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Arturo Toscanini: 15 fascinating moments from the maestro's life

Tahiat Mahboob

Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was born in Parma, Italy, in 1867. Considered one of the greatest conductors of his era by critics, fellow musicians, and audiences alike, he was a perfectionist with a remarkable ear for orchestral detail and sonority. March 25 marks 150 years since his birth.

Toscanini's passion was fierce and his 68-year career was filled with illustrious conducting residencies. It began at Teatro Carignano in Turin followed by a residency at La Scala. He then moved to America, where he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. A few years later he moved to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Following this, he became the first director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. He would remain there till the end of his career.

Words are limiting when it comes to describing Toscanini's conducting. So here’s a compilation of his work to set the mood, as we delve into some of the most fascinating moments from Toscanini’s life.

1. When he graduated with highest honours

At age nine, Toscanini entered Parma's Royal School of Music and graduated nine years later, in 1885, with highest honors in cello and composition. He also earned maximum points in piano, taking first prize in the graduating class.

2. When he defied a teacher

While at Parma, Toscanini showed a defiant streak. When he was 17, he along with a few other students refused to wake up early to attend mass. Giusto Dacci, the director of the conservatory, was not pleased. A drawn-out battle of wills between student and teacher followed, ending with Toscanini's father being summoned to the school. The issue was finally resolved when Dacci convinced some professors to write an apology letter, make Toscanini copy it and sign it. Here’s an excerpt from that 1885 letter:

“I did it not at all because I wished to disobey your orders, but rather because I had not reflected much about what I was doing, and because I allowed myself to succumb to a moment of anger.”

Arturo Toscanini

3. When he began conducting at 19, from memory

A year after graduating, Toscanini joined an opera orchestra on tour in South America in 1886. During a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Aida in Rio de Janeiro, Toscanini had to fill in unexpectedly on an hour’s notice, when the conductor left the stage. He conducted from memory and earned a standing ovation. And so began his conducting career at 19. While some hesitate to say he had an eidetic memory, that he regularly conducted from memory is well documented.

4. When he conducted 2 world premieres of note

Toscanini conducted several world premieres, most notably Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci in 1892 and Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème in 1896, the latter under the supervision of Puccini himself.

5. When he clashed with Mahler

In 1908 when the Metropolitan Opera hired Toscanini, it had another renowned conductor on its roster, Gustav Mahler. The two clashed over who would conduct Tristan und Isolde, twice. Mahler, who debuted at the Met with Tristan and thus had territorial interests, threatened to resign. He won the argument in 1908 and was able to conduct Tristan. But in 1909 when they had the same fight again, Toscanini won and conducted Tristan. Mahler later accepted an invitation to become music director of the newly formed Philharmonic Society of New York and left while Toscanini prevailed at the Met.

6. When he was awarded a silver medal of bravery

Too old to fight at the age of 50, Toscanini lent his conducting skills to World War I and Italy’s fight against Austria. While visiting his son Walter, then a junior artillery officer in Isonzo, Italy, in August 1917, Arturo Toscanini was near the front and convinced General Luigi Capello to let him form a band and play for the soldiers. At one point in the fighting, his band came under Austrian fire but Toscanini refused to take cover. No musicians were injured and Toscanini received the Silver Medal for Bravery for his conducting on the field.

7. When he was tricked into receiving an honorary degree

“He had very little use for honorary degrees or other honors,” recalled Toscanini's grandson Walfredo. But in 1930 when the New York Philharmonic was playing in Washington, Toscanini was put into a car without being told the destination. Next thing he knew, he was on stage receiving an honorary degree from Georgetown University, much to his chagrin.

8. When he clashed with Mussolini

Toscanini refused to attend a reception organized in his honor in 1931 “because he was an anti-fascist, because he held Mussolini to be a tyrant and oppressor of Italy, and [...] rather than break these convictions he was prepared never to return to Italy.” His words to a friend were recorded over wiretap and the transcript was found in Mussolini’s papers. The bottom of the transcript had a note that read: ''By order of the Duce take away Toscanini's passport.'' Between 1931 to 1946, Toscanini remained in exile from Italy. He refused to return until the fall of fascism and the monarchy.

9. When he turned down Hitler

Mussolini wasn’t the only fascist leader Toscanini opposed. In 1933, when Adolf Hitler personally invited him to conduct at the Bayreuth Festival, he declined. Serge Koussevitsky, Russian-Jewish conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, was so moved by this act that he wrote to Toscanini saying, ''You have acted not only as a great artist but also as a great man. I have rarely been able to experience so fine and proud a feeling: today I am proud to be an artist! May God bless you.''

10. When he binge-watched Mickey Mouse

Toscanini was a huge fan of Walt Disney’s animated short, The Band Concert, released in 1935. He enjoyed it so much that he convinced the manager of the theatre where he saw it to stop the show and run it again. He watched it six times and later invited Walt Disney to visit him in Italy.

11. When he conducted the Palestine Symphony Orchestra

Toscanini’s anti-fascist stance was further underscored in 1936 when he showed solidarity with Polish violinist Bronislaw Huberman and Jewish refugee musicians by conducting the first opening season concerts of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra). The orchestra was made up of refugee Jewish musicians who had escaped persecution. In December 1936, he traveled to Palestine to train the orchestra before taking the helm as its conductor for the opening concerts.

12. When he popularized Barber's Adagio

American composer Samuel Barber’s work received wide public attention when the NBC Symphony performed it under Toscanini in 1938. Barber’s Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra added two more feathers to Toscanini’s world premiere cap. It also hushed criticism of Toscanini neglecting American music.

13. When he took his wrath out on a watch

Toscanini was said to have a fiery temper. There is no doubt his musicians, especially those from the NBC Symphony, were frightened of him. But perhaps the most legendary story of his wrath is the one recounted by NBC Symphony violinist Samuel Antek involving Toscanini’s wristwatch. “With a furious wrench he pulled it away, glared at it with unseeing eyes, and, in a vicious lunge, smashed it to the ground where the watch spilled in all directions.” Antek presented him with a cheap Ingersoll watch the next day with an inscription that read “for rehearsals only.” For a taste of his fury, here’s a piece of 1953 audio from an NBC Symphony Orchestra rehearsal of Catalani's "Dance of the Water Nymphs."

14. When he was serenaded by an off-key orchestra

In the summer of 1950 Toscanini went on an extensive transcontinental tour organized by NBC. During a rest day in Sun Valley, Idaho, he rode the ski lift up to the top of 10,000-foot Mount Baldy. He was 83 at the time. When his ski lift swung into view at the top, Toscanini was greeted by members of his orchestra and his train’s dining car attendants. Equipped with instruments, they serenaded him off-key. When NBC Orchestra violinist Samuel Antek commented on his brave ascent, Toscanini’s response was a fitting one: “I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life. I like to try everything.”

15. When he had a memory lapse

Known for conducting from memory, on April 4, 1954, it was that very memory that failed Toscanini during an all-Wagner performance by the NBC Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall. According to members of the orchestra, Toscanini had forgotten to beat some changes of time signature in the “Forest Murmurs” from Siegfried. He then stopped conducting altogether after the climax of the Bacchanale from Tannhäuser, with “his right arm gradually dropping to his side, his left hand covering his eyes.” It sounded much more dramatic on live radio because there was a 14-second silence when it happened. At the age of 87, Toscanini gave final performance.

Follow Tahiat Mahboob on Twitter: @TahiatMahboob

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