Fifty years ago this month at Carnegie Hall, the great 20th-century conductor Arturo Toscanini gave his final public performance. It was a moment as dramatic as his 1886 debut in Brazil, when the 19-year-old cellist was pulled from the orchestra's ranks at the last minute to conduct Verdi's Aida from memory.
For nearly seven decades his talent, charisma, and energy endeared "the Maestro," as he was affectionately called, to millions of music lovers across America and around the world. By 1954, however, the 87-year-old Toscanini was facing pressure to retire. NBC, which in 1937 had formed the NBC Symphony largely with him in mind, wanted to divert the $1 million annual cost of maintaining the orchestra and its radio broadcasts to the network's expanding television division. Toscanini knew the orchestra would be forced to disband when he retired, and the idea of his players' becoming unemployed after a nearly 20-year relationship was difficult to accept. Many had left prominent positions in other orchestras to become a part of this extraordinary experience.
Rumors began to circulate that an all-Wagner program, to be performed on April 4, 1954, would be Toscanini's final public performance. And this was confirmed in a concert that began with excerpts from Lohengrin, Siegfried, and Götterdämmerung. During the performance of selections from Tannhäuser, Toscanini, perhaps overcome by the occasion, put his hand to his forehead, closed his eyes, and stopped conducting. The stunned orchestra began missing cues. Principal cellist Frank Miller tried to gesture to his colleagues and restore order, but his efforts were not enough. In the radio booth, Toscanini's son, Walter, and conductor Guido Cantelli, seeing the chaos, switched from the live broadcast to a recording of Brahms's First Symphony.
Toscanini eventually regained his composure and conducted the rest of the work. Then, almost without pausing, he began the Prelude to Die Meistersinger, and with the last chord still sounding, he stepped off the podium, let the baton drop to the floor, and walked off the stage. The audience clapped and cheered for 30 minutes, but the conductor did not return.
The next day's New York Times carried a front-page story about Toscanini's retirement after 68 years of music-making, which had included 380 concerts at Carnegie Hall.
Archivist and Museum Director
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