The 2004 spring repertoire of the Houston Grand Opera offers an interesting juxtaposition of two important Italian operas. The great century (plus ten years) of Italian opera began in 1816 with Rossini's The Barber of Seville and ended in 1926 with the last Italian opera to enter the standard repertoire, Puccini's Turandot.
In preparing to conduct Turandot for the first time in my life, I have found the specter of Arturo Toscanini looming large over the opera: conducting its world premiere at La Scala, Toscanini paid homage to his late friend, Giacomo Puccini, who had left the work unfinished at the time of his death in 1924. A few minutes before the end of the opera Toscanini turned to the bejeweled opening-night audience and said, "The opera ends here, for at this point the maestro died. Death was stronger than art." The audience filed out of the auditorium in silence.
Art has always had few giants. In the long history of conducting there have been many outstanding artists but Arturo Toscanini stands apart. His early career, centered in Italy, coincided with the apogee of musical creativity in Europe: Brahms, Wagner, Verdi, Tchaikovsky, Debussy, Ravel, Strauss, and Puccini were all active during Toscanini's lifetime. As the conductor of the first performances of Pagliacci and La Bohème, he quickly became the embodiment of Italian art. But his musical passions knew no national boundaries: he was the leading interpreter of Richard Wagner and the first non-German to conduct at Wagner's sacred Bayreuth. In an era when foreign music was rarely played in Italy, he gave the first Italian performances of Debussy's Pelleas and Melisande, Richard Strauss's Salome, Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, and Wagner's Götterdämmerung, Siegfried, and Die Meistersinger, all of which he not only performed but rehearsed from memory. His activities could fill three lifetimes: music director of Teatro Regio (Torino) at age 28; principal conductor of Milan's La Scala three years later; principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York; music director of the New York Philharmonic; and long associations with the Vienna Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, and the Salzburg Festival (until he withdrew in protest after the Anschluss). He was intimately involved in forming a new orchestra in Palestine, now the Israel Philharmonic, in 1936. The next year the National Broadcasting Company (the same company that is bringing us Average Joe and The Fear Factor this season) formed an orchestra specifically for Toscanini, who was then 70, and with them he performed and recorded the repertoire he had spent a lifetime contemplating. His unshakable belief in the language of music, while supremely humbling, has an immense amount to teach us today.
What set Toscanini apart from the many other great conductors of his era? The question is nearly impossible to answer; conducting is a mysterious art. But while preparing Turandot, I set out on an in-depth exploration of Toscanini performances to shed some light on it for myself. While he defies easy definition, my overwhelming impression is that Toscanini conducted music rather than musicians, while many conductors perform vice versa. With each recording one is left with the feeling that there is something in each work that Toscanini is desperate for you to hear and that desperation informs everything he does. Look at the videos of his performances, or even just a photograph of him conducting: there is such intense concentration, such longing‹but he is focused on the music, not his own ego. He wants to show you the forest; he has little concern for the trees! While he was certainly a physically dynamic figure, he never indulged in choreography for the benefit of the camera. His concentration on a single issue‹the composer's intention‹is what is so astounding about him. To me, he appears selfless on the podium, uninterested in his surroundings, and completely focused on making music the centerpiece, rather than his own performance of it. Toscanini's letters, recently published by Knopf and wonderfully annotated by Harvey Sachs, are an utterly captivating "must read" for anyone interested in music. They present an emotionally complex and deeply passionate man. The letters run the gamut from adolescent fulminations on love and sex to deeply felt artistic convictions about music. They reveal a true artistic polymath, interested in a vast array of arts, deeply engaged in‹though often appalled by‹the political state of the world. While we cannot say that his letters present a "happy" man, we see a clear picture of one who is uniquely engaged in the world around him. His talent often collided with the burdens of a fame he didn't seem to want, all the while knowing that his public profile gave him the opportunity to pursue the art that was his greatest passion in life.
Toscanini's artistic goals were notoriously democratic; he worshiped no artistic deity but music. No mere mortal, no matter how famous, could sway him from what he considered to be his duty: a faithful execution of a composer's wishes. The great soprano Geraldine Farrar, miffed at being publicly corrected by him at a Met rehearsal, promptly made it known that he was not to address her thus as she was a "star." "The only stars," Toscanini replied, "are in the heavens."
Much has been made of Toscanini's violent temper (producers at NBC used to post weather reports outside Studio 8H‹"very stormy" or "sunny"‹as a code to warn of the maestro's mood), but if one reads between the lines of the anecdotes, and particularly if one asks musicians who played for Toscanini, a very different picture emerges. Every classical musician must contend with one sobering fact: the works we perform are greater than any performance of them can be. This fact burned within Toscanini and motivated his temper. Toscanini once said to a trumpet player in the NBC Symphony, "God tells me how the music should sound but you stand in the way!" But he screamed at himself as often as he screamed at others. The language of music was for him every bit as potent as the language of speech and he was infuriated by any sloppy handling of that language. He is famously quoted about Beethoven's Eroica Symphony: "To some it is Napoleon, to some it is Alexander the Great, to some it is philosophical struggle; to me it is Allegro con brio." How sad that it is his temper that is most often remembered rather than its motivation.
Several of Toscanini's recordings are vital for any music lover: the breathtaking 1937 Die Meistersinger from the Salzburg Festival, the complete Beethoven Symphonies with the NBC Symphony, the many complete operas on RCA Victor, the moving series of recordings he made with the Orchestra of La Scala. Gershwin's An American in Paris with the NBC, in an interpretation criticized as unidiomatic at the time, is a favorite of mine because it so wonderfully captures the giddy jazz spirit of the 1920s and the eloquent melancholy of being a stranger in a strange land.
Nor did Toscanini indulge in the irritating habit of breaking music down into classes like "good," "bad," "serious," or "light." He was content to let history decide. Throughout his career he lavished the same energy and detail on Grofé, Gershwin, and John Philip Sousa (his recording of "The Stars and Stripes Forever" is unforgettable!) as he did on Beethoven and Wagner. He loved the great Broadway voices of his time. After seeing Ethel Merman in her debut role (Girl Crazy, by the Gershwins), he lavished her with a compliment that must have mystified the brash young lady from Astoria: he said she sounded like "the great Moreschi," referring to Allessandro Moreschi, the so-called last castrato, who died in 1922.
I'm left wondering what Toscanini would think of the artistic state of the adopted country he loved, the United States. We have allowed several generations of children to mature with only a passing education in the fine arts, leaving so many with only simplistic forums to express their complex young experiences. How can we then wonder why our arts audiences are dwindling? Toscanini saw a U.S. television network create an orchestra for him because it was thought important to preserve as many of his performances as possible. Can any of us imagine that occurring today? Arts organizations in the U.S. are engaged in a constant campaign to simply justify their survival.
But I find Toscanini's passionate beliefs move me toward hope. In his lifetime he witnessed a shameful gamut of human-made misery: two devastating world wars (among a myriad of conflicts), a worldwide economic depression, and the scourge of the Holocaust. Yet he avoided the cynicism that can sometimes be used to defend against such heartbreak. As an elderly man he never lost his faith in music's unique ability to define the indefinable and heal the damaged human spirit. Looking back from our fearful and often divisive modern age, I find it heartening to connect with one man's unshakeable belief in humanity's attempts to gather its best thoughts.
Patrick Summers is the Music Director of Houston Grand Opera.