was born in Parma, Emilia-Romagna, Italy and won a scholarship to the
local music conservatory, where he studied cello. He joined the orchestra
of an opera company, with which he toured South America in 1886. While
presenting Aida in Rio de Janeiro, the orchestra's conductor was booed
by the audience and forced to leave the podium. Although he had no conducting
experience, Toscanini was persuaded to take up the baton, and led a
magnificent performance completely from memory. Thus began his career
as a conductor at age 19.
Upon returning to
Italy, Toscanini self-effacingly returned to his chair in the cello
section, and participated as cellist in the world premiere of Verdi's
Otello (La Scala, 1887) under the composer's supervision. (Verdi, who
habitually complained that conductors never seemed interested in directing
his scores the way he had written them, was impressed by reports from
Arrigo Boito about Toscanini's ability to interpret his scores. The
composer was also impressed when Toscanini consulted him personally,
indicating a ritardando where it was not set out in the score and saying
that only a true musician would have felt the need to make that ritardando.)
Gradually the young
musician's reputation as an operatic conductor of unusual authority
and skill supplanted his cello career. In the following decade he consolidated
his career in Italy, entrusted with the world premieres 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 resident conductor at La Scala, Milan
and remained there until 1908, returning 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.
One of Toscanini's first recordings
Outside of Europe, he conducted 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; he and the
musicians were acclaimed by critics and audiences wherever they went.
As was also the case with the New York Philharmonic, Toscanini was the
first non-German conductor to appear at Bayreuth (1930–1931).
In the 1930s he conducted at the Salzburg Festival (1934–1937)
and the inaugural concert in 1936 of the 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
Strongly opposed to Italian fascism and German nazism, he left Europe
for the United States where the NBC Symphony Orchestra was 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. The acoustics
were very dry, until some remodeling in 1939 added a bit more reverberation
to the studio. (In 1950, the studio was further remodeled for television
productions; today it is used by NBC for Saturday Night Live. In 1980,
it was used by Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in
a special televised NBC concert honoring the legacy of Toscanini.)
Toscanini was often
criticized for neglecting American music; however, in 1938, he conducted
the world premieres of two orchestral works by Samuel Barber, Adagio
for Strings and Essay for Orchestra. In 1945, he led the orchestra in
Carnegie Hall recording sessions of the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde
Grofe and 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
took the orchestra on a "goodwill" tour of South America.
Later that year, Toscanini had a disagreement with NBC management over
their use of his musicians in other NBC broadcasts; Toscanini threatened
to move to CBS, until the dispute was resolved and he returned as music
director. At that time Leopold Stokowski began conducting some of the
concerts and continued to appear periodically as a guest conductor of
One of the more
remarkable broadcasts was in July 1942, when 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. Stokowski wanted to conduct the premiere
and there were a number of remarkable letters between the two conductors
(reproduced by Harvey Sachs in his biography) before Stokowski agreed
to let Toscanini have the privilege of conducting the first performance.
Unfortunately for New York listeners, a major thunderstorm virtually
obliterated the NBC radio signals there, but the performance was heard
elsewhere and preserved on transcription discs. It was later issued
by RCA Victor during the 1967 centennial boxed set tribute to Toscanini,
which included a number of NBC broadcasts never released on discs.
In 1943, he appeared
in a documentary film for the Office of War Information (OWI) directed
by Alexander Hammid, Hymn of the Nations, which featured Toscanini conducting
the NBC Symphony Orchestra performing the music of Verdi. Filmed in
NBC Studio 8-H, the orchestra performed the overture to La Forza del
Destino and Hymn of the Nations, the latter featuring tenor Jan Peerce
and the Westminster Choir.
In the summer of
1950, Toscanini led the orchestra on an extensive transcontinental tour.
It was during that tour that the famous photograph of Toscanini riding
the ski lift at Sun Valley, Idaho was taken. Some have had said that,
because of his broadcasts, tours, and recordings, Toscanini became the
first conducting "superstar" of modern mass media.
Toscanini relaxing in a San Francisco park during the 1950 tour (RCA
Victor).The NBC concerts continued in Studio 8-H until the fall of 1950,
when they were moved to Carnegie Hall, where many of the orchestra's
recording sessions had been held, due to the dry acoustics of Studio
8-H. The final broadcast performance, an all-Wagner program, took place
on April 4, 1954, in Carnegie Hall. During this concert Toscanini suffered
a memory lapse caused by a transient ischemic attack. He never conducted
live in public again. That June he participated in his final recording
sessions, remaking portions of two Verdi operas so they could be commercially
released. Toscanini was 87 years old when he retired. After his retirement,
the NBC Symphony was reorganized as the Symphony of the Air, making
regular performances and recordings, until it was disbanded in 1963.
On radio, he conducted
seven complete operas, including La Bohème and Otello, all of
which were eventually released on records and CD, thus finally enabling
the modern listening public to hear what an opera conducted by Toscanini
With the help of his son Walter, Toscanini spent his remaining years
editing tapes and transcriptions of his performances with the NBC Symphony.
The "approved" recordings were issued by RCA Victor, which
also has issued his recordings with the Scala Orchestra, the New York
Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. His recordings
with the BBC Symphony Orchestra were issued by EMI. Various companies
have issued recordings of a number of broadcasts and concerts, that
he did not officially approve, on compact discs. Among these are stereophonic
recordings of his last two NBC broadcast concerts.
Toscanini in rehearsal (RCA Victor)When he died in New York at the age
of 89, his body was returned to Italy and was interred in the Cimitero
Monumentale in Milan.
Toscanini was posthumously
awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.
At La Scala, which had what was then the most modern stage lighting
system installed in 1901 and an orchestral pit installed in 1907, Toscanini
pushed through reforms in the performance of opera. He insisted on darkening
the lights during performances. As his biographer Harvey Sachs wrote:
"He believed that a performance could not be artistically successful
unless unity of intention was first established among all the components:
singers, orchestra, chorus, staging, sets, and costumes."
the traditional orchestral seating plan with the first violins and cellos
on the left, the violas on the near right, and the second violins on
the far right.
Toscanini married Carla DeMartini on June 21, 1897, when she was not
yet 20 years old. Their first child, Walter, was born on March 19, 1898.
A daughter, Wally, was born on January 16, 1900. Carla gave birth to
another boy, Giorgio, in September 1901, but he died of diphtheria on
June 10, 1906. Then, that same year, Carla gave birth to their second
with many great singers and musicians throughout his career, but few
impressed him as much as the Ukrainian-American pianist Vladimir Horowitz.
They worked together a number of times and even recorded Brahms' second
piano concerto and Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto with the NBC Symphony
for RCA. Horowitz also became close to Toscanini and his family. In
1933, Wanda Toscanini married Horowitz, with the conductor's blessings
and warnings. It was Wanda's daughter, Sonia, who was once photographed
by Life playing with the conductor.
reported infidelity (documented by Harvey Sachs), he remained married
to Carla until she died on June 23, 1951.