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The Toscanini Legacy by Spike Hughes

The Toscanini Legacy (1969)

by Spike Hughes

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Spike Hughes

The Toscanini Legacy:
A Critical Study

Dover, Paperback, 1969.

8vo. vii+399 pp. Second Enlarged Edition. Prefaces to the First (1958) and Second (1969) Editions.

First published, 1959.
Second Enlarged Edition, 1969.


Preface to the Second Edition
Preface to the First Edition

J. S. Bach
- Symphony No. 1
- Symphony No. 2
- Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)
- Symphony No. 4
- Symphony No. 5
- Symphony No. 6 (Pastoral)
- Symphony No. 7
- Symphony No. 8
- Symphony No. 9 (Choral)
- Symphony in D
- Requiem in C minor
- La Mer
- Iberia
- Symphony No. 101 in D (Clock)
- Symphony No. 94 in G (Surprise)
- Symphony No. 88 in G
- Symphony No. 4 in A (Italian)
- Symphony No. 5 in D minor (Reformation)
- The Magic Flute (Salzburg 1937)
- Symphony No. 35 in D (Haffner)
- Symphony No. 41 in C (Jupiter)
- Symphony No. 40 in G minor
- Symphony No. 39 in E flat
- Divertimento No. 15 in B flat (K. 287)
- Bassoon Concerto in B flat (K. 191)
- La Boheme
- Symphony No. 8 in B minor (Unfinished)
- Symphony No. 9 in C
Richard Strauss
- Don Juan
- Tod und Verklärung
- Till Eulenspiegel
- Don Quixote
- Rigoletto (Act IV)
- La Traviata
- Un Ballo in Maschera
- Aida
- Otello
- Falstaff
- Messa da Requiem
- Miscellaneous

Supplement [1969]
- Symphony No. 3 (Eroica)
- Symphony No. 7
- Concerto No. 4 in G for piano
- Romeo and Juliet
- Symphony No. 88 in G
- Symphony No. 98 in B flat
- Symphony No. 99 in E flat
- Symphonie Concertante in B flat
- The Marriage of Figaro Overture
- Don Giovanni Overture
- The Magic Flute Overture
- Symphony No. 9 in C
- Symphony No. 1
- Symphony No. 7 (Leningrad)
- Symphony No. 2 in D
- Pohjola's Daughter
- Symphony No. 6 in B minor (Pathetique)

Table of Original and Current Record Numbers


This critical study of Toscanini's recorded legacy can today be recommended only to the most curious Toscanini buff. It is written with charming honesty, but it is also badly limited and quite a bit dated. And, of course, much of it is occupied by severely technical analyses which do require extensive knowledge of music theory. In fact, even when the author is perfectly comprehensible for the layman, his writing is often pretentious and pompous, almost exclusively concerned with description rather than with analysis. In short, the book has been a considerable disappointment to me. The next few paragraphs form an attempt to explain why.

To begin with the positives, Mr Hughes is a pleasantly cosmopolitan and experienced character. He is British to the bone, yet during the 1930s he apparently spent a lot of time in New York; his student years seem to have passed mostly in Berlin. Consequently, Mr Hughes heard Toscanini in London, New York and Salzburg, in a number of concerts and opera performances (and a few rehearsals, too). As a writer, he is deliciously blunt and startlingly candid, usually lucid and engaging, if occasionally a little too self-conscious and conceited. Altogether, there seems to be no reason, at least at first glance, why the author should not produce a critical study of Toscanini's vast recorded legacy which has a lasting value. At second glance, however, there are several great drawbacks which reduce Mr Hughes' study to a trifle of historical interest only.

The most obvious defect of the book, and one for which the author is blameless, is that it is stupendously dated. The modern reader - unless he is a passionate vinyl collector - may speedily dismiss all references to record companies and catalogue numbers, including the table in the end. Fortunately, for all recordings under discussion the year is also mentioned, and that helps a lot with the identification. One further limitation that stems from this scarcity of recordings - a condition difficult to imagine today but apparently common on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1960s - is that, with very few exceptions, Mr Hughes discusses only a single recording of any work, usually a studio one. Thus he is devoid by default of one of the most fascinating areas of Toscanini research: comparison of different recordings of the same work, especially studio ones with broadcasts, which are often extremely revealing about the Maestro's musicianship and development. It should be added that the few cases when Mr Hughes does have this priceless opportunity (Beethoven's Eroica, Schubert's Ninth), he has little of any consequence to offer.

A great deal more detrimental to the quality of the book is the fact that Mr Hughes has several enormous blind spots. These include, amazingly, Brahms, Wagner and Richard Strauss. Still more amazing is the intensity of Mr Hughes' dislike. Brahms' symphonic music is "nearly repugnant" to him and in Strauss' "magnificent failures" there always was a "streak of inescapable beer-garden vulgarity and bathos, that lapse of melodic, harmonic and orchestral taste". Wagner manages to escape such stupefying reactions and estimations, yet his music has some ''extremely pedestrian'' passages and (for the notorious prelude to the third act of Lohengrin) ''Sousa would have thrown such trombone tune out of the window.'' The few perfunctory pages dedicated to Wagner perhaps tell the story of Mr Hughes' contempt for everything Wagnerian more eloquently than anything else could. The fact that the author freely acknowledges his prejudices does not make them any less ridiculous. For my part, he would have done better if he had not included these composers at all.

Even about Tchaikovsky Mr Hughes has some remarkably shallow comments to make. Leaving aside that he apparently didn't like any other work than the Pathetique (and Toscanini conducted and left marvellous recordings of Manfred, Romeo and Juliet and The Nutcracker Suite, too), it is downright unbelievable to read that Tchaikovsky himself was largely to blame that his last symphony became for decades "the ham conductor's showpiece". For one thing, the Russian composer chose the title very unwisely, for another, Mr Hughes continues to make a fool of himself, he riddled the score with preposterous markings such as "pppppp" and "con lenezza e devozione". "How does one play "with devotion''?", sneers Mr Hughes, who at other places uses far more ridiculous phrases, such as "Mediterranean clarity" for instance. Naturally the author reaches the conclusion that Toscanini's "characteristically literal performance" is the only one worthy of some qualified admiration.

Needless to say, Gershwin's An American in Paris and Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (No. 7) are denounced as well. The former is dismissed as a piece of "inflated salon music" and the latter enjoys the perfunctory ''analyses'' of Brahms' symphonies. In the Preface to the First Edition Mr Hughes even goes as far as attacking Toscanini's "artistic integrity" (his quotation marks) because he conducted such trash as Gershwin and even Grofe's Grand Canyon Suite, and no answer of the question "why" can be given for this "criminal waste of time", Mr Hughes self-righteously continues. It never occurred to him that artistic integrity (no quotation marks) is not measured by the degree to which the taste of somebody else matches your own. If it is measured at all, it is measured by how seriously a musician takes the so called "light music". Whatever the reasons for which Toscanini played Gershwin and Grofe, to say nothing of Martucci or Catalani, he always took everything he conducted extremely seriously. This is what I call artistic integrity.

The most astonishing thing as regards Mr Hughes' bizarre musical tastes is that he calls himself a man of "catholic taste in music which has become almost notorious and embarrassing". True, I can't think of any musical critic who didn't have some blind spots, usually notorious ones: Harold Schonberg could never understand all the fuss about Mahler and he had some rather harsh words about Richard Strauss; Bernard Shaw's irreverence was legendary and included Brahms, Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky, among others. Yet, none of these cases is even remotely comparable with the extent and the intensity of Mr Hughes' inherent musical detestations.

Now, there is nothing wrong with blind spots in general. We all have them and the sooner we recognise them the better. But if your musical blind spots include Brahms, Wagner, Richard Strauss and, to a large extent, Tchaikovsky, you have no business being a musical critic. Still less are you to write a critical study of Toscanini's recorded legacy. Objectivity from the critic I do not demand for the simple reason that I don't believe it exists. But a catholic taste - that I do demand, and the author doesn't have any acceptable approximation of it.

Mr Hughes makes no bones that his book is deliberately selective, mostly concentrating on Beethoven and Verdi because Toscanini's interpretations of these two composers are, in his opinion, the most important and representative part of his legacy. I venture to suggest the audacious hypothesis that this claim is bogus. Brahms and Wagner were every bit as prominent in Toscanini's repertoire, concert programs and discography as Beethoven and Verdi. Richard Strauss and Tchaikovsky the Italian Maestro conducted far more selectively, yet even here he left amazing recordings to be reckoned with. Just hear that stupendous broadcast from February 1, 1941, preserved in superb for its time sound, of Strauss' Ein Heldenleben, a monumental work which Toscanini, unbelievably, performed only once during his 17 years with the NBC Symphony (and only twice more with the New York Philharmonic earlier, for that matter). Yet this is a towering performance which easily stands comparison (a loathsome thing to do anyway) with any other recording, including the composer's own. Posterity should be grateful that it was recorded in such a great sound.

To cut the long story short, my point is that, should you be unable to appreciate these composers, you cannot possibly write any other book on Toscanini but a very warped one of little value. So Mr Hughes did. The fact that he is quite appreciative of Debussy, Sibelius, Schumann, Mendelssohn and Rossini does help the matter. But it is not enough, because it does not change the fact that he is above all concerned with Beethoven and Verdi. But there was, and is, much more in Toscanini than these two great masters, important as they certainly are. As for Mr Hughes' ''notoriously catholic taste'', so far as I can see, it ends with Verdi's La Traviata and Rossini's overtures. They could perhaps buy that in the 1960s. But today it will not do.

But every writer has the right to be judged by his best. So let's look at Mr Hughes' extensive analyses of Toscanini's recordings of Verdi and Beethoven. Well, for the most part they are perfectly pedestrian and quite useless. Perhaps a trained musician might find them more worthy of his time, but I can't honestly say that I came out of this book with a better appreciation even of one recording. The only thing which I did find of some interest were some of Mr Hughes' remarks about less known changes Toscanini made in many scores, e.g. the first part of Tchaikovsky's Pathetique. Also, occasionally, the author makes fascinating comparisons between his experience of Toscanini on record and Toscanini live in the concert hall. If anything, these at least support the notion that Toscanini's recordings, for the most part, do him more justice than is generally recognised.

There is one grave fault in Mr Hughes' discussions of Verdi's operas. This is the baffling fact that he virtually never even mentions the singing! (That's true of Puccini's La Boheme and Beethoven's Fidelio, too.) Considering that the author writes about concrete recordings, with companies, catalogue numbers, years and casts cited, such omission is completely unacceptable and unforgivable. Toscanini's approach is meticulously analysed to the last dynamic detail or tempo fluctuation. Yet from reading Mr Hughes one would think that La Traviata, Rigoletto and Aida are simply symphonic poems with extensive poetic programs. In the rare instances when Mr Hughes does mention the singers, it is to say that they are less important than Toscanini. That's a ludicrous claim if I have ever heard one! It goes without saying that the Maestro's conducting adds a great deal of significance to the orchestral detail in these recordings. But surely he did influence the singers, too. That's why Mr Hughes should have studied all other recordings of these singers in order to at least try to offer some speculation how much of the singing was moulded by Toscanini and how much he left to the artistic sensibility of the singers. To my mind, such analyses would have been much more valuable than the preposterous complete exclusion of the casts.

All in all, Spike Hughes' The Toscanini Legacy is justly out-of-print and rather forgotten today. It is not just grossly biased, which is bad enough, but it contains a good many glaring omissions, foolish prejudices and dated references. A much fuller, more up-to-date and more perceptive, analysis is to be found in Mortimer Frank's indispensable Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years (2002). But the best way to know Toscanini, of course, is through sound. Here we are indeed extremely lucky, for we are living in the Golden Age of historical recordings. The RCA's Toscanini Collection (Gold Seal) has long been out-of-print, but almost all of its 71 volumes are still available second-hand at very decent prices. This fabulous collection - with few exceptions such as the recordings with the Philadelphia orchestra - still remains the finest introduction to the Maestro. That said, many of the 12 volumes of the more recent Immortal series (RCA Red Seal) can also be found, though not always cheaply; despite dubious remastering, not as great an improvement as advertised, they present the core of Toscanini's repertoire as recorded (live and/or in studio) during the last years of his career. So much for the introduction to Toscanini. Should this capture your imagination, there are numerous live broadcasts in superbly restored sound, issued by Naxos, Guild and Music & Arts and usually offered for a pittance, which offer a musical portrait of the Maestro more vivid and more compelling than any book. ( )
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