The convergence of two events has shaped my life as a music listener over the past few months. The first was a significant birthday, after which I decided to reacquaint myself with the classical records—many of them long-playing vinyl—that I’ve lived with over the decades. I resolved to spend less time listening to Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker, and the songs Frank Sinatra recorded with Tommy Dorsey in the early 1940s, and celebrate, instead, Haydn and Brahms and Debussy.
As if somebody up there took heed of my resolution, I was made aware that RCA Victor had recently released its archive of Arturo Toscanini recordings, previously available on individual compact discs. Now gathered together were 17 years of his performances with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, from 1937 until his retirement in 1954, plus a number of those previously made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, and the BBC Orchestra. For 72 discs in all, plus a video of Toscanini conducting, the selling price is an amazingly low $120. (Purchased as they appeared individually in the early 1990s, the price tag would have been more like $1,200.)
A day or so after I placed the order, the discs appeared in a large shoe box—along with a pocket‑sized, elegantly produced handbook containing a discography, short essays by critics, and photos of the great man at work. I was in business.
I heard Toscanini conduct just once, when I was 15, at an NBC Symphony Sunday afternoon program consisting of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (What I mainly remember of it was my shameful tendency to doze off after too many activities during a short New York vacation.) Toscanini had begun to conduct the symphony at the invitation of David Sarnoff, head of RCA, for a series of weekly broadcasts; some were later televised. He would have full authority over the repertory, the soloists (a number of operas were sung), and whether the performance merited a thumbs-up for release on record.
Toscanini was then 70 years old, time for a lesser man to have retired, after concluding 12 years with the New York Philharmonic. Before that, in the early years of the 20th century, he spent decades as a conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, as well as with various orchestras in Europe and America. Here was a man who, if it can be believed, conducted Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique Symphony only four years after it was written and Brahms’s Tragic Overture in 1896, when Brahms was still alive. So to begin a new operation in 1937, and continue with it for 17 years, retiring when he was 87, is one of the great heroic stories of artistic achievement.
I began listening to the discs in a serendipitous manner. Deferring the operas till later on, I let fancy and impulse direct me where they would, with one performance suggesting another. My point of entry, for no good reason, was Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, an early work not much performed and not listened to by me in years—but absolutely delightful to hear under the crisp forcefulness of Toscanini’s direction. This was followed by an even more brilliant work: Mendelssohn’s incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Then came Mendelssohn’s Octet, a teenage work with a brilliant Scherzo that was expanded in Toscanini’s recording by many added fiddles and articulated with breathtaking intensity.
The stereo in my living room consists of, among other components, a new, powerful amplifier and two ancient, large KLH speakers—top of the market in their day, now looking a bit like old elephants. One of them has mysteriously died, but the other is sufficient to play the monaural recordings from a time when stereo was but a dream on the horizon. The sound, as Toscanini and my equipment deliver it, is on the harsh side, shrill at times, but absolutely electric in its tension, detail, and forward impulsion.
Many critics, along with some of the musicians who played under Toscanini, have put words to the propulsive excitement of his performances. A member of the NBC Symphony’s bass section, David Walter, spoke of the large, sweeping movements of the right arm as one of the means for getting the orchestra intensely involved. Walter’s teacher, Fred Zinneman, onetime member of the Philadelphia Orchestra, said that Toscanini’s beat was very clear and precise and very beautiful; he had the most elegant way of holding and moving that stick. So it was almost impossible to make a mistake if one watched him.
Another musician, William Carboni, testified to how much Toscanini’s terrifying demeanor on the stand elicited from the musicians: “That red face—that violence—it could kill anyone. It was like nature—like a raging sea or a thunderstorm: it’s bigger than you, and you don’t buck it—you have to go along with it.” These and other testimonies are from The Toscanini Musicians Knew (1967) by B. H. Haggin, who himself had a try at describing Toscanini’s conducting, writing that it exhibited “cohesive tension from one sound to the next . . . changes of sonority and pace that were always in right proportion to what preceded and followed,” an effect Haggin called “plastic continuity.” The result was an ideal view of the work based on the composer’s score and on its performance markings.
One of the listening activities this collection tempts one to engage in is comparing different performances of the same work. For example, we are given three different recordings of Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony—from 1939, 1949, and 1952—and the scrupulous listener may decide which is preferable, which clarifies the most details. One of the liveliest books on the conductor is The Toscanini Legacy (1970) by the English critic Spike Hughes, who is very stern about moments when this or that performance shows Toscanini at less than his best. (Toscanini’s own attitude toward his performances was one of “relentless self‑dissatisfaction.”) This comparative activity is probably not essential for a nonprofessional listener intent on refreshing his or her ear, not just in bringing to life relatively unfamiliar pieces like Mozart’s early Divertimento (K. 287) but, more significantly, in taking the measure once more of the 19th century composers—Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Berlioz, Wagner, Verdi—whose work the conductor invariably makes new.
During the vinyl era, I purchased at modest prices many Toscanini albums, often unfortunately souped up with stereo sound that made for unnecessary racket. These LPs have moldered on the shelf, particularly the ones that include performances of lighter classics such as The Skater’s Waltz (Waldteufel), The Moldau (Smetana), Rossini’s overture to William Tell, and Sibelius’s Finlandia—not to speak of triumphant renditions of Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” and El Capitan. (It has been noted that when Toscanini toured the South with his orchestra, they played “Dixie,” something that, however politically incorrect it now seems, I would like to have heard.)
One of the musicians interviewed by Haggin referred affectionately to such lighter pieces as “junk stuff,” but tags The Skater’s Waltz as standing out in his memory of great moments. Something like that happened to me on hearing Finlandia for the first time in many years. The piece takes about nine minutes to perform, seven of which are junk indeed: Sibelius at his windiest and most pretentious. Then, suddenly, a break—and the great, beautiful theme announces itself, as pure and ice‑cold as one imagines things are in Finland. I would expect to be stirred by this or that second subject in a symphonic movement of Beethoven or Brahms, but was unprepared for this burst of noble utterance.
Toscanini can sometimes be heard singing along with the orchestra or singers, especially in rehearsals (none of which, unfortunately, are included in this collection). One of these instances occurred in the third act of La Bohème, when, as one of his favorite singers, Jan Peerce, noted, Toscanini sang along with him. Peerce observed that some people said it spoiled the record; for him, it made the record:
Imagine hearing Toscanini—not planning it, just naturally singing faintly in the background . . . knowing the guy’s blood is on that record, and some shmo says, “That spoils it.” They don’t know what inspires people.
In “The American Scholar,” Emerson says, with students in mind, that great books are for nothing except to inspire. I feel sorry for my own students who, not brought up with classical music, will never hear these performances. For me, there is no better word than “inspire” to name the way they can fill someone, perhaps listening from a comfortable chair in the living room, with a sense of heroic possibilities.
William H. Pritchard is Henry Clay Folger professor of English at Amherst College.