March 25, 2017 was the 150th anniversary of the birth of Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957). For many of you, your first exposure to classical music came from Looney Tunes cartoons, but for your parents or grandparents or great-grandparents, their first exposure to classical music may have come from Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra. He served as director from 1937 to 1954. Originally, a cellist, his fame as a conductor eclipsed his fame as a musician.
By the time he graduated from Parma’s Royal School of Music, he was already conducting his own arrangements of operas and symphonies. Blessed with a photographic memory, at the age of nineteen he was able to fill in for the Brazilian conductor of Claudio Rossi’s traveling opera company while they were performing in Rio when the man quit and the Italian assistant conducted was booed off stage because he had memorized the score for Verdi’s Aida. He conducted the world premieres of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci (1892) and Puccini’s La Boheme (1896). Toscanini also conducted the Italian premiere of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung. He served as the musical director of the Teatro alla Scala (La Scala) in Milan (1898-1908), the Metropolitan Opera (1908-1915) in New York City, and was a conductor with the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra from 1928 to 1936.
One of his innovations was to have the orchestra perform in a pit in front of, but under the level of the stage, so the audience could concentrate visual attention of the singers. Toscanini had a falling out with La Scala’s management because he discouraged the practice of the orchestra and singers responding to the audience yelling for encores in the midst of operas. He spent the First Great World War in the Kingdom of Italy, where he conducted benefit concerts for the troops. [Toscanini wanted to return home in 1915 at least in part because he had ended his affair with the diva Geraldine Farrar (1882-1967).] He received a medal for having conducted a Royal Italian Army band near the front lines during a battle between the armies of the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He took the La Scala orchestra on an American tour and made his first recordings. Toscanini first met Benito Mussolini (1883-1945) when the latter was a journalist and was impressed with the man, but became disillusioned with the Fascist Party before Mussolini’s March on Rome (1922) and eventually had to flee the country. Things had started to become difficult for him in 1931 when he refused to play the Fascist anthem before concerts.
Earlier in his career, he had the honor of being the first non-German to conduct at the Wagnerian festival at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus (Bayreuth Festival Theatre) in Bayreuth, Bavaria, Germany, where Wagner’s descendants supervised performances of Wagnerian operas in a theatre designed by Wagner. However, Toscanini decided not to attend in 1933 after the rise to power of Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers’ Party. Toscanini continued to conduct at the Wagnerian festival in Salzburg, Austria until Hitler annexed his native Austria. In 1936, Toscanini defiantly went to British Palestine to conduct an orchestra comprised of Jewish musicians who had fled Europe.
He was conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra from 1937 to 1954. David Sarnoff, the head of RCA and NBC, created it for him to conduct. It performed on both NBC’s radio network and television network. Often, but not always, they played in the Radio City Music Hall. In 1941, Toscanini briefly traded places with Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) during a falling out with Sarnoff because musicians in the NBC Symphony Orchestra were playing side gigs. Stokowski left the Philadelphia Orchestra to conduct the NBC Symphony Orchestra and Toscanini conducted the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1950, when Toscanini led a national tour, he was treated as a celebrity not just in America’s big cities, but its small cities, too.
Arturo Toscanini was married to Carla De Martini from 1897 until her death in 1951 (despite his numerous affairs). They had four children, three of whom reached adulthood. Toscanini died of a stroke at his home in Riverdale, Bronx, New York City, just a few months short of his ninetieth birthday. The Rogers & Hammerstein Archive of Recorded Sound at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts is home to the Toscanini Legacy Collection of Sound Recordings (1926-1968). He had four children. His son, Walter Toscanini (1898-1971), was a lawyer, dance historian, curator, rare book dealer, and ballet choreographer. He sometimes used his mother’s maiden name, De Martini, as a pen name. Walter’s wife, Lucia Fornaroli Toscanini (1888-1954), was a prima ballerina who performed at La Scala and became director of its ballet school. Their professional papers are in the Jerome Robbins Dance Division of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts. A historian or novelist hoping to find insight about their personal relationships with each other and Arturo will be disappointed. One of Arturo’s two daughters, Wanda Toscanini Horowitz (1907-1998), married his friend, pianist Vladimir Horotwitz (1903-1989).