Harvey Sachs, music historian and highly regarded music writer, has just published a biography, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, that captures the essence of one of the most extraordinary human beings of modern times.
Arturo Toscanini, born in late 19th century Italy, had a photographic memory alongside a once-in-a-generation musicianship. As a conductor, his ability to memorize scores and his devotion to recreating on stage the precise intentions of composers transformed the way all orchestras perform.
He knew Verdi and Puccini in his earliest days, Leonard Bernstein, Herbert von Karajan, Georg Solti, and Erich Leinsdorf in later years. He conducted thousands of concerts on five continents and he became a symbol of resistance to Mussolini, Hitler, Fascism, and Nazism.
He also had a libido that wouldn’t quit; his unfaithfulness to his wife, with as many women as possible, lasted well into his 70s.
Sachs’ new biography, based on letters and recordings of late-in-life conversations with Toscanini, brings this legendary musician to life in a vibrant and fascinating way. Sachs took some time to discuss his book, which runs to almost 1,000 pages.
Michael: The sense I have about Toscanini was that he loved music. He loved culture. He loved Italy, and he loved sex.
Harvey: Yes. I think those are all correct. All correct.
Michael: How do you capture a life so long, and so vast, in a book, even in a book of great length?
Harvey: You try to come as close as you possibly can to the character you’re writing about. And of course, the biographer should never fool himself or herself into thinking that he or she has produced the truth. It doesn’t exist. You try to come as close as you possibly can to producing a well-rounded picture of the person you’re writing about. He really was quite an extraordinary human being.
Michael: His career is unparalleled?
Harvey: Yes. He began in 1886, conducting twelve operas from memory at the age of 19, and then went on to conduct thousands of performances of well over 100 different operas and some 500 pieces of orchestral music. The amount of recordings that we have is really minuscule compared with how much work he did.
Michael: How would you describe his legacy to the world of music?
Harvey: First, he was a great reformer in the opera house and in the concert hall. He believed that an opera should be a combination of music, drama, and various theater arts—lighting, costuming, staging, and so on. We take all this for granted today, but it was almost revolutionary in his time. He believed an opera should be a complete experience and not just a showcase for this or that singer or even for the orchestra.
Michael: He also raised the quality of orchestral playing.
Harvey: He raised the standards for the level of playing and professionalism within the orchestral world. Especially in Italy in his early days, there were no permanent orchestras. They regrouped every season. He imposed order where there had been none before, first in Italy and later in the United States, at the Metropolitan Opera, the New York Philharmonic, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This is all part of his importance.Subscribe to The Morning Email.Wake up to the day’s most important news.
Then later on, of course, when he was already world famous, his stand against the Fascists in Italy and then the Nazis in Germany and Austria made him a symbol of an artist who simply said “no” and withdrew from the situations in which he could not function freely.
Michael: He could be brutal to orchestral musicians and to singers, but most of them loved him.
Harvey: That’s right. Despite his toughness as a musician in working with singers and orchestra musicians, he was also known for his personal
generosity towards them. Anybody who was in trouble financially or otherwise had his support. This is why, although he could mistreat them, they loved him.
Of all the thousands of musicians and singers he worked with over the years, I’m guessing that fewer than 1% didn’t like him personally. They all respected him and knew that he was on their side even when he was not very polite to them, shall we say. He was very severe in his approach to his art because it was so important to him.
Michael: Why did Toscanini keep coming back to Italy in the mid-‘30s when he knew that at any time Mussolini could take away his passport or imprison him, or worse? You wrote that he had already been physically assaulted in Bologna. So, why didn’t it occur to him that “I’ve got to get out of here and stay out”?
Harvey: I think a combination of reasons. First of all, he thought, “This is my country, and why shouldn’t I have the right to be here?” And secondly he enjoyed being a thorn in side of Mussolini and the fascists.
He knew that to a certain extent he couldn’t be touched, because as I pointed out in the book, if this had been Hitler’s Germany they would have simply done him in. No questions asked. But Mussolini who was at heart a journalist — that was his original occupation. He cared about his image. I think he simply did not want to be the one who was responsible for doing serious harm to the most, after himself, the most famous person in the country at that time.
Michael: It sounds as though they were afraid to kill him.
Harvey: That’s right. He had so many admirers among the Italians that it would have been bad P.R. even within the country, let alone outside, to seriously do harm to Toscanini. He told the conductor and pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch who was married to Mark Twain’s daughter, Clara Clemens, “I’ve told the Fascists, ‘You can kill me if you want. But as long as I’m alive, I will speak my mind.’”