Why You Can’t Forget New York Philharmonic Maestro Arturo Toscanini

Classic Arts Features   Why You Can’t Forget New York Philharmonic Maestro Arturo Toscanini
Watch footage of Toscanini on tour circa 1930 and more as the New York Philharmonic digs into his archives to celebrate the titan’s 150th birthday.
Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic and the audience in “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 194
Toscanini conducting the New York Philharmonic and the audience in “The Star-Spangled Banner” in 194 Courtesy NY Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives

Since September the New York Philharmonic has celebrated its 175th anniversary season. This month, nested felicitously inside that celebration is the 150th birthday of a titan in the Philharmonic’s history: former music director Arturo Toscanini.

Harvey Sachs, the former Leonard Bernstein Scholar-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic whose Toscanini: Musician of Conscience will be published in June by Liveright Books, will explore the great Italian’s legacy at a free Insights at the Atrium event, “Toscanini at 150: The Maestro Lives On,” Tuesday, March 28.

He has culled from the New York Philharmonic Leon Levy Digital Archives, which will celebrate the Toscanini milestone with 1925–1945: The Toscanini Era—1,300 folders of documents totaling just shy of 70,000 pages, plus a dozen marked scores and 200 related parts.

Through the perspectives of Sachs and Philharmonic archivist/historian Barbara Haws, the archival material reinforces the greatness of “The Maestro” through fresh insight and vivid detail. It also shows that a lot of what made his Philharmonic tenure so important remains. The Philharmonic doesn’t just preserve his legacy—it builds on it.

On the institutional—even existential—level, Toscanini presided over the New York Philharmonic–New York Symphony merger in 1928, which created today’s New York Philharmonic. And in 1934, Sachs says, his threat to resign prevented a merger between the Philharmonic and The Metropolitan Opera, allowing both cultural gems to remain separate entities and resources, “for which all New York music lovers should still be grateful.” The following year, Sachs adds, it was the musicians who were grateful, when another such threat prevented the administration from firing a number of players to save money.

In 1930 Toscanini led the first European tour by the newly merged Philharmonic. It has returned many times, and this March–April it will travel on Europe/Spring 2017 a tour to many of the cities where he and the Orchestra appeared, among them Vienna. The tour established the Philharmonic as an elite international ensemble. “The 1930 tour was not only the Phil’s groundbreaking first European tour; it was successful beyond anyone’s fondest hopes,” Sachs says. “Europe had never heard anything even vaguely comparable to that orchestra! Everyone was bowled over.”

Soon one can see those reviews, as well as documents of the logistics, posters, and—on a more intimate, insider level—clips of home movies of Toscanini on that tour, shot by then Principal Trumpet Harry Glantz. By the end of March they’ll be just a click away in the newly released archival material.

Sachs also points out the new light shed on the interesting role that Gustav Mahler plays in the story of Toscanini and the Philharmonic. These two Philharmonic giants “didn’t get along, apparently,” Haws says, but Sachs explains that Toscanini came to New York—to become music director of The Metropolitan Opera—“because of Mahler’s presence. His tenure was a guarantee that a serious conductor could work here.”

Toscanini’s success at The Met made him a hot property, and it was a coup when the Philharmonic hired him, Sachs explains: “Boston tried for a long time.” The Philharmonic, backed by Board chair (and Irving Berlin’s father-in-law) Clarence Mackay, offered $110,000 for the first year, plus perks such as payment of his income taxes. That’s Babe Ruth money, and you can check out Toscanini’s contracts and tax returns in the newly released archival material, an example of the remarkable “breadth of detail” Haws is proud to oversee and share with the public, saying: “we have everything from legendary scores to financial minutiae” that can tell a story as well as anything, and in a way an ordinary music fan can relate to: “We all file taxes.”

Speaking of legendary scores, another major contribution Toscanini made was to the New York Philharmonic’s recording legacy. He conducted the Orchestra in two main groups of recordings, in 1929 and in 1936. The latter “are among his revered recordings,” Sachs says, “especially the recording of Beethoven’s Seventh.” This recording will be on New York Philharmonic—175th Anniversary Edition, a 65-CD compilation of Philharmonic recordings from 1917 to 1995 to be released by Sony Classical on April 7. Fans will be able to listen to this famous recording of Beethoven’s Seventh while perusing the very score Toscanini used, available in the Leon Levy Digital Archives.

Mahler had used that same score, which contains a kind of dialogue across time between these two towering figures. Then Philharmonic librarian Henry G. Boewig noted changes to the score on Mahler’s instructions, revisions that later inspired Toscanini to write on the title page—in gorgeously florid handwriting—“unworthy of such a musician.” An anonymous third party later added “nomina stultorum sunt ubique locorum,” which in Latin means “the words of fools appear everywhere.” Generations later another Music Director, Pierre Boulez, weighed in, saying that Mahler’s changes revealed that “he had problems with his Orchestra.”

Who was correct: Mahler, Toscanini, or Boulez? The conversation across eras, through the material available in the Leon Levy Digital Archives, continues, and it is for you to decide.

Edward Lovett is the Digital Publications Editor at the New York Philharmonic.

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