The Toscanini Wars
No maestro was more revered—or more reviled. On the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his birth, it’s time to give him a fair hearing.
By David Denby
What is the most familiar piece of classical music? The most thoroughly roasted chestnut? A piece so overplayed that it has passed into the automatic schlock-recognition zone of every American? Surely it is the final, galloping section of Rossini’s “William Tell” Overture—the Lone Ranger music, the musical image of righteousness on horseback. The music seems almost a joke. But there was one conductor who rode this piece as if his life, and the lives of his players, depended on it.
I remember my parents calling me out of my bedroom. The year was 1952, so I must have been eight. On our television, a tiny black-and-white screen sunk into a large mahogany console, an old man with a full head of white hair and an elegantly clipped mustache was beating time with his right arm and leading a furious performance of the horse music. I certainly knew the tune (“The Lone Ranger” TV series began running in 1949), but I didn’t know it could sound like this—the skittering string figures played with amazing speed and clean articulation, the entire piece brought off with precision and power, the muscular timpani strokes outlining phrases and asserting a blood-raising pressure under the crescendos. You can easily see this performance right now, exactly as I did, on YouTube: Arturo Toscanini conducting the NBC Symphony in the televised concert of March 15, 1952. If you listen with good headphones, the sound, though hard-edged, is solid and clear, and the astonishing performance comes through. Toscanini was then two weeks shy of his eighty-fifth birthday.
For many years, Arturo Toscanini was the pinnacle of musical excitement for classical-music lovers in this country—and also for many casual listeners, who enjoyed the sensation of having their pulse rate raised. He was at the center of an American experiment in art and commerce that now scarcely seems credible: late in the Depression, in 1937, RCA, which owned two NBC radio networks, created a virtuoso orchestra especially for him, and kept it going until 1954. The NBC Symphony gave concerts in New York that were broadcast on national radio, and then, starting in 1948, on national television.
RCA hyped Toscanini, and the media responded gratefully, some would say shamelessly: Toscanini was widely profiled and photographed, lionized and domesticated by Life and countless other publications. His NBC years were probably the high-water mark of classical music’s popularity in America. Some of that popularity was doubtless swelled by the excruciating and often condescending music explainers ubiquitous on the radio, in books, in schools, all eager to sell great music to the masses. Still, it was not unusual for earnest middle-class children to struggle with an upright at home, to sing Handel in a school chorus, to play Mendelssohn in the school orchestra. At the time, both amateur and professional musicians, listening to the NBC Symphony broadcasts, did their best to play along.