The epic life and art of the famed Italian conductor.
In his lifetime, Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was considered the greatest conductor of all, and music historian Sachs (Curtis Institute of Music; The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, 2010, etc.) makes a strong case for that assessment with judicious quotations from contemporary sources. They reveal an exacting taskmaster, feared for his brutal criticisms of singers and orchestra members, who could also be a gentle instructor and a steadfast support—if he felt they were working hard enough. He drove no one harder than himself: a musical prodigy from a family in straitened circumstances, Toscanini won admittance to Parma’s prestigious Royal School of Music when he was 9 and conducted his first orchestra at 19. He gained early success in opera, serving as chief conductor of La Scala in Milan and then New York’s Metropolitan Opera, but he achieved his broadest popular reach leading the NBC Symphony Orchestra’s weekly radio broadcasts beginning in 1937. He awed performers and audiences by conducting without a score and was revered for his attention to detail and fidelity to the composer’s intentions. Sachs creates a well-rounded portrait of this admirable artist and not entirely admirable man, noting that Toscanini proclaimed devotion to his wife while philandering well into his 70s. The biographer has nothing but admiration, however, for Toscanini’s principled anti-fascism, which led him to leave La Scala and to refuse to continue at Bayreuth, where he was the first non-German conductor. The author also praises Toscanini in his prime as an advocate for new music and living composers; if the conductor’s tastes grew more conservative over time, Sachs reminds us that this was part of a broader trend, as classical music and opera receded from the mainstream to rely on an established, mostly 19th-century canon. This minutely detailed chronicle of Toscanini’s jam-packed life offers more than casual readers will want to know, but music lovers will savor every evocative word.
Sweeping yet meticulous, appreciative without eschewing critical judgments—like Toscanini himself.