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Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years by Mortimer…

Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years (2002)

by Mortimer H. Frank

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Mortimer H. Frank

Arturo Toscanini:
The NBC Years

Amadeus Press, Hardback, 2002.

8vo. 358 pp. Appendices 1-9 [pp. 261-344]. Notes, Bibliography, Index [pp. 345-58].

First published, 2002.


Foreword: Toscanini Then and Again by Jacques Barzun


Chapter 1. NBC Comes to Toscanini
Chapter 2. The Broadcasts
Chapter 3. The NBC Repertory
Chapter 4. Reconstructing Toscanini

Appendix 1. Nonbroadcast Toscanini NBC Symphony Orchestra Concerts
Appendix 2. The NBC Symphony Orchestra Tours
Appendix 3. Works Performed by Toscanini at NBC Absent from His New York Philharmonic Programs
Appendix 4. Works Performed by Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic Absent from His NBC Symphony Orchestra Programs
Appendix 5. NBC Symphony Orchestra Personnel
Appendix 6. Preservation of the NBC Symphony Orchestra Broadcasts
Appendix 7. The Toscanini Videos
Appendix 8. Discography
Appendix 9. NBC Symphony Orchestra Broadcasts: The Other Conductors



This is a book for Toscanini buffs only. But for them it is priceless. Unless the legendary Italian conductor has something special to say to you, for which reason you are dedicated to serious exploration of his vast discography, you have no business reading this book. But if he has, and you are, Mr Frank's study is indispensable.

This is not a biography of Toscanini, nor is it a biographical portrait. Rather, it is a book about broadcasts and recordings, exclusively concentrating on a single period of Toscanini's long, eventful and productive life. For the rest, Harvey Sachs' Toscanini (1978) is still by far the most comprehensive and authoritative, if dry and not especially perceptive, account; not for nothing does Mr Frank quote from it extensively. But why, somebody not familiar with the subject might exclaim, should one dedicate a whole book on Toscanini's association with the NBC only? Because it is a terrific story of extraordinary importance – at least for the classical music history. Mr Frank has brilliantly summarised the events, and their far reaching consequences, in his first chapter. Before discussing the book in detail, it is worth recalling the essence of the story again.

The story, indeed, is every bit as good as many novels – and better than most, no doubt. In the end of April 1936, Toscanini gave his last concert as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, after seven years at the helm of this prestigious orchestra. He was nearly 70 years old and already a living legend. He had announced his leaving the New York Philharmonic the year before. Virtually everybody at the time thought that, not just New York, but the United States in general was seeing him for the last time. Little did they know that they would see quite a bit more of him for the next seventeen years!

Such dazzling visions of the future were most probably not inside the head even of David Sarnoff, a high-rank official at RCA and NBC. Yet this was the man who conceived and, far more amazingly, carried out successfully an extremely bold and audacious enterprise. Sarnoff's idea, in a nutshell, was to create a new symphony orchestra, from scratch but nothing short of world class, which would be used exclusively for broadcasting and recording under the baton of its chief conductor: Arturo Toscanini. Unbelievable as it may seem, in the end of 1937 the NBC Symphony Orchestra, as it was called, was already in existence and fully up to the Maestro's notoriously high standards. On Christmas day, 1937, Toscanini conducted his first concert with the orchestra that had been created especially for him. This phenomenon itself is, I believe, without precedent in the musical history.

The rest, as the cliché goes, is history. For the next seventeen seasons (1937–54) Arturo Toscanini led the NBC Symphony Orchestra on well over a hundred occasions, including two extensive tours (in South America and in the United States) and numerous broadcasts. Most important for posterity, all these broadcasts were recorded in the best possible sound; especially after the introduction of the LP in 1949, Toscanini made quite a few studio recordings as well. Officially released by RCA or made available by other labels dedicated to the restoration of historical documents, these recordings and broadcasts form today by far the greatest part of Toscanini's stupendous for its time discography. These more than one hundred discs, not goofy adulation or equally foolish denigration, have established beyond reasonable doubt Arturo Toscanini as one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century.

Just imagine, for the sake of the argument, what the situation today would have been if the NBC Symphony Orchestra had never been created for the great Italian conductor. Toscanini, of course, would have been remembered as one of the most important figures in the history of conducting. By 1936 he already had more than 50 years long career behind himself, including tenures as music director at the Milan La Scala (several times) and the New York Metropolitan as well as a spectacular list of world premieres (including Puccini's La Boheme and Turandot). But historical achievements, great as they may be, do not have the power of recordings. By 1936, all of Toscanini's recordings were few studio ones and few broadcasts with the New York Philharmonic. Whatever their artistic merits may be, sonically these are highly unsatisfactory by modern standards. (Toscanini's first recordings were acoustical ones with the orchestra of La Scala made in 1920; but these are completely unlistenable today.) Besides, they do not in the least faithfully represent Toscanini's repertoire and musicianship.

Toscanini's NBC years changed all that profoundly. They made Toscanini a household name not just in the States through broadcasting, but in the whole world through recordings. Mr Frank lists more than 90 works in these broadcasts which were absent from Toscanini's programs with the New York Philharmonic and which we may well not have had today at all. Many of these were recorded in studio as well, and they make for many highly revealing comparisons. During those 17 years Toscanini did occasionally conduct other orchestras as well – most notably the Philadelphia orchestra, Philharmonia and the BBC Symphony – and many important recordings from these collaborations have been released, too. But the vast bulk of his recorded legacy still remains with the NBC Symphony Orchestra: two complete cycles with Beethoven's symphonies, one with Brahms', a good deal of orchestral music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Mozart and numerous minor names – to say nothing of several broadcasts (usually patched up from rehearsals) of complete operas (La Traviata, Otello, Falstaff, Aida, among others).

Quite apart from its (to my mind tremendous) artistic value, Toscanini's extraordinary Indian summer with the NBC Symphony was an outstanding technical achievement, too. Toscanini, in fact, was the first conductor in history whose work was regularly broadcast to an audience far exceeding the capacity of any concert hall. In the early 1950s he also became one of the first whose concerts were televised; his video recordings, though far less numerous than his audio ones, also are immensely fascinating documents. It is difficult in our age of freaking technology to imagine that less than a century ago broadcasting and televising symphonic concerts was state-of-the-art technical achievement. Yet this is a well-documented historical fact.

Clearly, then, Toscanini's NBC years are of the utmost importance for anybody seriously interested in his personality and especially in his recorded legacy. That's why we are extremely fortunate to have Mortimer Frank's book. It is by far the most detailed and meticulously researched study of these fabulously productive seventeen years. Mr Frank has spent a lifetime in listening to Toscanini's extensive discography, official and not only, he has had access to vast amounts of rare archive materials, including absolutely all of Toscanini's broadcasts, and he is an excellent writer whose style admirably combines lucidity and succinctness. The result is a remarkable book which will for a long time serve as reference about Toscanini's numerous broadcasts and recordings. Moreover, it gives a far from negligible insight into the musical personality of this extraordinary man.

Quite apart from his striving to make his book a reference for everything connected with the NBC years of the great conductor, Mr Frank has set himself another goal also: to demolish a number of myths about Toscanini that somehow have accumulated through the years. Above all and most important of all, Mr Frank makes an exceptionally strong case that the NBC years are very, very far from being some insignificant appendage to the previous half century of Toscanini's career. Quite to the contrary indeed! Even in those late years Toscanini's repertoire, though centred on Beethoven, Brahms, Verdi and Wagner, actually ranged from Mozart and Haydn to Debussy and Shostakovich (with occasional glimpses to Bach and Vivaldi as well as to Gershwin and Grofe). Nor did Toscanini's interpretations become faster, more mechanical and altogether inferior with the advancing years, as is often claimed by people who should know better. In fact, his concepts about many works were in the process of constant re-evaluation and changed quite a bit through the years – by no means always for the worse. One should think that Toscanini's staggering amount of recordings – many works existing in two, three or even four versions, including unofficially released broadcasts – should refute any claims as the ones above and deem them ridiculous – which is what they are. But many people apparently write without bothering to listen, let alone to think. Mr Frank is a wonderful exception: he does exactly the opposite.

One of the most beautiful things about Mr Frank's attitude is that it is beautifully balanced. He is never lost in useless hero worship or ridiculous rhapsodizing. When Toscanini meddled with the work of his colleagues, for example objecting strongly to how they led their rehearsals, Mr Frank makes no bones that the great conductor's conduct was distinctly ungentlemanly. On the other hand, the author takes as sparring partners some of the most scurrilous writers about Toscanini and, rightly, tears them to pieces. Samuel Chotzinoff's sometimes ''ludicrously melodramatic'' and more often grossly inaccurate Toscanini: An Intimate Portrait (1956) as well as Joseph Horowitz's (no relation to the famous pianist) blatant misrepresentation, not to say character assassination, Understanding Toscanini (1987, with a most telling subtitle: ''How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Create a New Audience for Old Music'') are mercilessly exposed by pertinent arguments firmly rooted in Toscanini's recordings, a most enlightening source for those who can use it.

Mr Frank's sensible and highly commendable attitude extends to everybody and everything he deals with. He does have some rather harsh words about Sarnoff, who was ''not sophisticated musically'' and whose motives were far from idealistic, but in the end he is positive that this does not really matter. That the creation of the NBC Symphony was one of the most important events in the musical history of the last century is a fact that cannot be disputed. It was not only that it gave Toscanini the exclusive opportunity for a fabulous Indian summer. The orchestra also played numerous concerts, which were also broadcast and recorded, under the batons of legendary guest conductors such as Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leopold Stokowski, Fritz Reiner and others. Nor does Mr Frank shy away from exposing on several occasions the insensitive duplicity of NBC towards Toscanini, or the company's somewhat extravagant notions of promotion and advertising, but he invariably does that with tact and understanding. There are a number of (semi-)scandals – Toscanini's sharing the podium with Stokowski and his final resignation, to name but two – which are handled in a manner that may serve as an example for many other writers.

My only qualm with Mr Frank's writing style is that he is occasionally prone to excessive detail. Since his book is by definition a kind of encyclopaedic reference, a good deal of dryness is to be expected here and there. But still – is it really so important to note the hours during which the broadcasts took place or who and how made the running commentary? These things occur mostly is the second chapter which is separated into seventeen sections, one for each season, listing all broadcasts Toscanini conducted, together with programs and, sometimes, notes about the performance or the recording. Yet, even this chapter is by no means unreadable. Each section, in addition to the meticulous statistics, contains an introductory and concluding parts which adroitly put the season in question in the right historical perspective, namely that of Toscanini's life and mind. And occasionally Mr Frank comes with a startling and highly illuminating historical details often overlooked by others. My greatest favourite of these is that in the early 1950s, while in London, Toscanini met Laurence Olivier and they had a long discussion about the similarities and differences between Othello and Otello. Mr Frank is probably right in suggesting that recording of this meeting would have been as great a treasure as anything else that both artists did leave for posterity.

The third chapter is in many ways the most remarkable part of the book. I shudder to think of the stupendous amount of research that must have gone into its preparation. After a short introduction, Mr Franks goes on to investigate in alphabetical order every work by every composer which Toscanini programmed during his broadcasts. Each section starts with listing all works by a given composer and all dates on which it was broadcast. These are usually split into two parts: ''Unofficially Issued Repertory'' and ''Officially Issued Repertory''; the latter contain the dates, the type of recording (studio or broadcast) and the catalogue numbers in the still definitive Toscanini Collection released by RCA in the early 1990s (more of that anon); the former consists of works that were released only after Toscanini's death, usually but not always with the approval of his family, and for these labels and catalogue numbers may be consulted in the discography in the end of the book (more of that, too, anon). Occasionally, mostly in the cases of now completely forgotten composers, there is a section called ''Unissued Repertory'' which is self-explanatory: these are works Toscanini did conduct during his broadcasts but which were never released commercially in any form (although they were, of course, recorded by NBC). What impresses me at first glance is the enormous number of totally obscure names whose works Toscanini conducted, many of them his contemporaries. And here I am grateful to Mr Frank for his concise biographical sketches. For who remembers today Antonio Bazzini (1818–97), Enrico Bossi (1861–1925), Giovanni Bolzoni (1841–1919), Mario Tedesco-Castelnuovo (1895–1968) and the like?

(So much, incidentally, for another Toscanini myth, namely that the great conductor was averse to contemporary music. Leaving aside the fact that Puccini, Debussy and Shostakovich – even Verdi, Brahms, Dvorak and Tchaikovsky indeed – were actually contemporaries of Toscanini, he was generally hostile only to a certain fraction of the modern music. Unfortunately this includes its most famous exponents – Stravinsky, the New Viennese School – and that's the main reason why so many people, no doubt admirers of these luminaries, have missed the point. Indeed, in 1942 Toscanini gave the now famous American premiere of Shostakovich's mighty Seventh Symphony, the score being smuggled from the occupied USSR on microfilm. Much less known is the fact that in 1938 Toscanini also gave the world premiere of the now rather popular Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber.)

In ''The NBC Repertory'' Mr Frank is almost exclusively concerned with comparative analyses of different recordings of the same work. Sometimes he gets bogged down in too much detail and sometimes he glosses over some great recordings in a rather perfunctory fashion – and sometimes, of course, I find myself in strong disagreement with him – but, on the whole, he is far more readable, and can be read with much greater benefit, than is usually the case with this type of writing. Besides, it should be noted that Mr Frank often has something fascinating and illuminating to say about Toscanini's relationship with a certain composer or a certain work. Also, he always puts his recordings into their right historical contexts.

Finally, there emerges a picture altogether different than the once popular image of Toscanini as a musical moron who knew everything about conducting and nothing about music. Far from it. Mr Frank makes a stupendously documented case that Toscanini remained a musician dedicated to study and re-evaluation of his repertoire until the very end of his life. This is nothing short of complete refutation of the preposterous theory that in his late years with the NBC Symphony Toscanini became careless with his recordings or bored with the music he conducted or anything of the kind. Such nonsense can still be believed only by people who intensely dislike Toscanini for some other reason.

''Reconstructing Toscanini'' is another very perceptive chapter. Here Mr Frank gets into his one and only direct confrontation with Harvey Sachs himself. The point of contention is indeed the one which Mr Frank's whole book firmly refutes, namely that Toscanini's NBC recordings do not represent him faithfully. Why? Sachs' only argument seems to be that they were made in the end of his life, when the Maestro was 70 to 87 years old. This is true, of course, but why it should be held against the recordings I still fail to comprehend. If there is a profession where advanced age, far from being detrimental, is actually beneficial and often leads to more satisfactory results than youth is capable of, this is the orchestral conductor. In Sachs' defence, Mr Frank reminds us that he wrote in 1978, more than a decade before RCA's Toscanini Collection made available for the first time all commercial recordings at the same time. Moreover, since then many broadcasts, usually in fine restored sound, have also been released. They are often strikingly different than the studio recordings and they confirm yet again – as noted by Mr Frank at least a hundred times in Chapter 3 – that Toscanini, like more or less every great artist, was not only more exciting and unbridled in front of an audience, but that even in his last years, when he was well into his eighties, he never stopped his development as an interpreter of works he had conducted dozens of times. It is seldom with Toscanini that a work sounds the same live and in the studio, still less so when a few years lie between both performances. Yet to claim, as many people have, that his late recordings are consistently inferior to his early ones is very superficial, to say the least. Even if we assume that Toscanini's early efforts are consistently, if slightly, better than his later ones, the latter have the great advantage of far better sonics and this, to my mind, completely redeems all possible faults of style or temperament – which I have yet to notice.

Several of the appendices deserve some discussion.

By far the most important one is Appendix 8 which is a truly magnificent discography. Considering that the book is already nearly a decade old, during which a number of broadcasts have appeared on the market for the first time, it is remarkably little outdated.

The discography, of course, includes all discs from the Toscanini Collection, issued by RCA (Gold Seal) between 1990 and 1992. This legendary, and now sadly out of print, series is the one with the gorgeous black-and-white photos of Robert Hupka on the covers. It collects all of Toscanini's recordings approved by him or his family for release. The distribution of these 82 discs by orchestra is rather telling. No fewer than 74 discs are dedicated to the NBC recordings. Those with the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra occupy four and three discs, respectively. The last remaining disc collects the acoustic recordings from La Scala made in 1920–21.

The discography also features all 12 volumes (24 discs) which were issued in 1999 under the utterly stupid title ''Arturo Toscanini: The Immortal''. There was absolutely nothing new on these discs. They all consisted of previously released material which, mind you, was supposed to be newly remastered, using some highly sophisticated techniques that were not available just a few years earlier. These remasters have been praised to the skies and quite a lot of hype there was around them at the time. Since I am one in the minority, who is not at all that impressed, I am pleased to report that Mr Frank is not swept off his feet, either. There are few cases where the sonics are indeed considerably improved (e.g. Schubert's Ninth, Schumann's Third and some of Beethoven's symphonies), and Mr Frank duly acknowledges that. But in most cases ''The Immortal'' series offers sound which may have slightly greater clarity or dynamic range compared to the old editions, but this is, alas, at the expense of additional dryness. Some of Toscanini's recordings, particularly those made in the notorious Studio 8-H, had harsh and brittle tone from the beginning, and that the famed new remastering has not improved at all.

The basic part of the Discography deals naturally with the recordings issued by RCA. The wonderful thing is that it also contains a special section about all recordings, studio and live, made with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937–39. Importantly, this section also mentions the now legendary Brahms cycle (the four symphonies) recorded live in 1952 with the Philharmonia Orchestra. These are now available, if pricey, in excellent sound from Testament as a double disc (also mentioned here).

The truly outstanding feature of the Discography is that it contains an extensive section about unofficial recordings. These are exclusively broadcasts released by various minor labels, some of which (like Naxos or Music & Arts, for instance) have a reputation for doing excellent job with remastering of historical stuff. These recordings are of exceptional significance. On the one hand, they include great many works Toscanini neither recorded in studio nor approved for release from any of his broadcasts (e.g. Sibelius' En Saga or Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with Earl Wild and Benny Goodman; the latter omitted in the book but released on CD since). On the other hand, some of these live recordings put to shame Toscanini's studio efforts. Fascinating example is Tchaikovsky's Manfred Symphony. The 1949 studio recording is excellent, but the 1953 live one, though less perfect technically, is absolutely mind-blowing in terms of raw energy and devastating passion. Last but not least, some of these recordings have considerable sentimental value. Perfect examples here include Toscanini's last two concerts, the only two in his career recorded in genuine stereo. Both have been released by Music and Arts in fine sound and both, though certainly not among his best, amply testify that even at 87 Toscanini still was a force on the rostrum to be reckoned with.

The Discography is the only part of the book which is dated. But this is to be expected and we should be grateful that Toscanini's recordings continue to be released, be they new broadcasts or better remasters of old ones. I am quite sure that Mr Frank himself would be pleased that his book is getting dated in this respect. The most notable omissions here are Toscanini's recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Mr Frank rightly remarks that the transfers in the Toscanini Collection are painfully inadequate. Yet since the publication of the book, these gems – which include, among other things, a stupendous rendition of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique – have been released by RCA (Red Seal) as a box-set of three discs, newly remastered from original sources long considered lost, and with stellar sound quality for recordings made in 1941–42. It is also worth mentioning that the aforementioned stupendous live Manfred has since been re-released (2004) by Music & Arts with much better sound than before (CD-4260); the book gives only the old edition from 1987 (CD-260).

The slightly dated character of the Discography is not, of course, a drawback of the book. Some mistakes in the recording dates are, for it is a little confusing to see one thing in Chapter 3 and another in Appendix 8, but this is not so terrible, either. It is very much to Mr Frank's credit that he has included in his book a section that could not but get dated rather quickly. And he did it with his usual comprehensiveness: the section on ''Unofficial Recordings'' approaches the dimensions of the official discography, which is enormous anyway. Despite that the Discography will bear a number of pencil marks, it remains by far the most thorough and meticulous attempt to document Toscanini's legacy on paper. For those who want to know more, there are several excellent discographies on the Web, including the invaluable Toscanini Database of The Gould Collection.

Appendix 7 is also very valuable. It lists all video recordings of Toscanini available, together with many perceptive remarks about sound and picture quality, camera work, baton technique, editing of the original material, etc.

The book, by the way, is wonderfully illustrated, with a frontispiece portrait of Toscanini and many photographs of him in concert, rehearsal or informal situations. The photographs are not printed on glossy paper, but their quality is excellent. Among many famous images, there are several which are quite rare.

The Foreword by Jacques Barzun, the eminent biographer of Berlioz, is a fine piece with several perceptive points about the so called "Toscanini Legend" which often grossly misrepresents the conductor, and how it has changed in the half century after his death. But the most fascinating part of this foreword is Mr Barzun's recalling a personal meeting with Toscanini in which they discussed different variants of the score of Berlioz' dramatic symphony Romeo and Juliet. This is yet another piece of solid evidence how seriously Toscanini took his work and how thoroughly he studied the music that attracted him. When he was no longer capable of keeping to his own standards of fanatical perfectionism, Arturo Toscanini did the right thing: he retired.

All in all, if you are a real admirer of Arturo Toscanini and you don't have this book on your shelves, you really should rectify the omission as soon as possible. You are not likely to regret it. ( )
3 vote Waldstein | Nov 22, 2011 |
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Enough books have been written about Toscanini - more, quite likely, than any other conductor has inspired - to make one wonder if another is necessary. Some of those books, however, were produced during the conductor's lifetime and consequently lack the perspective that time alone can provide. Moreover, none involves a close study of his seventeen years (1937-1954) at NBC, the last and longest professional association of his unprecedented sixty-eight-year career. Those years have, of course, been discussed. Sometimes they were excessively praised, other times they were deemed an inferior appendage to past triumphs, and often they were judged to be a period in which advancing years and declining powers left the conductor without the authority and control that he exerted during his preceding decade with the New York Philharmonic. Such specious views resulted mainly from a lack of access to transcriptions of the NBC Symphony Orchestra broadcasts made by the network's engineers.
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