A Remarkable New Toscanini Biography

Harvey Sachs: Toscanini, Musician of Conscience (Liveright Publishing Corporation [W.W. Norton], 2017).

Arturo Toscanini was a simple man at heart. He had three great passions: conducting, screwing, and complaining. Some readers will be most interested in the first of these, some, I suppose, the second, and none the third. Harvey Sachs, in this wholesale rewrite of his 1978 Toscanini biography, deserves tremendous credit for his artful ability to balance these three components in a way that creates both a three-dimensional portrait of a great artist, and an interesting read. And to be fair, offsetting the constant kvetching, there is Toscanini’s boundless willingness to help others, from his family, to fellow musicians, to anti-fascist sympathizers (including Friedelind Wagner).

The book’s subtitle, “Artist of Conscience,” is apt. Toscanini’s conscience operated on many levels: politically, in terms of his anti-fascism, and artistically, in his uncompromising musical standards. In his personal relations, it could be a two-edged sword. Toscanini was rigidly opposed to divorce, but an enthusiastic proponent of extramarital affairs. This peculiar standard held both for himself and for others, and resulted in some pointlessly broken friendships (with Adolf Busch, for example, who had the temerity to marry his much younger girlfriend). What emerges from this compelling study, then, is an artist whose honesty and directness, whose conscience and convictions, and whose restless dissatisfaction characterize both the man and his music making. He may have had his flaws—and the quickest “no” in the business—but the whole comes across as generally admirable, not because Sachs is a major fan, but because of his subject’s dogged consistency.

Sachs’ proximate cause for undertaking this recomposition of his previous Toscanini biography was the discovery of some fifteen hundred of the conductor’s letters, mostly to his principal mistress during the 1930s early 40s, Ada Mainardi. These are full of passionate declarations of love, and if you have read Sachs’ published compendium of Toscanini’s letters you will already know that nuggets of musical insight tend to fall at disappointingly sporadic intervals. The other reason for starting over from scratch, which is really what Sachs has done, is that the controversies that dogged Toscanini’s reputation in the 1960s and 70s, his conservative repertoire choices later in life, the Toscanini vs. Furtwängler business, the supposed “rigidity” of his last recordings—all of these have been more or less settled as irrelevant to our understanding of his significance as a musical force.

Also fading into the background, well past time, are polemical screeds such as Joseph Horowitz’s awful Understanding Toscanini, which managed to denigrate the conductor’s reputation without actually being about Toscanini at all. The reissue of his complete recorded legacy, on RCA, EMI (Warner), and numerous small independent labels, taken in tandem with the rise of the historically informed performance movement, has given Toscanini’s musical legacy a welcome new lease on life, and refocused our attention on what really ought to matter. Paradoxically, this has also justified the demand for a biographical treatment of the man that is both less defensive than previously as well as more complete.

All of which is a short way of saying that Sach’s new biography looks to be the most authoritative work on Toscanini that we are likely to see: more than 800 pages worth. There are some tiny errors and puzzling comments here and there: Mahler was fifty, not fifty-one when he died in 1911 (p. 259, note), and there is also the strange story of the trumpet player in the Palestine Symphony who came in early in the third movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony, except that there is no trumpet part in that movement at all. Any undertaking of this magnitude will have tiny slips here and there, and points to be corrected in future editions. What cannot be denied is the fact that this new biography constitutes a tremendous achievement for which both fans of the conductor and music lovers in general will be eternally grateful.

David Hurwitz