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Arturo Toscanini (March 25, 1867 – January 16, 1957) was considered by many of his contemporaries — critics, fellow musicians, and the public alike — as the greatest conductor of his era. He was renowned for his brilliant intensity, his restless perfectionism, his phenomenal ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his photographic memory which allowed him to correct errors in orchestral parts unnoticed for decades by his colleagues.
Toscanini was born in Parma, Italy, and won a scholarship to the local music conservatory, where he studied cello. He joined the orchestra of an opera company, with which he toured to South America. While presenting Aida in Rio de Janeiro in 1886, the conductor was booed by the audience and forced to leave the podium. Toscanini successfully took up the baton at the suggestion of other players, and thus began his career as a conductor at age 19.
Toscanini became resident conductor at La Scala, Milan, in 1898, remaining there until 1908 and returning during the 1920s. He also had spells at the Metropolitan Opera, New York (1908–1915) and Bayreuth (1930–1931; he was the first non-German conductor there) as well as with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1926–1936) and at the Salzburg Festival (1934–1937). In 1936, he conducted the inaugural concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) in Tel Aviv. Strongly opposed to Italian and German fascism, he left Europe for the United States, where in 1937 the NBC Symphony Orchestra was founded for him, and with which he performed regularly until 1954 on national radio, thus becoming the first conducting superstar of modern mass media. He continued to conduct live radio performances until his retirement at 87. On his passing in 1957, he was interred in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan.
Toscanini conducted the world premieres of many operas, including four which have become part of the standard operatic repertoire: I Pagliacci, La Bohème, La fanciulla del West and Turandot. He also conducted the first Italian performances of Siegfried, Die Götterdammerung, Salome, Pelléas et Mélisande, as well as the South American premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Madama Butterfly and the North American premiere of Boris Godunov.
At La Scala, Toscanini pushed through reforms in the performance of opera, having what was then the most modern stage lightning system installed in 1901 and an orchestral pit installed in 1907. He insisted on darkening the lights during performances. As his biographer Harvey Sachs wrote: "he believed that a performance could not be artistically successful unless unity of intention was first established among all the components: singers, orchestra, chorus, staging, sets, and costumes."
Toscanini was famous for his performances of Beethoven and Verdi. He made many recordings, especially towards the end of his career, many of which are still in print. In addition, there are many recordings available of his broadcast performances.
By most accounts, his greatest recordings are the following:
- Beethoven Symphony No. 3 (1953, NBC Symphony; although some prefer the 1939 NBC performance)
- Beethoven Symphony No. 7 (1936, Philharmonic-Symphony of New York)
- Beethoven Symphony No. 9 (1952, NBC Symphony)
- Berlioz Romeo and Juliette (1947, NBC Symphony)
- Brahms Symphony No. 1 (1951, NBC Symphony)
- Brahms Symphony No. 2 (1952, NBC Symphony)
- Brahms Symphony No. 4 (1951, NBC Symphony)
- Debussy La Mer (1950, NBC Symphony)
- Dvorak Symphony No. 9 (1953, NBC Symphony)
- Puccini La Bohème (1946, NBC Symphony)
- Mozart The Magic Flute (1937, Salzburg Festival; poor sound)
- Schubert Symphony No. 9 (1953, NBC Symphony; although some prefer the 1941 Philadelphia Orchestra performance))
- Verdi Requiem (1940, NBC Symphony; the sound is much better in the 1953 NBC performance, but although the 1953 performance is great, it is simply not as great as the 1940 performance)
- Verdi Falstaff (1937, Salzburg Festival; the sound of the 1950 NBC performance is much better, and the performance only not quite as great)
- Verdi Otello (1947, NBC Symphony; considered by many to be the most perfect opera recording ever made)
- Wagner Die Meistersinger (1937, Salzburg Festival; poor sound)
Books about Toscanini
- Contemporary Recollections of the Maestro, BH Haggin (Da Capo Press, 1989), a reprint of Conversations with Toscanini and The Toscanini Musicians Knew
- Toscanini, Harvey Sachs (Da Capo Press, 1978), the best biography by far
- Reflections on Toscanini, Harvey Sachs (Prima Publishing, 1993)
- The Letters of Arturo Toscanini ed. Harvey Sachs (Knopf, 2003)
- This Was Toscanini Samuel Antek, musician, and Robert Hupka, photographer (Vanguard Press, 1963, o.p.)
- Arturo Toscanini: The NBC Years Mortimer H. Frank, (Amadeus Press, 2002)
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