Quick. Name the first conductor who comes to mind.
Is it Toscanini? Then you're in good company. A half century after his death, Arturo Toscanini is still the only conductor whose name most people can recall. Why was he such a legend? Why is his legacy so strong? Part of the answer lies in the immense power of the American public relations machine, but much of his fame was the result of the perfect fusion of the man with his times.
Toscanini was a man who became used to having high hopes pinned on him. In 1898 the Italian opera scene was a paltry shadow of what it had once been. After a century of enjoying world dominance in opera, Italian orchestras had become lackadaisical. Singers had become so free with their interpretations, the music was almost unrecognizable. Verdi was almost dead and Puccini had not yet made his mark. Composer Arrigo BoÇto, the bastion of high culture in Italy, complained that opera in his homeland had become "befouled like the walls of a brothel."
Enter a young and promising Toscanini, who imposed almost impossibly high standards on the ailing La Scala and turned it, permanently, into one of the world's leading opera houses. He had no trouble canceling performances due to lack of talent and infuriated more than one musician with his condescension, but people loved him.
One of his greatest feats early on was the discovery of two of the greatest singing talents of any age: Enrico Caruso and Feodor Chaliapin. Soon, he assumed Verdi's role as the public face of Italian music, and his word became indisputable. Flying in the face of convention, he did away with all repeats in opera, forbade any applause in the middle of a number, and insisted on the construction of a decent orchestra pit (things we now take for granted). Admittedly, he was a poor administrator (the day-to-day details of running an opera house or orchestra quickly bored or frustrated him), but if the management of La Scala ever dared to argue with him, he threatened legal action on artistic grounds.
A few years later, he crossed the Atlantic and took the helm at the Met. The American public admired him, despite the fact that they hardly knew him. The announcement in The New York Times referred to him, embarrassingly, as "the most renowned of all Italian conductors, Mr. Toscanelli." This ignorance did not last long, however, and people soon began to flock to his concerts. For the first time, a conductor held a bigger draw for audiences than the singers. The powers at NBC took notice.
Pre-World War II America was a hotbed of new musical styles imposed on an ever-shifting landscape of tastes and perspectives. Jazz, Tin Pan Alley, and the Broadway musical were all redefining the music industry at a rapid pace. So when NBC offered to tailor an orchestra specifically for Toscanini, they did so in the hopes that his sheer presence would serve as a shining beacon for classical music in the midst of a sea of uncertainty. Despite his initial reservations about recording, he soon came to see it as a means of establishing his dominance even further. As a result, Toscanini became the first conductor for a truly mass audience.
Today his arrogant tendency to make wholesale alterations to scores in the name of perfecting the composer's intent, and his affinity for childish tantrums that bred an uneasy distrust among his players, have tainted his reputation some. But for better or for worse, Toscanini was able to brutally extract the sound he wanted, and he wielded it as both a commercial and a political force. From him, later conductors learned that their influence could extend beyond the podium, and a new view of musical power was beginning to take shape.
Next month, we will see the shape it assumed in the hands of Herbert von Karajan.
Jamie Allen is the Director of Education for the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.