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Arturo Toscanini
1867 - 1957

The Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini was the most famous and influential conductor of the first half of the 20th century.


Arturo Toscanini was born on March 25, 1867, in Parma, Italy, the son of a tailor. When Arturo showed musical tendencies, he was sent to the local conservatory, where he spent the next 9 years, devoting himself entirely to music. He graduated in 1885 with a first prize in cello and was immediately engaged to play in the orchestra at the Reggia, Parma's famous opera house. During the following summer he joined an orchestra that went to Brazil to play a season of Italian opera. At one performance the regular conductor was unable to appear. The 19-year-old cellist took over and, without a rehearsal, conducted Aida from memory, thus beginning one of the musical world's most illustrious careers.

On returning to Italy, Toscanini was in great demand as an opera conductor. He conducted the first performances of Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci and Puccini's La Bohème. By the time he was 30, he was acknowledged to be the best opera conductor in Italy, and he was appointed principal conductor at La Scala in Milan, Italy's leading opera house. There, with his notorious temper and keen musicianship, he imposed a high performance standard on both singers and orchestra. He also disciplined the audience by refusing to allow the traditional encores that destroyed the musical continuity of the operas. He conducted at La Scala from 1898 to 1903 and again from 1906 to 1908, when he resigned to become a conductor with the Metropolitan Opera Company in New York City.

Toscanini returned to Italy in 1915 and to La Scala when it reopened after World War I. The growth of fascism and Mussolini's dictatorship made it impossible for Toscanini to remain; in 1928 he became conductor of the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, a post he held until 1936. His harsh discipline and uncompromising musical standards made the Philharmonic one of the world's greatest orchestras.

During these years Toscanini also conducted opera at the famous European music festivals at Salzburg and Bayreuth. In 1937 he became conductor of the National Broadcasting Company Orchestra. This orchestra's broadcast concerts and recordings brought his performances to millions of listeners. He died in New York City on Jan. 16, 1957.

At the time Toscanini started to conduct, late-19th-century performance ideals were prevalent and conductors and performers thought it was their right and duty to "express themselves" in the music they played. Great liberties in tempi and dynamics were taken, and the score indications were often ignored. Toscanini vigorously opposed this approach, believing that performers should meticulously follow the scores and play every note exactly as written at the precise degree of loudness called for by the composer. He expected his musicians to show as much devotion toward the score and energy in carrying out its directions as he did. If they failed, he was merciless in his criticism.

Toscanini was one of the first to conduct without a score. His visual memory was phenomenal, and he could make minute corrections, referring to exact measures, without looking at the score. This skill was developed partly as a matter of necessity, because he was so nearsighted that he could not read a score at normal distance. He also had a marvelously acute ear, and there are many instances of his hearing a false note in a single instrument, even with the full orchestra playing.


Arturo Toscanini (March 25, 1867 – January 16, 1957) was an Italian musician. He is considered by many critics, fellow musicians, and much of the classical listening audience to have been the greatest conductor of all time. He was renowned for his brilliant intensity, his restless perfectionism, his phenomenal ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his photographic memory which gave him extraordinary command over a vast repertoire of orchestral and operatic works, and allowed him to correct errors in orchestral parts unnoticed by his colleagues for decades.


Toscanini was born in Parma, Emilia-Romagna, and won a scholarship to the local music conservatory, where he studied the cello. He joined the orchestra of an opera company, with which he toured South America in 1886. While presenting Aida in Rio de Janeiro, the orchestra's conductor was booed by the audience and forced to leave the podium. Although he had no conducting experience, Toscanini was persuaded to take up the baton, and led a magnificent performance completely from memory. Thus began his career as a conductor at age 19.

Upon returning to Italy, Toscanini self-effacingly returned to his chair in the cello section, and participated as cellist in the world premiere of Verdi's Otello (La Scala, 1887) under the composer's supervision. (Verdi, who habitually complained that conductors never seemed interested in directing his scores the way he had written them, was impressed by reports from Arrigo Boito about Toscanini's ability to interpret his scores. The composer was also impressed when Toscanini consulted him personally, indicating a ritardando where it was not set out in the score and saying that only a true musician would have felt the need to make that ritardando.)

Gradually the young musician's reputation as an operatic conductor of unusual authority and skill supplanted his cello career. In the following decade he consolidated his career in Italy, entrusted with the world premieres of Puccini's La Bohème and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. In 1896 he conducted his first symphonic concert (works by Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner), in Turin. By 1898 he was resident conductor at La Scala, Milan and remained there until 1908, returning during the 1920s. He took the Scala Orchestra to the United States on a concert tour in 1920-21; it was during that tour that Toscanini made his first recordings (for the Victor Talking Machine Company).

International recognition

Outside of Europe, he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1908–1915) as well as the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1926–1936). He toured Europe with the New York Philharmonic in 1930; he and the musicians were acclaimed by critics and audiences wherever they went. As was also the case with the New York Philharmonic, Toscanini was the first non-German conductor to appear at Bayreuth (1930–1931). In the 1930s he conducted at the Salzburg Festival (1934–1937) and the inaugural concert in 1936 of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) in Tel Aviv, and later performed with them in Jerusalem, Haifa, Cairo and Alexandria.

The NBC Symphony Orchestra

Arturo Toscanini ran in 1919 unsuccessfully as a Fascist parliamentary candidate in Milan and had been called "the greatest conductor in the world" by Mussolini; however, he became disillusioned with fascism and notably refused to conduct Giovinezza at a May 1931 concert at La Scala, after which he was roughed up by a group of blackshirts, and thereafter left Italy until 1938.

He left for the United States where the NBC Symphony Orchestra was created for him in 1937. He conducted the first broadcast concert on December 25, 1937, in NBC Studio 8-H in New York City's Rockefeller Center. The acoustics were very dry, until some remodelling in 1939 added a bit more reverberation to the studio. (In 1950, the studio was further remodelled for television productions; today it is used by NBC for Saturday Night Live. In 1980, it was used by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in a special televised NBC concert honouring the legacy of Toscanini.)

Toscanini was often criticized for neglecting American music; however, in 1938, he conducted the world premieres of two orchestral works by Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra. In 1945, he led the orchestra in Carnegie Hall recording sessions of the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofe and An American in Paris by George Gershwin. He also conducted broadcast performances of Copland's El Salon Mexico; Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with soloists Earl Wild and Benny Goodman and Piano Concerto in F with pianist Oscar Levant; and music by other American composers, including two marches of John Philip Sousa. He even wrote his own orchestral arrangement of the National Anthem, which was incorporated into the NBC Symphony's performances of Verdi's Hymn of the Nations.

In 1940, Toscanini took the orchestra on a "goodwill" tour of South America. Later that year, Toscanini had a disagreement with NBC management over their use of his musicians in other NBC broadcasts; Toscanini threatened to move to CBS, until the dispute was resolved and he returned as music director. At that time Leopold Stokowski began conducting some of the concerts and continued to appear periodically as a guest conductor of the orchestra.

One of the more remarkable broadcasts was in July 1942, when Toscanini conducted the American premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7. Due to World War II, the score was microfilmed in the Soviet Union and brought by courier to the United States. Stokowski wanted to conduct the premiere and there were a number of remarkable letters between the two conductors (reproduced by Harvey Sachs in his biography) before Stokowski agreed to let Toscanini have the privilege of conducting the first performance. Unfortunately for New York listeners, a major thunderstorm virtually obliterated the NBC radio signals there, but the performance was heard elsewhere and preserved on transcription discs. It was later issued by RCA Victor in the 1967 centennial boxed set tribute to Toscanini, which included a number of NBC broadcasts never released on discs. Shostakovich himself reportedly expressed a dislike for the performance, after he heard a recording of the broadcast.

In 1943, he appeared in a documentary film for the Office of War Information (OWI) directed by Alexander Hammid, Hymn of the Nations, which featured Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in music of Verdi. Filmed in NBC Studio 8-H, the orchestra performed the overture to La Forza del Destino and Hymn of the Nations, the latter featuring tenor Jan Peerce and the Westminster Choir.

In the summer of 1950, Toscanini led the orchestra on an extensive transcontinental tour. It was during that tour that the famous photograph of Toscanini riding the ski lift at Sun Valley, Idaho was taken. Some have had said that, because of his broadcasts, tours, and recordings, Toscanini became the first conducting "superstar" of modern mass media.

The NBC concerts continued in Studio 8-H until the fall of 1950, when they were moved to Carnegie Hall, where many of the orchestra's recording sessions had been held, due to the dry acoustics of Studio 8-H. The final broadcast performance, an all-Wagner program, took place on April 4, 1954, in Carnegie Hall. During this concert Toscanini suffered a memory lapse caused by a transient ischemic attack. He never conducted live in public again. That June he participated in his final recording sessions, remaking portions of two Verdi operas so they could be commercially released. Toscanini was 87 years old when he retired. After his retirement, the NBC Symphony was reorganized as the Symphony of the Air, making regular performances and recordings, until it was disbanded in 1963.

On radio, he conducted seven complete operas, including La Bohème and Otello, all of which were eventually released on records and CD, thus finally enabling the modern listening public to hear what an opera conducted by Toscanini sounded like.

Personal life

Toscanini married Carla De Martini on June 21, 1897, when she was not yet 20 years old. Their first child, Walter, was born on March 19, 1898. A daughter, Wally, was born on January 16, 1900. Carla gave birth to another boy, Giorgio, in September 1901, but he died of diphtheria on June 10, 1906. Then, that same year, Carla gave birth to their second daughter, Wanda.

Toscanini worked with many great singers and musicians throughout his career, but few impressed him as much as the Ukrainian-American pianist Vladimir Horowitz. They worked together a number of times and even recorded Brahms' second piano concerto and Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto with the NBC Symphony for RCA. Horowitz also became close to Toscanini and his family. In 1933, Wanda Toscanini married Horowitz, with the conductor's blessings and warnings. It was Wanda's daughter, Sonia, who was once photographed by Life playing with the conductor.

Despite the reported infidelities revealed in Toscanni's letters documented by Harvey Sachs, he remained married to Carla until she died on June 23, 1951.

Final years

With the help of his son Walter, Toscanini spent his remaining years editing tapes and transcriptions of his performances with the NBC Symphony. The "approved" recordings were issued by RCA Victor, which also has issued his recordings with the Scala Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His recordings with the BBC Symphony Orchestra were issued by EMI. Various companies have issued recordings of a number of broadcasts and concerts, that he did not officially approve, on compact discs. Among these are stereophonic recordings of his last two NBC broadcast concerts.

When he died of stroke in New York at the age of 89, his body was returned to Italy and was interred in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan.

In his will, he left his bâton to his protégée Herva Nelli.

Toscanini was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.


At La Scala, which had what was then the most modern stage lighting system installed in 1901 and an orchestral pit installed in 1907, Toscanini pushed through reforms in the performance of opera. He insisted on darkening the lights during performances. As his biographer Harvey Sachs wrote: "He believed that a performance could not be artistically successful unless unity of intention was first established among all the components: singers, orchestra, chorus, staging, sets, and costumes."

Toscanini favoured the traditional orchestral seating plan with the first violins and cellos on the left, the violas on the near right, and the second violins on the far right.


Toscanini conducted the world premieres of many operas, four of which have become part of the standard operatic repertoire: Pagliacci, La Bohème, La Fanciulla del West and Turandot. He also conducted the first Italian performances of Siegfried, Götterdämmerung, Salome, Pelléas et Mélisande, as well as the South American premieres of Tristan und Isolde and Madama Butterfly and the North American premiere of Boris Godunov.

* Pagliacci by Ruggiero Leoncavallo - Milan, May 21, 1892
* Guglielmo Swarten by Gnaga - Rome, November 15, 1892
* Savitri by Natale Canti - Bologna, December 1, 1894
* Emma Liona by Antonio Lozzi - Venice, May 24, 1895
* La Boheme by Giacomo Puccini - Turin, February 1, 1896
* Forza d'Amore by Arturo Buzzi-Peccia - Turin, March 6, 1897
* La Camargo by Enrico De Leva - Turin, March 2, 1898
* Anton by Cesare Galeotii - Milan, December 17, 1900
* Zaza by Ruggiero Leoncavallo - Milan, November 10, 1900
* Le Maschere by Pietro Mascagni - Milan, January 17, 1901
* Mosè by Don Lorenzo Perosi - Milan, November 16, 1901
* Germania by Alberto Franchetti - Milan, March 11, 1902
* Oceana by Antonio Smareglia - Milan, January 22, 1903
* Cassandra by Vittorio Gnecchi - Bologna, December 5, 1905
* Gloria by Francesco Cilea - Milan, April 15, 1907
* La Fanciulla del West by Giacomo Puccini - New York, December 10, 1910
* Madame Sans-Gène by Umberto Giordano - New York, January 25, 1915
* Debora e Jaele by Ildebrando Pizzetti - Milan, December 16, 1922
* Nerone by Arrigo Boito (completed by Toscanini and Vincenzo Tommasini) - Milan, May 1, 1924
* La Cena delle Beffe by Umberto Giordano - Milan, December 20, 1924
* I Cavalieri di Ekebu by Riccardo Zandonai - Milan, March 7, 1925
* Turandot by Giacomo Puccini - Milan, April 25, 1926
* Fra Gherado by Ildebrando Pizzetti - Milan, May 16, 1928
* Il Re by Umberto Giordano - Milan, January 12, 1929










This web page was last updated on: 16 December, 2008