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The Letters of Arturo Toscanini

by Arturo Toscanini, Harvey Sachs (Editor)

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The Letters of Arturo Toscanini

Compiled, edited and translated by
Harvey Sachs

Alfred A. Knopf, Hardback, 2002.

8vo. xxiii+468 pp. Introduction by the author [xv-xxiii]. Index [449-68].

First published, 18 April 2002.
Second Printing, September 2002.

Contents

Acknowledgments
Explanations and Abbreviations
Introduction

The Letters
Part One: January 1885 – September 1897
Part Two: July 1898 – May 1933
Part Three: June 1933 – May 1936
Part Four: July 1936 – September 1937
Part Five: September 1937 – September 1939
Part Six: October 1939 – March 1946
Part Seven: July 1946 – November 1956

Index

===========================

Harvey Sachs is a much better editor than he is a writer. This is his finest book about Toscanini. It offers a portrait of the great conductor far more vivid, complex and affecting than his 1978 biography, usually called definitive for want of a better one, or his superficial Reflections on Toscanini (1993), which consists mostly of additional historical background and is rather short on reflections save nasty slights on other conductors.

I wish Mr Sachs had written his books with the same lively insight as he did the introduction to this one. He starts with a concise overview of Toscanini’s long life and stupendous career. He then proceeds to evaluate Toscanini’s epistolary legacy and the character of the man who emerges from it. Mr Sachs frankly admits that his biography contained at least one “glaring error”: he wrote in the foreword that Toscanini’s letters are “relatively few and often uninformative”. This turned out to be a complete delusion. Little by little, from all sorts of sources, material accumulated in vast amounts until the publishing of a book-length selection became imperative. The author concludes this part of his introductory essay with a hint at the obstacles he had to overcome during his research and a charming bit of humour:

I do not doubt that dozens and perhaps hundreds of Toscanini’s letters are still in the hands of various sources unknown to me (one source well known to me refused even to reply to my request to be allowed to see the documents in her possession), and I am sure that a week, a month, or ten years after this book is published someone will contact me and ask, “How is it possible that you didn’t print any of the seventy-three Toscanini letters that are in the Discordia Conservatory library? The addressees include Bruckner, Lenin, Babe Ruth and Mata Hari!” I shall duly hang my head in shame.

The most precious parts of the introduction are a number of perceptive points that the reader of the letters would do well to bear in mind. First of all, Toscanini’s numerous disparaging remarks must be taken in the right context. When he talks contemptuously about “those damned Germans” (aka “Teutonic delinquents”), this is mostly motivated by the political climate of the 1930s and hardly agrees with his admiring opinions of many individual Germans from musical collaborators and members of the Wagner family to Goethe and the great German composers. When he refers to David Sarnoff and Samuel Chotzinoff as “those Jews”, this sounds decidedly anti-Semitic, but the truth is that Toscanini had a good deal of compassion for the plight of the Jewish people. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have agreed to travel (at his own expense) to Tel Aviv and conduct the newly formed Palestine Orchestra (later Israel Philharmonic) in 1936.

Mr Sachs also addresses the notorious issue of Toscanini’s, to use his wonderful phrase, “erotic-pornographic ravings”. These occupy “disproportionate segment of his extant correspondence” for the simple reason that many of his letters to other people (e.g. the mighty publisher Giulio Ricordi) have not survived. It’s a matter of historical accident. Mr Sachs clearly states that he has limited his selection to a few “choice examples” because too much would be boring, and anyway he prefers to concentrate on letters which offer more insight into Toscanini’s work and personality. I completely agree with this attitude and it baffles me to see reviews accusing the book of being too salacious. It is nothing of the kind as the “erotic-pornographic ravings” do, indeed, occupy a very small part of it. Most of them are actually quite chaste, if unusually ardent for a man well into his sixties. But some readers are simply incorrigible, and Mr Sachs knows it:

I am only too well aware, however, of how this volume’s contents are likely to be treated in the press. About 15 percent of the text of my biography of Arthur Rubinstein was dedicated to his relations with his wife, his children, and the various women in his life, but that subject occupied about 80 percent of the space that many reviewers dedicated to the book.

On a more personal level, ignoring the catchy but ultimately irrelevant sexual issues, Mr Sachs draws the reader’s attention to some fascinating contradictions in Toscanini’s personality. I for one agree that his letters reveal “a man whose psychological perceptions in general and self-knowledge in particular were much more acute” than most people think. “I have a nasty character,” he writes at one place with devastating candour, “which makes me suffer a lot and makes others suffer.” Toscanini suffered all his life from perpetual dissatisfaction. The reasons ranged from bad digestion to artistic unworthiness, but the final result usually was the notorious Toscanini temper. Vesuvius eruption is a mild disturbance in comparison. “And one talent that he possessed in an unusually small measure was the talent for being happy.” Mr Sachs humorously subjects Toscanini to a modern treatment with antidepressants, but behind the fine sense of humour (which “draws a tear along with the laugh” as Bernard Shaw observed) he is poignant and thought-provoking:

Today Toscanini might be on Prozac or the like, and be much the happier for it. But all of those startling, stimulating, questing, controversial performances that he gave the world would not have existed.

The book is essentially a “Life in Letters”. It opens in the late 1880s, shortly after Toscanini’s incidental debut on the rostrum, and we see the struggling young conductor begging friends for money and furiously conducting mediocre productions in provincial opera houses across Italy. The last letters date from his late eighties when the Maestro, officially retired, enjoyed a few years of well-deserved rest and could look back on a staggering career that had lasted nearly seven decades. The distribution is not equal, though. About half of the book is occupied by the letters from 1933 until the end of the Second World War. 1930s were just as tumultuous a time in Toscanini’s life as in the history of Europe and the world. He had plenty of trouble with his anti-fascist sympathies, he withdrew from both the Bayreuth and the Salzburg festivals for political reasons, he conducted orchestras from New York to Tel Aviv and from London to Lucerne, and he had an awesome affair with Ada Mainardi (“What madness this love is, and at my age.”), wife of Enrico Mainardi (a great cellist). Ironically, it is this last event that mostly swells the correspondence.

Addressees throughout the book range from family, friends, colleagues and mistresses to Roosevelt, Mussolini, Hitler, Debussy and Richard Strauss. The letters cover the whole gamut from fairly long discourses to telegrams and postcards, and from intensely intimate outpourings to businesslike formality. In spite of some clipped passages and laboured metaphors, Toscanini's letters in his native language are beautifully trenchant and expressive, much like his conducting. When he writes in English, he is often ungrammatical (mistakes carefully preserved by the editor) but always direct and lucid. Legendary about his irascible temper, equally stimulated by artistic sloppiness or personal insincerity (or vice versa), Toscanini pulls no punches in his correspondence, either. Notoriously private man in public who seldom if ever gave interviews, the epistolary Toscanini emerges as a lot more complex human being than the general public suspects. Both the private and the professional subjects in his letters are mostly practical, but none the less revealing for that.

Pick any facet of Toscanini’s character – from his fits of rage and frequent infidelities to his fanatical dedication to music and uncompromising perfectionism – and you will see it illustrated in his letters, usually from the very beginning and in no uncertain terms. Already in his late twenties we see him rehearsing until midnight, complaining about singers who neglected the text or had no concept of the characters they were supposed to portray, or discussing each section of the orchestra in considerable detail as to who and why should be hired for it. There is a good deal of sarcastic humour in all this. Toscanini is a man who doesn’t mince words. He is remarkably aware of his own worth. He memorably refers to Gatti-Casazza, the naval engineer who became one of the most powerful managers in Met history, as “that animal” (original emphasis) and says that “if he shines, it’s with light reflected from me.” When he was confronted with the great composers, Toscanini was genuinely humble if not exactly a purist, but when he came into contact with his contemporaries, especially publishers, impresarios and the like, he found little good to say about them. He was fond of his family, philandering, reading (enough to quote Shakespeare and Keats in original), painting (he was a furious collector) and mountaineering (he actually climbed Mont Blanc in his youth), but his one and only great love was and always remained music.

Numerous instances testify for Toscanini’s high principles and inflexible integrity. He started as a supporter of Mussolini, but quickly became disillusioned and turned into one of the most outspoken opponents to Fascism – sometimes at serious personal risk. At one time he was assaulted by pro-fascists, at another his passport was confiscated, and finally he had to flee his home country. I was particularly impressed why he refused one offer, early in his career, about concerts in London. He wasn’t sure about the number of rehearsals he would be granted and didn’t want to be applauded for mediocre performances. He describes with typically pointed humour how he witnessed a London concert in which the orchestra sight-read (anathema to him!) no less a work than the final scene of Götterdämmerung. The audience noticed nothing and neither did the press who praised the conductor, “and he was German to boot” adds Toscanini. Farce like this was repugnant to him, even when it happened on the most sacred of all stages. When he came to Bayreuth in the summers of 1930 and 1931, he was appalled by the lack of discipline and the necessity of conducting rehearsals without the primary singers who had not arrived yet.

On the other hand, the nasty trick Toscanini played on Richard Strauss and his friends in Turin, by conducting an open dress rehearsal one day before the joint premiere of Salome in two Italian cities, betrays disconcerting ruthlessness. In this case, however, he may have been put off by the mercenary character of Strauss. Mr Sachs rightly observes that when Toscanini writes to Richard II “my greatest admiration for your art”, he certainly implies that the admiration for the person is far from great.

What you will not find in these letters is first-hand evidence about some of Toscanini’s most famous quips (e.g. about Hitler, Mussolini and Eroica’s first movement or about taking his hat off to Strauss the composer and putting it on to Strauss the man). These have come to us second-, third- or fourth hand, and whether Toscanini ever really said them is debatable. Keep also in mind that there are plenty of gaps in the chronology. Many important events, from personal matters like the birth of his children to professional ones like the numerous premieres (world, Italian, American) he conducted, are barely mentioned or not at all. Nor is there much discussion on works and composers. A scathing attack on Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and a glowing appreciation of Debussy’s genius, the former typical of those times (early 1900s) but the latter quite ahead of them, are some of the exceptions. Others include a disparaging description of Tchaikovsky as “Leoncavallo of the classics” and a mountainous comparison between Bach’s Mass in B minor (Mont Blanc) and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (Resegone, 1,875 m in the Bergamasque Prealps). Toscanini raves about Bach’s “Kyrie” and offers this fascinating description of the creative subconscious (17 July 1933, to Ada Mainardi):

What a marvel! At that moment, Bach must have been in direct communication with his infernal Daemon or God! Most modern composers, even if they are good musicians, have no internal voice to listen to; no revelation comes to them from a world of the spirit, as it came to Bach, Beethoven and Wagner! Poor wretches, why do they continue to daub at paper? By the time I was twenty years old, I had grasped perfectly well the futility of my efforts.

Be it remembered that in his youth Toscanini was a composer, too; some of his compositions were performed and even published. Surprisingly or not, he conducted only once Bach’s “Kyrie” and never the complete Mass in B minor, while Beethoven’s Missa solemnis was a staple of his repertoire. Mr Sachs’ unsatisfactory explanation is that Toscanini played so little Baroque music because he wasn’t sure how it should be interpreted. By the way, this excerpt is also a nice illustration that there is a lot more than naughty confessions in his letters to Ada Mainardi.

The editorial work is nearly impeccable. Each letter has a header which gives all known details about date, location, addressee and provenance, albeit in a somewhat cryptic form with many abbreviations. In the beginning these headers may be a trifle puzzling, but once you get into the book you will be able to decode most of them without referring to “Explanations and Abbreviations”. The editor’s own, and copious, explanations about obscure persons and events, often enough about Toscanini’s life and character as well, appear in smaller-type notes right after the letters. The layout is convenient and easy to navigate, more so than either foot- or endnotes. My only quibble is that the editorial notes contain a number of unsourced statements and even quotations. It would have been nice to have at least some idea where one can read more. An extensive and annotated bibliography would have been welcome, too. Mr Sachs does occasionally give his sources in situ, but for the most part he doesn't bother.

Mr Sachs is emphatic that he acted “as an editor, not as a censor” and did not try to “alter, hide, or eliminate controversial opinions or aspects of Toscanini’s character that I do not like or that I thought others would find objectionable.” He omitted many letters and made “frequent and sometimes substantial cuts” in others merely to avoid repetition or “lengthy references to family friends whose names are unknown to the public, and other material of minimal cultural, historical, or biographical value”. All cuts are, of course, clearly indicated by square brackets and ellipses.

Except for the roughly cut fore-edges of the pages (an ugly feature which Knopf insist on preserving), the volume is handsomely presented. The binding is sturdy and durable. The paper is thick and pleasant to touch. Each part has a separate title page, a photo-portrait of Toscanini on the opposite page, and a brief summary of the most important events in his life during the period in question. The photographs are not reprinted on glossy paper, but their quality is fine and they show Toscanini at the “right” age. It’s not hard to see why women generally fell madly in love with him. Even in his seventies, the Maestro remained a handsome man with snowy hair and piercing eyes. As a young and middle-aged man, he was positively dazzling and quite a dandy. Witness that patrician profile on the dust jacket.

For all the insight in his letters, Toscanini expressed himself best in sound. Nevertheless, everyone with the slightest interest in his personality should have this book. For those not ashamed to call themselves fans, it is indispensable. The index is well done and the volume can be used as a reference without waste of time, but equally well can be read for pleasure. Harvey Sachs has done a superb job in making Toscanini’s letters accessible and revealing. ( )
  Waldstein | Feb 21, 2016 |
Have only just obtained this book, but I have to comment immediately on the appalling low-resolution scans of the picture of Toscanini used by Faber on the dust jacket. If I had paid the full price (£30) for this book, I would be writing my letter of complaint to the publishers right now. The cover one is barely acceptable (at a distance), but the back cover uses an enlargement of the same scan and it is appalling, disgusting, dreadful, awful, painful! What incompetant at Faber thought it was a good idea or good design to use this? You who are are reading this review might think I'm making a lot out of very little, especially as I haven't read the book yet, but frankly, if you haven't seen it, you cannot imagine how bad, cheap and stupid it looks. Really.
  RobertDay | Mar 3, 2010 |
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To Maria Cristina
my love and now also my wife,
who has stood by me
through my most difficult years
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[Introduction:]

Arturo Toscanini was born in the city of Parma, in Italy's fertile Po plain, on 25 March 1867. He was the oldest of four children and the only son of Paola (nee Montani) and Claudio Toscanini. Both parents came from middle-class families, but Claudio had the temperament of an adventurer and had gone off in his youth to fight in Garibaldi's forces during Italy's wars of independence and reunification. Thereafter, he never managed to settle down seriously to domestic life, and his drinking, philandering and general irresponsibility made life difficult for his wife and children. Arturo entered Parma's Royal School of Music at the age of nine and graduated from it at eighteen, with maximum honors in cello and composition and with a reputation, among local musicians, not only for his virtually photographic memory and other remarkable talents but also for his wide-ranging musical interests and passionately held ideals. The following year, he was engaged as principal cellist and assistant chorus master of an Italian opera company that was to tour South America, and one evening, at Rio de Janeiro, the nineteen-year-old musician was called upon at the last moment to replace the ensemble's regular conductor in Aida, which he led by heart. Thus began one of the most extraordinary careers in the history of musical performances.
Quotations
[Message to NYPO, 4 June 1931:]
But that's life. It's almost always made up of bitter separations. When one isn't separating from loved ones or dear friends, one is separating from some illusion or other.

[5 January 1931 to Carla Toscanini:]
I firmly believe that the best part of me, that which could best shed light on my soul, is and will forever remain unexpressed. It is given only to truly superior beings like Dante, Shakespeare, Leopardi, Beethoven, Verdi, Wagner to express themselves completely, for the joy of all mankind.

[17 July 1933, to Ada Mainardi, about the "Kyrie" from Bach's Mass in B minor:]

What a marvel! At that moment, Bach must have been in direct communication with his infernal Daemon or God! Most modern composers, even if they are good musicians, have no internal voice to listen to; no revelation comes to them from a world of the spirit, as it came to Bach, Beethoven and Wagner! Poor wretches, why do they continue to daub at paper? By the time I was twenty years old, I had grasped perfectly well the futility of my efforts.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0375404058, Hardcover)

A major event in the literature of music—the first significant collection of the letters of Arturo Toscanini.

Toscanini (1867–1957) was one of the most celebrated and influential symphonic and operatic conductors in history. With his amazing ear and photographic memory, his sense of moral imperative and iron will, he raised the standards of orchestras and opera companies to previously undreamed-of heights. He conducted the world premieres of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Puccini’s La bohème, The Girl of the Golden West, and Turandot. His sixty-eight-year conducting career began before Verdi had completed Otello and lasted into the era of televised concerts and stereophonic sound. He headed such ensembles as La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra.

Yet he never wrote a memoir, or even essays for publication, or granted interviews. Now we are brought closer to him than we have ever been—in seven hundred letters, well over ninety percent of them previously unpublished in any language.

The letters are vivid and impassioned. They reveal a complicated man, often angry and unhappy, who was also capable of great generosity of spirit, self-irony, and humor. They show the depth of his musical knowledge and insight, and shed much light on the musical life of his time in Europe, in New York, and throughout the world. There is fascinating correspondence with his wife and children, and with colleagues and friends, and he writes, as well, about his affairs and erotic adventures. He expresses particular vehemence when talking about his active opposition to fascism and Nazism. Of Mussolini, for instance, he says: “Open all the prisons—you won’t find a delinquent or a criminal who is more of a delinquent, more of a criminal, than that ignoble animal!”

The Letters of Arturo Toscanini is a revelation of both the maestro and the man.

With 7 photographs.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:13:19 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

A major event in the literature of music—the first significant collection of the letters of Arturo Toscanini. Toscanini (1867–1957) was one of the most celebrated and influential symphonic and operatic conductors in history. With his amazing ear and photographic memory, his sense of moral imperative and iron will, he raised the standards of orchestras and opera companies to previously undreamed-of heights. He conducted the world premieres of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Puccini’s La bohème, The Girl of the Golden West, and Turandot. His sixty-eight-year conducting career began before Verdi had completed Otello and lasted into the era of televised concerts and stereophonic sound. He headed such ensembles as La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. Yet he never wrote a memoir, or even essays for publication, or granted interviews. Now we are brought closer to him than we have ever been—in seven hundred letters, well over ninety percent of them previously unpublished in any language. The letters are vivid and impassioned. They reveal a complicated man, often angry and unhappy, who was also capable of great generosity of spirit, self-irony, and humor. They show the depth of his musical knowledge and insight, and shed much light on the musical life of his time in Europe, in New York, and throughout the world. There is fascinating correspondence with his wife and children, and with colleagues and friends, and he writes, as well, about his affairs and erotic adventures. He expresses particular vehemence when talking about his active opposition to fascism and Nazism. Of Mussolini, for instance, he says: “Open all the prisons—you won’t find a delinquent or a criminal who is more of a delinquent, more of a criminal, than that ignoble animal!” The Letters of Arturo Toscanini is a revelation of both the maestro and the man. With 7 photographs.… (more)

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