Toscanini´s NBC Years

REVIEW by Willard Manus

"Toscanini's NBC years stand as a monument to part of the best in the human spirit--the struggle to create order from chaos, perfection from imperfection. Whatever their shortcomings, they comprise a record of total commitment in which an artist gave wholly, often perhaps compulsively, of himself in order to achieve his idealized realization of beauty in a broad range of music that shines as one of the glories of Western civilization."

The quote is from Mortimer H. Frank's ARTURO TOSCANINI: THE NBC YEARS, published by Amadeus Press. Frank served for many years as the curator of the Toscanini archive at Wave Hill, the famed conductor's New York home. He also served as a consultant for the television broadcast and subsequent video, Toscanini: the Maestro.

Frank worked on ARTURO TOSCANINI for 14 years and his fascination with the man started even earlier, when he was in his twenties and acquired all of Toscanini's recordings and read just about everything written about him.

It's hard to imagine how popular and famous Toscanini was when he was conducting in the post-WW II years (after a long career in Europe). A large part of the public knew him, thanks to his exposure on radio and TV, and the publicity he got in magazines such as Time and The Saturday Review. Classical music and opera were not considered elitist art forms then, thanks to the attention paid by companies like NBC, which put up the money for its own orchestra and made sure its concerts were made available, in prime time, to the general public.

Toscanini, a larger-than-life personality, got the kind of press only film stars, athletes and rock singers enjoy today. One critic called him "the greatest musical interpreter who ever lived." Others attacked his fanatical devotion to such composers as Verdi, Beethoven and Wagner, and criticized the dictatorial way he ruled over his musicians, demanding of them a certain style of playing that they saw as too mechanical and repetitive. The battle over his musical standards and methods was fought all during his lifetime, and Toscanini did not shy from inveighing against his critics, whom he usually lambasted in a hot-headed way.

As Frank shows, in 1937 NBC gave Toscanini exclusive rights in choosing programs and engaging solists and choruses. "He was also given the final word regarding orchestral personnel and permission to conduct the NBC Symphony in two additional concerts for which ticket sales would benefit causes of his choice." Toscanini's concerts were broadcast without commercial interruption; the entire bill for the orchestra's maintenance was covered by NBC, whose president, David Sarnoff, stated, "At NBC we are pursuing the policy of giving millions of our listeners the greatest artists the world has to offer."

ARTURO TOSCANINI is a well-researched book which gives season-by-season discussions, repertory lists and performance evaluations, vidoegraphy and discography. It also includes non-NBC recordings and provides fresh insights into Toscanini's musicianship.

"One wonders why Toscanini's performances have prompted so many misleading generalizations," writes Frank. "Perhaps the answer lies in certain traits that did remain constant. Toscanini might vary tempo, phrasing, balance, voice leading or rubato from one performance to the next. Some of his performances might seem overwrought and excessively pushed, some on occasion even indifferent. But always, regardless of prevailing virtues or flaws, they displayed a concern for continuity, textural clarity, cantabile lines, and dramatic impact."