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From Life of Arturo Toscanini

By Harriette Brower

The sharp rap of Arturo Toscanini's baton that cuts the ear like a whiplash brought the rehearsal of the NBC Symphony Orchestra to a sudden, shocking stop. Overtones from chords of Wagner's "Faust Overture," killed in mid-career, vibrated through the throat-gripping silence.

The men stared at their music, bowed their heads a little in anticipation of the storm. "Play that again," the Maestro commanded William Bell, the bass tuba player, who had just finished a solo. On Mr. Bell's face there was an expression of mixed worry and wonderment. Mr. Toscanini noticed the troubled anxious look.

"No, no, no," he said, with that childlike smile of his that suffuses his whole face with an irresistible light. "There is nothing wrong. Play it again; please, play it again, just for me. It is so beautiful. I have never heard these solo passages played with such a lovely tone."

There you have a side of Mr. Toscanini that the boys have forgotten to tell you about. For years newspaper and magazine writers (in the couple of seasons the Maestro has even "made" the Broadway columns!) have doled out anecdotes concerning his terrible temper.

From these stories there emerged a demoniacal little man with the tantrums of a dozen prima donnas, a temperamental tyrant who, at the dropping of a stitch in the orchestral knitting, tore his hair, screamed at the top of his inexhaustible Latin lungs, doused his trembling players with streams of blistering invective.

That's how you learned that, to the king of conductors, a musician playing an acid note is a "shoemaker," a "swine," an "assassin" or even something completely unprintable.

So far as they went the stories were true. Mr. Toscanini, as all the world knows by now, is the world's No. 1 musical purist. Nothing but perfection satisfies him. He hates compromise, loathes the half-baked and mediocre, refuses to put up with "something almost as good."

As Stefan Zweig puts it: "In vain will you remind him that the perfect, the absolute, are rarely attainable in this world; that, even to the sublimest will, no more is possible than an approach to perfection.... His glorious unwisdom makes it impossible to recognize this wise dispensation."

His rages, then, are the spasms of pain of a perfectionist wounded by imperfection. It was his glorious unwisdom that caused him, at a rehearsal not long ago, to fling a platinum watch to the floor, where, of course, it was smashed into fragments.

In the shadows of the studio that afternoon lurked John F. Royal, program director of NBC. Next day he presented the Maestro with two $1 watches, both inscribed, "For Rehearsals Only." Mr. Toscanini was so amused that he forgot to get angry with Mr. Royal for breaking the grimly enforced rule barring all but orchestra members from rehearsals.

The sympathetic program director also had the shattered platinum watch put together by what must have been a Toscanini among watchmakers. By that time the incident had become such a joke that the orchestra men dared to give the Maestro a chain, of material and construction guaranteed to be unbreakable, to attach the brace of Ingersolls to the dark, roomy jacket which for years he has worn at rehearsals.

Less than a week later that same choleric director, with the burning deep-set black eyes, the finely chiseled features and the halo of silver hair surrounding a bald spot that turns purple in his passions, walked into a room where a girl of this reporter's acquaintance stood beside a canary cage, making a rather successful attempt at whistling, in time and tune with the bird.

For a moment the man who can make music like no one else on earth listened to the girl and her pet. Then he sighed and said:

"Oh, if I could only whistle!"

Those who know Mr. Toscanini intimately find in those six simple words the key to his character. He is, they say, the most modest man who ever lived, a man sincerely at a loss to understand the endless fuss that is made about him.

Time and again he has told his friends that he has no fonder desire than to be able to walk about undisturbed, to saunter along the avenue, look into shop-windows, do the thousand-and-one common little things that are permitted other human beings.

That same humility, that same incurable bewilderment at public acclaim must have been apparent to all who ever attended a Toscanini concert, saw him at the close of a superb interpretation bowing as one of the group of players and making deprecating gestures that seemed to say: "What you have heard was a great score brought to life by these excellent musicians—why applaud me?"

At rehearsals he is the strictest of disciplinarians but not a prima donna conductor. He demands the utmost attention and concentration from his men, brooks no disturbance or interruption. On the other hand, he is punctual to a fault, arrives fifteen minutes ahead of time, never asks for special privileges of any kind.

He has been described as the world's most patient and impatient orchestral director. In rehearsal he will take the men through a passage, a mere phrase, innumerable times to achieve a certain tonal or dynamic effect. But he explodes when he feels that he is faced with stupidity or stubbornness.

Some famous conductors have added the B of Barnum to the three immortal B's of music—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Those wielders of the stick are great showmen as well as great musicians.

Not so Mr. Toscanini. In his platform manner there is nothing calculated for theatrical effect. He doesn't care in the least what he looks like "from out front." His gestures are designed not to impress, enrapture or englamour the musical groundlings, but to convey his sharply defined wishes to his men and transmit to them the flaming enthusiasm that consumes him.

His motions are patiently sincere, almost unconscious. He enters carrying his baton under his right arm, like a riding crop. Orchestra and audience rise. He acknowledges this mark of respect and the tumultuous applause with a quick bow, an indulgent smile and a gesture that plainly say: "Thanks, thanks, all this is very nice, you're a lot of kind, good children, but for heaven's sake let's get down to business."

While waiting a few seconds for listeners and players to settle themselves he rests his baton against his right shoulder, like a sword. Then the sharp rap. The Maestro closes his eyes. Another rap, sharper than the first. Oppressive, electrical silence. He lifts the baton as if saluting the orchestra. The concert begins.

As a rule the right hand gives the tempo and tracks down every smallest melody, wherever it may hide in the score. In passages for the strings, the baton indicates the type of bowing the conductor wants from the violins, violas or cellos.

The left hand, with the long thumb separate from the other fingers, is the orchestra's guide to the Maestro's interpretative desires. It wheedles the tone from the men. It coaxes, hushes, demands increased volume. It moves, trembling, to the heart to ask for feeling, closes into a fist to get sound and fury from the brasses, thunder from the drums. Through it all, the Maestro talks, sings, whistles and blows out his cheeks for the benefit of trumpeters and trombonists.

After a concert, keyed to feverish excitement, he often plays over piano scores of every number that appeared on the program. Then he may lie awake all night, worrying over two possible tempi in which he might have taken some passage—shadings in rhythm that the average listener would not, could not discern.

He is never satisfied with himself. Some years ago, when he was still conducting at the Scala in Milan, he came home one night after the opera. Mr. Toscanini does not eat before a performance, and his family wait with the evening meal until he joins them.

As he stepped into the hall he saw his wife and daughters walking into the dining room. "Where are you going?" he asks them. "In to supper, of course," one of them told him. The Maestro exploded: "What? After THAT performance? Oh, no, you're not. It shall never be said of my family that they could eat after such a horrible show!" All of them, including the great man himself, went to bed without supper that night.

It stands to reason that a man of this type detests personal publicity. The interviews he has granted in the fifty-six years of his career—Mr. Toscanini, who is seventy-five, began conducting at nineteen—can be counted on the fingers of one hand. He feels and has often told friends that all he has to say he can say in musical terms; that he gladly leaves to others what satisfaction they may derive from publicly bandying words.

But his frequent brushes with news photographers don't come under this head. The existence of numerous fine camera studies of the Maestro proves that he doesn't dislike being photographed. Nor does he dislike photographers. But he hates flashlights because they hurt his eyes.

This has bolstered the popular notion—based on the fact that he conducts from memory—that his sight is so poor as to amount almost to blindness.

Mr. Toscanini is neither blind nor half-blind. He does not use a strong magnifying glass to study his scores, note by note. He is near-sighted, but not more so than millions of others, and reads with the aid of ordinary spectacles.

He has always conducted from memory because he believes that having the score in his head gives a conductor greater freedom and authority to impose his musical will upon his men. At rehearsals the score is kept on a stand a few feet from the Maestro. From time to time he consults it to verify a point at dispute. He has never been known to be wrong.

His memory is, of course, phenomenal. Anything he has once seen, read and particularly, heard, he not only remembers but is unable to forget. The other day he and a friend were discussing the concerto played by a certain pianist on his American debut in 1911. Mr. Toscanini remembered it as Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto; the friend maintained it was the Second.

The Maestro said: "I recall the concert very well. He was soloist with the Philharmonic." And he reeled off all the other compositions on that program of twenty-seven years ago.

To settle the argument the skeptical friend called the office of the Philharmonic. Mr. Toscanini had been right about the Beethoven Concerto and had correctly remembered the purely orchestral numbers as well.

He is a profound student, not only of music but of all available literature bearing upon it. A music critic who visited him in Salzburg a few years ago, just before he was to conduct Wagner's "Die Meistersinger," found him in a room littered with books on the opera, books on Wagner, volumes of the composer's correspondence.

The Maestro, who has been coming to this country since 1908, speaks better English than most of us. He knows his English literature and is in the sometimes disconcerting habit of quoting by the yard from the works of Shakespeare, Keats, Shelley and Swinburne.

Almost as great a linguist as he is a musician, he coaxes and curses his men in perfect, idiomatic French, German and Spanish as well as English and Italian.

He likes reading, listening to the radio—he is fond of good jazz—and driving out in the country. He loves speed. An American friend who some years ago accompanied him on a motor trip from Milan to Venice groaned when the speedometer began hovering around 78. "What's the matter with you?" the Maestro wanted to know. "We're only jogging along." Whenever possible he flies.

Since 1926 he and Mrs. Toscanini have occupied an apartment in the Astor—the same suite of four smallish rooms. The place is furnished by the hotel, but the Maestro always brings his beloved knickknacks—his miniature of Beethoven, his Wagner and Verdi manuscripts, his family photographs.

He has no valet and dislikes being pawed by barbers. He shaves himself, and Mrs. Toscanini or one of the daughters cuts his hair. He eats very little—two plates of soup (preferably minestrone), a piece of bread and a glass of chianti do him nicely for dinner.

He begrudges the time spent in eating and sleeping. Like the child he is at heart, he loves staying up late. Occasionally he takes a nocturnal prowl.

The other night, after a concert, he asked a friend to take him somewhere—"some place where they won't know me and make a fuss over me."

The friend took him to a little place in the Village. The moment Mr. Toscanini entered, the proprietor dashed forward, bowed almost to the ground and said: "Maestro, I am greatly honored ... I'll never forget this hour ..." Then he led the party to the most conspicuous spot in the room.

Mr. Toscanini wanted a nip of brandy, but the innkeeper insisted that he try some very special wine of the house's own making. From a huge jug he poured a brownish-red, viscous liquid into a couple of tumblers. The Maestro's companion says it tasted like a mixture of castor oil, hair tonic and pitch.

Turning white at the first sip, Mr. Toscanini drained his glass at a gulp. Outside, his friend asked him: "Why did you drink that vile stuff?"

The Maestro said: "The poor fellow meant well, and I didn't want to refuse. A man can do anything."