By ROBERT GOTTLIEB
Musician of Conscience
By Harvey Sachs
On the night of June 30, 1886, Arturo Toscanini — recently turned 19 — arrived, barely on time, at the imperial opera house in Rio de Janeiro, where the touring company for which he was the principal cellist was about to perform “Aida.” Pandemonium. The unpopular lead conductor had resigned in a huff. His unpopular replacement had been shouted off the podium by the audience. There was no one else. Toscanini, who was also assistant choral master, was thrust forward by his colleagues. “Everyone knew about my memory,” he would recall, “because the singers had all had lessons with me, and I had played the piano without ever looking at the music.” He was handed a baton and just started to conduct. A triumph! Typical of the glowing reviews: “This beardless maestro is a prodigy who communicated the sacred artistic fire to his baton and the energy and passion of a genuine artist to the orchestra.” For the remaining six weeks of the tour, Harvey Sachs tells us in his biography “Toscanini: Musician of Conscience,” the maestro led the orchestra in 26 performances of 12 operas, all from memory. No one offered him a raise, and it didn’t occur to him to ask for one.
It was almost 68 years later, in April 1954, that he conducted his final concert, an all-Wagner program, at Carnegie Hall. He was 87, and decades earlier had established himself as the world’s most famous conductor — the world’s most famous musician; a “genius,” in fact, alongside such names as Einstein, Picasso and, with a backward glance, Thomas Alva Edison. Nor was this a new notion: Back in the conservatory in Parma, his hometown, “Arturo’s fellow students teased him by calling him Gèni, the dialect word for ‘genius.’”
Toscanini, circa 1890. Credit From “Toscanini: Musician of Conscience.”
Genius or not, he unquestionably was a prodigy. At school he had been assigned the cello as his instrument, and he quickly mastered it — by the time he was 14 he was playing in the Parma opera company’s orchestra. He taught himself to play the piano, the violin, the double bass. He sang, he composed, he organized and led groups of his fellow students. Everyone was aware of his astounding photographic memory and his immense powers of concentration. In his final year he was named the school’s outstanding graduate, and he was liked as well as admired. “When I look back at the years of my adolescence,” he would reminisce, “I don’t remember a day without sunshine, because the sunshine was in my soul.”
Music happened to him by accident. His good-natured if rather feckless father, Claudio — whose heart lay in his years of campaigning with Garibaldi’s army of the Risorgimento, and who made a somewhat precarious living through tailoring — and his cold and distant mother, Paola, were “musical,” but not exceptionally so. It was an elementary-school teacher who spotted little Arturo’s strong response to music and advised his parents to send him to Parma’s music conservatory, where once he was accepted as a live-in student all his expenses were taken care of — a boon to the financially strapped family.
Word of Toscanini’s South American success quickly got around, and soon he was a busy itinerant opera conductor: Turin, Bologna, Venice, Genoa, Palermo, Pisa, Rome — he was working everywhere, though undoubtedly his greatest satisfaction in those early days was playing cello for Verdi, his hero, at the 1887 premiere of “Otello.” After some years at Turin’s Regio Theater, where in 1895-96 he conducted the world premiere of “La Bohème” (he’d done the same for “Pagliacci” in Milan) and the first Italian production of “Götterdämmerung,” he was wooed away, inevitably, by La Scala, where he reigned on and off until in 1908 he left Italy to lead the Metropolitan Opera in New York. In Milan he had worked with (and disciplined) the young Caruso and Chaliapin, had forced audiences to accept darkened auditoriums, instituted a bitterly opposed policy of no encores, and had the orchestra playing in a pit rather than at stage level. He had mounted and conducted the first Italian performances of “Siegfried,” “Pelléas and Mélisande” and “Eugene Onegin.” And he had married.
Carlotta De Martini, in 1897 Credit From “Toscanini: Musician of Conscience”
When Arturo met Carlotta De Martini in 1895, he was 28 and she was 18, a pretty, vivacious girl whom he pursued with all his intensity and tenacity. They married in 1897, and he liked telling people that their son Walter was born exactly nine months after the wedding: “in tempo, like a good conductor.” Two girls and another boy would follow. You could say that it was a successful marriage but not a happy one. Arturo and Carla would stay together until her death in 1951, both of them loyal to the idea of family but increasingly distanced from each other emotionally. Her messiness maddened him (“For 41 years I’ve suffered from this disorder of hers!!!”), and his serial philandering deeply wounded her. He came by his life of compulsive adultery honestly: Claudio, Arturo would say, “was a good-looking man. Women went after him. And what’s a young man to do? Some say yes, some say no.” Claudio said yes often, and Arturo, notably short though equally good-looking, said yes as well — many, many times, both as a young man and as an old one.
The most damaging of his extramarital relationships was a prolonged affair with the superb singer Rosina Storchio. The relationship was an open secret — one night when she was singing Cio-Cio San, one of her finest roles, a breeze ruffled her robes and a member of the audience shouted out, “Butterfly is pregnant with Toscanini’s child.” In 1903 Rosina gave birth to a son, Giovanni, but a mishap during the delivery left him brain-damaged, and Giovanni died at 16. Rosina never married.
In a dismaying echo of that tragedy, Arturo and Carla suffered an equally devastating loss. Their second boy, Giorgio, not yet 5, died of diphtheria while they were all in Buenos Aires, and Carla — not only drowning in grief but wildly angry because she believed her husband had been with Storchio as Giorgio was dying — packed her trunks to leave for Italy. She relented, though, as always torn between her love for her husband and her distress at the circumstances of her marriage. Besides, she had her other children to consider, Walter and her daughter, Wally. Despite her grief — or, as Sachs suggests, perhaps because of it — she determined to have another baby. But with the birth of Wanda, when Carla was 30, all sexual relations between husband and wife came to an end. As for Wanda, whose difficult disposition reminded her father of his difficult mother, she went on to marry the profoundly neurotic (and homosexual) piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz.
Toscanini’s relationship with Geraldine Farrar, the reigning diva of the Metropolitan Opera, was hardly a secret. She was determined to marry him, he had no intention, then or ever, of leaving Carla and the children, and it’s generally assumed that he resigned his leadership of the Met after seven years in order to escape her importunities. Among the dozens of other women with whom he was involved were other famous singers like Lotte Lehmann and Alma Gluck (and, some said, Gluck’s daughter, the writer Marcia Davenport). Carla put up with all of it — and, in fact, befriended a number of the mistresses.
One of the things that led Sachs to write a second biography of Toscanini, more than twice as long as his first (published in 1978), was the new availability of huge archives of documents and letters — in 2002 he edited “The Letters of Arturo Toscanini.” The letters cover an immense range of musical, political and personal matters, but the most astonishing ones are passionate love letters that sometimes go beyond the erotic to the pornographic. From a typical letter to Elsa Kurzbauer, with whom he was in love for many years: “Your kisses, your lips (oh! sweetness) your mouth inflame ever and evermore at the utmost my frenzy to have you under my libidinous caresses — kisses — suckings — lickings — bitings, all over your girlisch body — I am dying and lusting for every part nook — crevice — hole — holy hole of your lovely person.” Their relationship would pick up, though not quite where it had left off, 20 years later, when Elsa had escaped from Vienna to New York. “Don’t lose time,” the septuagenarian Arturo wrote to her. “Maybe before long God will take away even the little bit of virility that’s left me. And then? What misery!”
The fullest correspondence, though — almost a thousand telegrams and letters from Toscanini, adding up to something like 240,000 words — was with Ada Mainardi, a pianist with whom he was besotted for seven years, beginning in 1933. They met rarely — she was in Italy, with her cellist husband, and he was mostly in America — which may explain why the relationship in all its intensity lasted so long. These letters are a revelation of his day-to-day doings, his ideas, his feelings. And he wrote, compulsively, of his passion: “I’m like a madman, I could commit a crime!! … When, oh when, will we be able to possess each other completely, clinging together, deep inside each other, our mouths gasping, united while awaiting the supreme voluptuousness at the same moment? When — when?” His erotic impulses toward Ada grew ever stronger — and stranger. Sachs tells us that “he had begun to send her a fresh handkerchief each month, with increasingly insistent requests that she stain it with her menstrual blood and send it back to him so that he could suck it — or so he claimed — ‘since I can’t quench my thirst directly at the delightful fount,’” and apparently she often complied. To each his own.
What eventually undermined the relationship was not their geographical separation but his increasing distaste, then disgust, for her political leanings and casual anti-Semitism. “You hurt me when you say that you don’t love the Jews. Tell me, rather, that you don’t love the human race,” he wrote to her in 1939. He had been deeply moved, by his experience three years earlier, when — at no fee and paying his own expenses — he inaugurated what would become the Israel Philharmonic. By that time, he was famous throughout the world for his implacable hatred of Fascism and Nazism. One of the many ways he demonstrated his hostility to Mussolini was his defiance of the law that the Fascist Party’s anthem, “Giovinezza,” be played at the start of every public performance. In response, in 1931 he was beaten by Fascist thugs outside the opera house in Bologna, and his passport was taken from him. Only in the face of an international outcry was it returned.
In 1933, after several extraordinarily successful seasons at the Bayreuth Wagner festival — Toscanini was the first non-German conductor to perform there — he informed Winifred Wagner, Wagner’s English daughter-in-law now in charge (and a close friend of Hitler’s), that given the conditions obtaining in Germany since the Nazis had taken over earlier that year, and despite a flattering personal letter from Hitler himself, he would not be returning. “For my peace of mind, for yours, and for everyone’s, it is better not to think any longer about my coming to Bayreuth.” Nothing could better demonstrate both his unbending loyalty to principle and the astounding position he held on the world stage.
In the same spirit, early in 1938, after having triumphed for the third time at the annual Salzburg Festival, he decided that with the Germans poised to overrun Austria, he would not return. Mussolini again had his passport impounded, and again worldwide indignation forced the Duce to change his mind. On the very day that the passport was suddenly returned, the Toscaninis left Milan for America. “To flee, to flee — that was the consuming thought!” he wrote to Ada. “To flee in order to breathe freedom, life!”………………………