I take off my hat; to Strauss the man I put it back on again,” he said. Karl Bohm, was another who remained and benefited from Hitler’s largesse. And of course, Herbert Von Karajan, a fully signed up member of the Nazi party, remained in Germany throughout the war, enjoying a fruitful relationship with the regime, which greatly enhanced his growing stardom. Toscanini, however, held no truck with nazis. He was a socialist, proud of it and a fighter against fascism.

Toscanini was born in Parma in March 1867. In his early years he studied the cello, embarking on a career as an orchestral cellist at the age of 19 on a tour to Brazil. But when the orchestra’s conductor was shouted down by his audience, Toscanini stepped up to the podium to take over the baton. He was an instant success. A new career beckoned. Later that year he made his debut back in Italy, soon taking on a permanent post in Turin, mainly conducting opera. By 1898 he was at La Scala, Milan, working alongside Verdi, Puccini, Strauss and Mahler. It was the start of a glittering career. In 1908 he conducted at the New York Metropolitan Opera in what was to become a long and remarkable association with the USA. The Met was young and rich, unlike La Scala, which was beset with financial problems that made it difficult to hire the best singers and musicians.

During the First World War Toscanini put aside his professional career, refusing any financial rewards and conducting only for charity. He visited the front, and spent most of his time in Italy helping the war effort. After the war he found himself supporting Mussolini’s socialist party but by 1922 it was quite clear that Mussolini had shifted his political dogma and Toscanini became a bitter enemy. “If I were capable of killing a man, I would kill Mussolini,” he raged.

He was now dividing his time between La Scala and America, where he had taken over the New York Philharmonic. By 1929, however, Mussolini’s hold on Italy was complete; even La Scala had been taken over by the fascists, making life intolerable for the Maestro. There was no other option but to leave. He would not return until Mussolini and fascism were dead. In May 1931, conducting in Bologna, Toscanini was ordered to begin by playing Giovinezza, the anthem of the Italian fascist party, but he refused. Outside the theatre that night he was attacked by fascist thugs. He was now placed under close surveillance by the authorities with his clash with Mussolini reaching new depths. The Italian press, under the strict control of Il Duce, railed against Toscanini, while in the United States the attack was front page news. The dye was set.

By 1933, with Hitler installed as Chancellor in Germany, Jewish and anti-fascist musicians were coming under intense pressure. Toscanini had been hired to conduct the Bayreuth festival. After some consideration he decided to withdraw. A turning point in his relationship with Germany had been reached. He was now a wandering minstrel, performing in Paris, Stockholm, Vienna and other places. He even helped establish a Palestine orchestra, made up mainly of German Jews fleeing their homeland. With the outbreak of World War Two, Toscanini left Europe, not to return until the war had ended. By now he was helping to pioneer radio broadcasting and was forging a long-lasting relationship with the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

At the end of the war Toscanini made a triumphant return to La Scala, now refurbished after serious bombing. It was to be a moment of enormous pride for him and his convictions. He also remained chief conductor of the NBC until he retired at the age of 87. He died a few years later in 1957.

Sachs’ mammoth biography of Tos­canini is a tour de force; impressive in almost every respect. It’s well written, hugely de­tailed and impeccably researched. If I have any quibble it’s just that I would have liked to learn something of the roots of Toscanini’s socialism.

On the podium Toscanini was a tyrant, always demanding more from his singers or players, and he was not always popular with his peer group. Thomas Beecham, for one, was no fan. His tyrannical outbursts may have drawn the best out of his artistes but it didn’t always win him friends. Batons were hurled at orchestra members and singers, hurtful comments were screamed and tears shed. And in his domestic life his behaviour also left much to be desired.

He had married his wife Carla when he was still young and although they remained together until she died in 1951, their marriage was beset with countless infidelities on his part, many short lived but more than a few serious and long term. But Toscanini was a genius, perhaps the greatest conductor of his generation, and allowed to get away with whatever. And there’s no escaping the fact that he was indeed a man of conscience in a difficult time.