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,
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
of the storm. "Play that again," the Maestro commanded William Bell,
bass tuba player, who had just finished a solo. On Mr. Bell's face
was an expression of mixed worry and wonderment. Mr. Toscanini noticed
troubled anxious look.
"No, no, no," he said, with that
childlike smile of his that suffuses
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
heard these solo passages played with such a lovely tone."
There you have a side of Mr. Toscanini
that the boys have forgotten to
you about. For years newspaper and magazine writers (in the couple of
seasons the Maestro has even "made" the Broadway columns!) have doled
anecdotes concerning his terrible temper.
From these stories there emerged a
demoniacal little man with the
of a dozen prima donnas, a temperamental tyrant who, at the dropping of
stitch in the orchestral knitting, tore his hair, screamed at the top
his inexhaustible Latin lungs, doused his trembling players with
That's how you learned that, to the king
of conductors, a musician
an acid note is a "shoemaker," a "swine," an "assassin" or even
So far as they went the stories were
true. Mr. Toscanini, as all the
knows by now, is the world's No. 1 musical purist. Nothing but
satisfies him. He hates compromise, loathes the half-baked and
refuses to put up with "something almost as good."
As Stefan Zweig puts it: "In vain will
you remind him that the perfect,
absolute, are rarely attainable in this world; that, even to the
will, no more is possible than an approach to perfection.... His
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
not long ago, to fling a platinum watch to the floor, where, of course,
was smashed into fragments.
In the shadows of the studio that
afternoon lurked John F. Royal,
director of NBC. Next day he presented the Maestro with two $1 watches,
both inscribed, "For Rehearsals Only." Mr. Toscanini was so amused that
forgot to get angry with Mr. Royal for breaking the grimly enforced
barring all but orchestra members from rehearsals.
The sympathetic program director also
had the shattered platinum watch
together by what must have been a Toscanini among watchmakers. By that
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
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
hair surrounding a bald spot that turns purple in his passions, walked
a room where a girl of this reporter's acquaintance stood beside a
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
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
key to his character. He is, they say, the most modest man who ever
a man sincerely at a loss to understand the endless fuss that is made
Time and again he has told his friends
that he has no fonder desire
be able to walk about undisturbed, to saunter along the avenue, look
into shop-windows, do the thousand-and-one common little things that
permitted other human beings.
That same humility, that same incurable
bewilderment at public acclaim
have been apparent to all who ever attended a Toscanini concert, saw
the close of a superb interpretation bowing as one of the group of
and making deprecating gestures that seemed to say: "What you have
was a great score brought to life by these excellent musicians—why
At rehearsals he is the strictest of
disciplinarians but not a prima
conductor. He demands the utmost attention and concentration from his
brooks no disturbance or interruption. On the other hand, he is
to a fault, arrives fifteen minutes ahead of time, never asks for
privileges of any kind.
He has been described as the world's
most patient and impatient
director. In rehearsal he will take the men through a passage, a mere
phrase, innumerable times to achieve a certain tonal or dynamic effect.
he explodes when he feels that he is faced with stupidity or
Some famous conductors have added the B
of Barnum to the three immortal
of music—Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. Those wielders of the stick are
showmen as well as great musicians.
Not so Mr. Toscanini. In his platform
manner there is nothing
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
englamour the musical groundlings, but to convey his sharply defined
to his men and transmit to them the flaming enthusiasm that consumes
His motions are patiently sincere,
almost unconscious. He enters
his baton under his right arm, like a riding crop. Orchestra and
rise. He acknowledges this mark of respect and the tumultuous applause
a quick bow, an indulgent smile and a gesture that plainly say:
thanks, all this is very nice, you're a lot of kind, good children, but
heaven's sake let's get down to business."
While waiting a few seconds for
listeners and players to settle
he rests his baton against his right shoulder, like a sword. Then the
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,
baton indicates the type of bowing the conductor wants from the
violas or cellos.
The left hand, with the long thumb
separate from the other fingers, is
orchestra's guide to the Maestro's interpretative desires. It wheedles
tone from the men. It coaxes, hushes, demands increased volume. It
trembling, to the heart to ask for feeling, closes into a fist to get
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
trumpeters and trombonists.
After a concert, keyed to feverish
excitement, he often plays over
scores of every number that appeared on the program. Then he may lie
all night, worrying over two possible tempi in which he might have
some passage—shadings in rhythm that the average listener would not,
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
Mr. Toscanini does not eat before a performance, and his family wait
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
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
to others what satisfaction they may derive from publicly bandying
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
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
He has always conducted from memory
because he believes that having the
score in his head gives a conductor greater freedom and authority to
his musical will upon his men. At rehearsals the score is kept on a
a few feet from the Maestro. From time to time he consults it to verify
point at dispute. He has never been known to be wrong.
His memory is, of course, phenomenal.
Anything he has once seen, read
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
pianist on his American debut in 1911. Mr. Toscanini remembered it as
Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto; the friend maintained it was the
The Maestro said: "I recall the concert
very well. He was soloist with
Philharmonic." And he reeled off all the other compositions on that
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
had correctly remembered the purely orchestral numbers as well.
He is a profound student, not only of
music but of all available
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
in a room littered with books on the opera, books on Wagner, volumes of
The Maestro, who has been coming to this
country since 1908, speaks
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
men in perfect, idiomatic French, German and Spanish as well as English
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
the speedometer began hovering around 78. "What's the matter with you?"
Maestro wanted to know. "We're only jogging along." Whenever possible
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
hotel, but the Maestro always brings his beloved knickknacks—his
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
glass of chianti do him nicely for dinner.
He begrudges the time spent in eating
and sleeping. Like the child he
heart, he loves staying up late. Occasionally he takes a nocturnal
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
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
hour ..." Then he led the party to the most conspicuous spot in the
Mr. Toscanini wanted a nip of brandy,
but the innkeeper insisted that
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
Turning white at the first sip, Mr.
Toscanini drained his glass at a
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
A man can do anything."