The twentieth century’s great conductor, Arturo Toscanini, was born in Parma on March 25, 1867, the son of a music-loving tailor who spent much of his time fighting in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s republican forces. Blessed with a prodigious memory-which would later enable him to remember the entire score of an opera or symphony-Toscanini studied cello and composition at Parma’s Music Conservatory. After graduation, he accompanied an Italian opera company to South America as cellist and choir master. When the original tour conductor and then his substitute failed to meet the challenge, Toscanini was asked to step in and conduct Aida in Rio de Janiero. And so in 1886, at only 19, he began his extraordinary career on the podium.
On his return to Italy, he conducted throughout the country until, in 1898, when he became artistic director and principal conductor at La Scala in Milan. He was there until 1908 and, during the same period, conducted for four seasons in Buenos Aires. On leaving La Scala, he became principal conductor of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Company from 1908 until 1915. During World War I, he stayed in Italy, performing benefit concerts for the war effort. With the war over, in 1920, he returned to revive La Scala, introducing sweeping artistic and administrative reforms.
An egocentric perfectionist, he de-manded the highest professional standards from his musicians and singers and used his legendary temper, ranting, raving and stomping about, to make sure he got them. Between 1920 and 1921, he took La Scala Orchestra to the United States on a concert tour and made his first recordings. He returned to America, conducting for the New York Philharmonic from 1926 to 1936. He was also the first non-German conductor at Bayreuth (1930-1931) and at the Festival of Salzburg (1934-1937), also giving concerts in London, Vienna and Paris.
Initially a supporter of Mussolini, he unsuccessfully stood as a Fascist parliamentary candidate in Milan in 1919. However, after being punched in the face by Fascist hooligans in Bologna in 1931 because he refused to play the Fascist anthem at the beginning of the concert, he left Italy to live permanently in the United States. He thus became an important anti-fascist icon, refusing to perform again in Italy or Germany while Mussolini and Hitler were in power. In 1936, he conducted the inaugural concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (today, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra), then composed mainly of Jewish refugee musicians from Central Europe.
In 1937, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) in New York, parent company of the RCA record label, invited him to conduct a new orchestra of highly professional, hand-picked musicians for weekly radio concerts to be recorded in a new studio it had built in the Rockefeller Center. He also made numerous records there, many of which are now digitally remastered. In some, he can be heard singing or humming.
After World War II, he returned briefly to Italy for the opening night of the newly restored La Scala. His main activity, however, remained the NBC Symphony, and he became one of the first conductors to make an ongoing appearance on live television, which he did from 1948 until 1952. He retired in 1954, at age 87, after suffering a memory loss during a concert. He spent his last years editing tapes and transcripts of his NBC performances.
Although Toscanini is most famous for his interpretations of Beethoven and Verdi, he introduced his adoring audiences to a repertoire of music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Debussy and Strauss. He also conducted the world premieres of famous Italian operas, including Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci in Milan (1892), Puccini’s La Boheme in Turin (1896) and Fanciulla del West, interpreted in America by Enrico Caruso (1910). Sometimes criticised for ignoring contemporary music, especially American music, he countered by saying he would not play music he could not understand or that left him without emotion.
Although Toscanini married Carla De Martini in 1897 and had four children, one of whom died in infancy, his copious letters show that he loved women almost as much as music. Fancying himself a passionate lover and obsessed with sex, he had real and platonic affairs with countless women, especially sopranos, even into his old age.
After a series of strokes, on January 16, 1957, just before his 90th birthday Toscanini died in his 22-room house on his eight-acre estate overlooking the Hudson River in Riverdale, New York. He is buried in the Monumental Cemetery of Milan.
In his will, he left his baton to his last protégée, Herva Nelli (1909-1994), a Florence-born soprano.