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The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro

The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro
By Cesare Civetta
Amadeus Press; 226 pages
A review by R. C. Speck

When conductor Cesare Civetta began to feel that the legacy of Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was being unfairly tarnished, he decided to do something about it. The result is The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro, a collection of interviews with musicians, conductors, and composers who were lucky enough to work with the maestro.

The chapters of this revealing biography focus on aspects of Toscanini’s personality and conducting style. Inner Power and Charisma, Baton Technique, Rehearsal Style, and Philosophy are a few examples and include anecdotes and recollections which paint a complete picture of the great man. An entire chapter discusses Toscanini’s passionate opposition to Mussolini and Hitler. Included are stories of how he was beaten up by fascist thugs as well as how he helped found the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra.

Civetta reveals how Toscanini inspired tremendous dedication and discipline among his musicians. They describe his hypnotism, his magnetism. One musician remembered how he would rehearse an extra hour each day whenever working for Toscanini. Musicians had a kind of rapture for Toscanini, parts fear, awe, and love, which brought them to heights they couldn’t have reached otherwise. Once, when Toscanini replaced Eugene Ormandy as a guest conductor, Ormandy came to listen. Ormandy then asked, “Is that my orchestra?…If they can play like that for him, why can’t they play like that for me?”

Toscanini’s vast genius and rigorous pursuit of perfection populates both text and subtext on every page of Civetta’s book. According to the musicians, Toscanini studied more than any other conductor. Even if it was a score he had conducted dozens of times, he would still pore over it till the wee hours before rehearsal, often finding tidbits of tempo or instrumentation that he theretofore had missed. Still, he would always conduct from memory. If the bassoon was hitting a B when the score called for B-flat, the maestro would spot it immediately.

Toscanini loved the music of Wagner. But when invited to conduct Wagner in Bayreuth in 1930, the German musicians were skeptical of the foreigner. This abruptly ended when Toscanini discovered several errors in the orchestra parts that had gone unnoticed by German conductors for decades.

Nothing was ever good enough for Arturo Toscanini. So deep was his understanding of music that he could find flaws in any performance. This inspired the love and wonder that the subjects in Civetta’s book still had for him years after his death in 1957. Once when hearing Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony over the radio, Toscanini viciously criticized the performance. He paced back and forth. He denounced the tempo and balance. Imagine his surprise when afterwards the announcer said that they had just listened to the BBC Symphony conducted by…who else?…Arturo Toscanini.

This book review appeared in the summer 2013 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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