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Arturo Toscanini (25 March 1867 – 16 January 1957) was an Italian conductor. Most musicians think he was the greatest conductor of his time. His fame was legendary: he was probably the first conductor to become a world superstar. He had an incredibly good memory and could remember every single note of the large number of works he conducted. He had a photographic memory so that he could remember what the pages looked like. Sometimes he found little mistakes in the scores which no one else had ever noticed. He had a very keen sense of hearing and knew exactly what each instrument was doing. He also had a fiery temperament and there are movies of him shouting angrily at his orchestra in rehearsals. In the early days of gramophone recordings he made some of the first recordings of famous orchestral works.
Toscanini was born in Parma in Italy. He won a scholarship to the local music conservatory, where he learned to play the cello. He joined the orchestra of an opera company and he toured South America with them in 1886. While performing Verdi’s opera Aida in Rio de Janeiro the audience did not like the conductor and they booed him so that he had to leave the stage. No one knew what to do at first, but then they persuaded Toscanini, who was only 19 years old, to put down his cello and conduct the orchestra. He did this brilliantly from memory (without looking at the music) and that night he became famous.
When he got back to Italy Toscanini returned to his chair in the cello section, and took part as cellist in the first performance of Verdi's Otello (La Scala, 1887). Verdi was there and was very impressed when Toscanini asked him about a mistake he noticed in the score.
Soon the young musician's reputation as a brilliant conductor of opera grew. He conducted the first performances 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 conductor at La Scala, Milan and he stayed there until 1908, but returned 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).
Toscanini started conducting outside Europe: 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 and always had great success. Toscanini was the first non-German conductor to conduct at Bayreuth (1930–1931). In the 1930s he conducted at the Salzburg Festival (1934–1937) and the first concert in 1936 of the newly formed 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
At first Toscanini agreed with Fascism but later, when the dictator Mussolini came to power, he became against it. He refused to perform an opera at La Scala and was beaten up, so he left Italy and went to the United States.
There was no orchestra for him in the USA so they made a new orchestra for him to conduct. This was the NBC Symphony Orchestra, 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.
Toscanini was often criticized for not performing much American music and contemporary music (music by living composers). However, in 1938, he conducted the world premieres of two orchestral works by Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra (Barber)|Essay for Orchestra. In 1945, he led the orchestra in Carnegie Hall recording sessions of American music including An American in Paris by George Gershwin. He also conducted broadcast performances of Copland's El Salon Mexico and Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with soloists Earl Wild and Benny Goodman and Concerto in F with pianist Oscar Levant, as well as music by other American composers, including two marches of John Philip Sousa.
In 1940, Toscanini had a disagreement with the NBC and he threatened to move to CBS. Although they agreed in the end it was this time that Leopold Stokowski began conducting some of the concerts and continued to appear sometimes as a guest conductor of the orchestra.
In July 1942 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. At first Stokowski wanted to conduct it but then he agreed that Toscanini would. Unfortunately for New York listeners, a big thunderstorm made it difficult to hear the music on the radio. Later the performance was reissued.
The orchestra went all over the world with Toscanini. In 1950 the NBC concerts moved to Carnegie Hall. In a programme of music by Richard Wagner in 1954 Toscanini was not well and forgot how the music went. He never conducted in public again after that.
Toscanini married Carla De Martini on June 21, 1897, when she was not yet 20 years old. They had four children although one died. He worked with many great singers and musicians, including the pianist Vladimir Horowitz who was a great friend. Horowitz married one of Toscanini’s daughters.
Many years after his death, in 1987, Toscanini was awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
- Arturo Toscanini official website