Born March 25, 1867, in Parma, Italy; died of complications from a stroke, January 16, 1957, in Riverdale, the Bronx, NY; son of Claudio and Paola (Montani) Toscanini; married Carla dei Martini, 1897; children: Walter, Wally, Wanda. Education: Studied music at Parma Conservatory of Music, 1876-85.
For more than half a century, Arturo Toscanini was one of the world's most respected conductors, a musical powerhouse whose performances packed orchestra halls--and filled the radio waves--in every major city in the United States. Toscanini dominated the classical music world, leading the debut performances of numerous important operas and symphonies. In a time when the majority of Americans craved popular music and novel trends, Toscanini did more than any other artist to increase the audience for classical symphonies and operatic works. A New York Times reporter noted that the fiery conductor "represented absolute, uncompromising integrity. He strove earnestly to realize as exactly as possible the composer's intentions as printed in the musical score. To achieve perfection he drove musicians relentlessly, himself hardest of all."
Toscanini conducted entirely from memory. Nearsighted from childhood, he memorized hundreds of intricate operas, symphonies, and concertos and then--in performance and often in rehearsals as well--led without ever consulting the score. The temperamental former cellist kept a full schedule of touring, recording, and performing until well into his eighties, finally retiring just three years before his death. The New York Times praised Toscanini for his "judgment, experience, vast musical knowledge, uncompromising standards and the touch of incandescent brilliance he infused into every performance he conducted."
Toscanini was born in 1867 and grew up in Parma, Italy. His father was a tailor, and as a youth Arturo, too, wanted to make clothes. His ambitions changed at the age of nine when he began cello lessons at the Parma Conservatory of Music. He was fascinated by the instrument and by classical music in general. Within two years he won a full scholarship to the conservatory, where he was known to sell his lunch in order to buy more sheet music.
After graduating from the conservatory in 1885, Toscanini immediately found work with travelling orchestras in Italy. In 1886 he joined a company that journeyed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to stage some operas. On that particular trip the company conductor one day refused to lead a performance. The musicians persuaded Toscanini to step in as conductor--his penchant for memorizing whole scores had already marked him as extraordinary. Toscanini reluctantly accepted the assignment and, with no prior preparation, made his conducting debut on June 25, 1886. He was 19 at the time.
Word soon spread in Italy of the young cellist who conducted whole operas from memory. Toscanini found himself invited to the podium on numerous occasions with local opera companies, and he conducted the world premieres of Ruggiero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci in 1892 and Giacomo Puccini's La Boheme in 1896. Both productions were highly successful, and the young musician was invited to conduct at La Scala in Milan--Italy's most important opera house. By 1898 Toscanini was named chief conductor and artistic director at La Scala, and he became well known there for introducing new operas and symphonic works. He also gained a reputation for his unorthodox attitudes; he was dismissed in 1903 for refusing to permit encores.
Toscanini brought his talents to America in 1908 as conductor for the Metropolitan Opera. He proved quite popular in New York City--as a New York Times contributor put it, his "success was instantaneous ... one triumph after another." After opening with Verdi's Aida on November 16, 1908, Toscanini stayed with the Metropolitan Opera for seven seasons. He returned to Italy at the outbreak of World War I to conduct benefit performances for the country's soldiers. At the end of the war, he received a decoration for bravery for leading an army band in the midst of a battle between the Italians and the Austrians.
After World War I Toscanini returned to America with an orchestra that he had engaged himself. It was with this orchestra that he made his first recordings on the Victor label in 1921. Some five years later he accepted the post of conductor with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. That group merged with the New York Symphony Society in 1928 as the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra. Toscanini was its principal conductor for ten years. He also found time to serve as a guest conductor at festivals and concerts in Germany, France, Austria, and London.
Never one to shun politics, Toscanini was appalled by the fascist movement in Italy. He was an outspoken opponent of the fascists and was once badly beaten during a concert appearance when he refused to conduct the fascist anthem. He also severed ties with the Wagner festival at Bayreuth, Germany, and the Salzburg festival in Austria when Adolf Hitler took power. Toscanini spent the years of World War II in America, at the helm of the orchestra that he would lead for the rest of his life.
In 1937 Toscanini accepted a position as director of the newly formed National Broadcasting Company (NBC) Symphony Orchestra. The NBC Symphony was the first classical orchestra ever commissioned and subsidized by a broadcasting company. Toscanini was paid a then-fabulous salary of $40,000 as its conductor.
Some of the new symphony orchestra's performances were held at Radio City Music Hall, and most were broadcast nationwide on radio. This exposure increased Toscanini's popularity immensely. When he led the NBC Symphony Orchestra on a transcontinental trip in 1950, he was hailed by enthusiastic fans in major metropolitan areas and small towns alike. "Seldom in the history of America had a musician received such warm and widespread veneration," wrote a New York Times reporter.
Toscanini worked tirelessly until he was 87 years old. During his last years with the NBC Symphony Orchestra he engaged in a hectic schedule of recording, making some 30 albums with RCA Victor, including all nine of Beethoven's symphonies and the four symphonies by Brahms. The energetic conductor formally retired on April 4, 1954, immediately following a concert at Carnegie Hall. He died three years later following a severe stroke, just months before his ninetieth birthday.
In his day Toscanini was treated with an awe and reverence reserved for a select few. More than once the New York police had to barricade his concerts to keep out throngs of fans. Musicians and singers endured his temperamental outbursts, and audiences respected his eccentric notions about applause and encores. Throughout his career Toscanini was affectionately known as "The Maestro." His passing was mourned by political leaders and classical musicians all over the world.
Responding to the conductor's death on January 17, 1957, David M. Keiser, then president of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony, told the New York Times that Toscanini, "more than any other person in our time, has symbolized the supreme peak in musical perfection." New York Times correspondent Olin Downes offered a similar sentiment, writing of Toscanini: "There has never been a more gallant and intrepid champion of great music, or a spirit that flamed higher, or a nobler defender of the faith."
by Anne Janette Johnson
Arturo Toscanini's Career
Cellist with touring orchestras in Italy, 1885-87; conductor of orchestras in Italy, 1887-1908; conductor of Metropolitan Opera orchestra, New York City, 1908-15; conductor in Italy, 1915-26; conductor of New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, 1926-36; conductor of Palestine Symphony Orchestra, 1936; conductor of NBC Symphony Orchestra, 1937-54; guest conductor of numerous symphony orchestras in U.S. and Europe. Made numerous recordings on RCA Victor label.
- Selective Works
- Toscanini and the NBC Symphony, Melogram, 1989.
- Toscanini at La Scala, SRO, 1993.
- Toscanini Conducts Music by His Contemporaries, dell'Arte, 1993.
- The Toscanini Collection, 71 volumes, RCA, 1994.
- Toscanini and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra: Great Recordings 1926-1936, 3 volumes, Pearl 3.
- American Record Guide, September/October 1988; September/October 1990.
- Musical America, November 1989; July 1990.
- New York Times, April 5, 1954; January 15, 1957.
- New York Times Magazine, November 8, 1953; December 27, 1953.