Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Toscanini: The Maestro (Peter Rosen Productions/Bravo, 1985)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Toscanini — The Maestro, a bonus DVD included in the 71-CD boxed set of all Arturo Toscanini’s major recordings as conductor (mostly with the NBC Symphony but also containing the handful of records he made with other orchestras: the La Scala Orchestra of Milan in 1920, the New York Philharmonic in 1926-1936, the BBC Symphony Orchestra from 1937-39 and the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1941-42; the criteria for inclusion seemed to be either studio recordings or broadcasts released on record during Toscanini’s lifetime and with his approval), which turned out to be a film made by Peter Rosen in 1985 for the Bravo cable-TV network, at a time when Bravo was still trying to be a “special” channel for culture mavens and before it got homogenized into the same gluey mix of standard TV formulae just about every other cable channel has become. (I once read an article about the consultant who wreaked havoc on every non-premium cable channel — I forget her name but I recall she was a woman and I’m pretty sure her first name was Debbie — who successively got hired by Arts & Entertainment, Lifetime and any channel with any distinctive flavoring and rewired them to the same putrid formula, and the fact that the article actually presented her with approval made the story even more disgusting.) The 1985 production date is also important because it meant that Rosen was shooting his film at a time when musicians who had played under Toscanini in the NBC Symphony were still alive and available for interviews — though their comments were pretty predictable: they said that Toscanini could be mean and volatile during rehearsals but he could also be gentle and caring.

Much of what we think we know about Toscanini comes from the incredible hype NBC and its parent company, RCA, put out about him during the 17-year run of the NBC Symphony broadcasts, and some bits of the legend still cling in Rosen’s presentation, including the argument that Toscanini was the only 20th century conductor who became a real celebrity (what about Leopold Stokowski? Herbert von Karajan? Leonard Bernstein?) — and much of the writing about Toscanini since his death (including Joseph Horowitz’s book Understanding Toscanini, to which one imdb.com contributor suggests this documentary was an answer to) has been an attempt to unpack the myth and argue that there are actually ways to play the standard symphonic repertoire other than the generally fast, taut, high-tension way Toscanini liked to play it. Some pro-Toscanini critics have argued that we think of Toscanini as that sort of conductor — emphasizing speed and precision over poetry and eloquence — because that’s what’s on most of his records, especially those with the NBC Symphony (which is the bulk of his legacy because until he started conducting the NBC Symphony in 1937 he recorded only sporadically, though the few records of him pre-NBC that exist reveal a more expansive and less obsessed conductor). One quirk about Toscanini is that, while most long-lived conductors (he worked until he was 87 and died just a few days short of his 90th birthday) get slower as they age, he got faster (as did his bitter enemy, Willem Mengelberg; for a time in the late 1920’s they shared the job of principal conductor with the New York Philharmonic despite their diametrically opposed conceptions of how to conduct — Mengelberg heavily edited his scores and went for rapid gear changes in the middle of a piece; Toscanini meticulously rehearsed and expected his musicians to play it pretty much the same way every time — which must have made the Philharmonic players feel whipsawed between two quite different approaches from the podium), and at least one recent article in Fanfare suggested that as he became older he became less patient with “expression,” with any sense of deviation from the composers’ score markings.

The show made most of the major points about Toscanini’s upbringing (born a poor kid in Parma, albeit to a musical family, who went to the Parma Conservatory at age 9 and lived in dormitory conditions), his early efforts at composition (which he abandoned, according to Rosen, because once he heard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde he felt he’d never be able to write anything nearly as good and so he decided not to try), and his dramatic conducting debut when, at age 19, he was deputized to fill in for an indisposed conductor during a South American tour of an opera company performing Aïda (at a time when it was still relatively new music, just 15 years after its premiere). Rosen makes a big deal about how much Toscanini reformed the world of opera — ironically as opera was receding from mainstream popularity (which Rosen variously dates from the death of Verdi in 1901 and the death of Puccini in 1924) and becoming an elitist medium — and refused to countenance the slapdash productions he’d grown up with in Italy. He also notes that Toscanini’s repertoire ranged all over the European map — at a time when conductors usually specialized in the music of their home country, Toscanini not only conducted Verdi in Italy but Wagner in Germany (when he became the first non-German conductor at the Bayreuth Festival in 1930 the orchestra musicians derisively referred to him as “Der Italiener”) and — though this isn’t mentioned in the film — led the Italian premiere of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande at La Scala in 1908 (just six years after the world premiere under André Messager in Paris), an opera that still has only a toehold in the standard repertory even though Debussy’s orchestral works are mainstays of the modern symphonic repertoire.

There are attempts to “humanize” Toscanini, showing home movies of him at his island villa in Italy (where he continued to live until 1938 even after the Italian Fascists had driven him off the symphony and opera stages of his home country — more on that later) with his family and friends, but even there he seems to have been gripped by the driven intensity with which he did everything; the narration by Alexander Scourby (32 years after his marvelous performance as the all-powerful corrupt gangster/city boss in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat and 21 years after he narrated a 45 rpm tribute/memorial record to John F. Kennedy) explains that while on his island Toscanini did hikes and did them faster than people one-half, one-third or one-quarter his age. Just about every shot of Toscanini in this film, whether taken from the famous black-and-white stills of him by Robert Hupka (credited as a consultant) with his leonine white-haired head looming out over a stark field of black, or TV footage of his concerts (in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s some of the NBC Symphony concerts — including his spectacular concert performance of Verdi’s Aïda with Herva Nelli in the title role, Richard Tucker as Radamès and Eva Gustafson magisterial as Amneris — were televised, and later they were prepared for video with the original crappy TV soundtracks erased and replaced by the professional RCA Victor recordings of the broadcasts) or even the home movies, shows Toscanini intensely serious, glowering, as if whatever he was doing at the moment was the most monumentally important task any member of the human race had ever been given to perform, and therefore neither he nor anybody he was responsible for could dare screw it up.

Toscanini’s principled fight against Fascism and Nazism is one of the most ennobling parts of his biography. This film acknowledges that in 1919 he supported Benito Mussolini (and even ran for the Italian Parliament on Mussolini’s ticket), but that when Mussolini still proclaimed himself a socialist. (The documentary “explains” Toscanini’s Leftism by saying he got it from his father, a soldier in Giuseppe Garibaldi’s revolutionary army in the 19th century which attempted to unify Italy as a republic — not, as eventually happened, as a monarchy.) After Mussolini led a Right-wing march on Rome in 1922 and took over the Italian government, Toscanini consistently opposed him (unlike people like Puccini, who eagerly embraced the new regime; though the world lost a lot from Puccini’s early death in 1924, including a coherent ending to Turandot, Puccini’s reputation probably gained from not having lived long enough to write the patriotic potboilers Mussolini wanted from Italy’s composers and got from Puccini’s longer-lived contemporary, Pietro Mascagni) and eventually suffered from it. He and Mussolini had a long-standing feud over Toscanini’s refusal, when La Scala in Milan was under his artistic directorship in the 1920’s, to display photos of Mussolini and the Italian king (who had essentially turned himself into a figurehead for the Fascist regime — to the point where in 1946, asked whether the monarchy should continue in a post-Fascist Italy, the Italian people voted overwhelmingly against it) or to allow the fascist hymn “Giovinezza” (with its line “Giuro fede al Mussolini!”) to be played on stage, as the fascist regime required every April 21 (the official birthday of the city of Rome and a Fascist-proclaimed holiday). Sometimes Toscanini ensured that the theatre would be closed on April 21 when “Giovinezza” was supposed to be played; sometimes he would compromise and allow a band to come on stage and play the offensive song without his involvement.

By 1929 working in Italy had become so intolerable that he gave up the directorship of La Scala and came back to Italy only for special concerts; in 1931 he was invited to give a benefit for his friend, composer Giuseppe Martucci, but on his way into the theatre to rehearse a gang of Fascist thugs beat him up and injured his arm so badly that for the Bayreuth Festival in 1931 (his second and last year conducting there) he had to lead Wagner’s Parsifal — all five hours and five minutes of it — with his arm in a sling. Toscanini was invited to Bayreuth in the first place by Wagner’s son Siegfried in 1930, the last year of his (and his mother Cosima’s) life, and he played there for two years; at the time the tradition at Bayreuth was that the festival would take place two years in a row, then take off a year, and by the time the festival was to resume it was 1933, Hitler had taken power in Germany, Siegfried’s widow Winifred (a huge supporter of Hitler and the Nazis, whose sponsorship had done much to make them respectable) pleaded with him to stay, but Toscanini said no way, he wasn’t going to show up and ignore the evils of Hitler’s party just to conduct Wagner. When Walter Legge, music critic and later record producer for British HMV and Columbia (eventually merged into EMI), reviewed the 1933 Bayreuth festival he noted that Winifred Wagner and the Nazi regime were trying to make a virtue out of the withdrawals of Toscanini and many of the Jewish artists who had previously sung at Bayreuth (notably soprano Lotte Lehmann and basses Alexander Kipnis and Emmanuel List) by proclaiming the festival to be one of “German Artists for German Art.” Legge noted the “hundreds of cancellations” from all over the world that followed Toscanini’s withdrawal, sneered that the “German Artists for German Art” policy was “a fear-induced protection of inferior home products against superior foreign competition, and wrote that “the performances of Die Meistersinger and Parsifal were considerably inferior to those that most of us expected when, five or six months ago, we bought our tickets. The fault is not on Toscanini’s side — no one can blame him for his withdrawal.”

In 1934 he accepted an offer from the producers of the Salzburg festival to build their enterprise into a sort of anti-Bayreuth, performing works by Mozart, Verdi and other composers as well as Wagner and inviting all the singers who by nationality or ethnicity or religion were no longer welcome on Germany’s stages — and that lasted for four years, producing some galvanic performances that can still (more or less) be heard on lousy-sounding short-wave monitor discs and dubs from Selenophon recordings (the Selenophon was a recording machine that cut a phonograph-like groove on a strip of film). Then Hitler annexed Austria (his native country) in 1938 and Toscanini ended up at a smaller festival in the Swiss city of Lucerne when he wasn’t in the U.S. conducting the NBC Symphony — from which he walked out during the 1940-41 season (Stokowski replaced him) after he realized “his” musicians were being pulled out of his rehearsals to play on other NBC broadcasts, though he returned on February 22, 1941 to conduct a benefit concert for the American Red Cross. He made this an all-Wagner concert — yet another gesture of defiance to the fascists; it was obviously Toscanini’s way of saying to Hitler, “You don’t own Wagner. Wagner belongs to all the world, including the people who are fighting you for the ideals of peace, justice and humanity” — and invited Lauritz Melchior and Helen Traubel as guest stars to sing incandescent excerpts from Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung that are our only documentary evidence of Toscanini conducting music from the Ring with singers. In 1943 Toscanini made a documentary for the U.S. Office of War Information film in which he led the NBC Symphony in Hymn of the Nations, a Verdi-Boïto potboiler based on different countries’ national anthems, to which Toscanini changed the line “Italia, mia patria” — “Italy, my fatherland” — to “Italia, mia tradita” — “Italy, my betrayed.” He also added the “Internationale,” representing the Soviet Union, and “The Star-Spangled Banner” to the end of the piece so it would include the anthems of all the major countries fighting World War II on the Allied side, and as his final fuck-you to the Fascists he hired Jewish tenor Jan Peerce as the soloist. (The currently circulating DVD versions of this film omit the section containing the “Internationale” — ah, the ever-changing horizons of political correctness! — but the audio CD’s of the performance include it.) James Agee reviewed this film for The Nation and said, “[T]he face is as good a record of human existence somewhere near its utmost as we are likely to see.”

Toscanini — the Maestro is as good a defense of Toscanini as we are likely to see on film, “printing the legend” and less answering than just ignoring the criticisms that have been made of him since his death and since the NBC hype machine surrounding him that proclaimed him the greatest conductor of all time shut down. The criticisms are that he conducted everything too fast, with too strict a sense of rhythm, and he didn’t let the music “breathe” the way looser, more improvisatory conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler did. (In 1936, when Toscanini stepped down as conductor of the New York Philharmonic, he asked the orchestra’s board to hire Furtwängler as his replacement, perhaps not only admiring Furtwängler as a musician but hoping to get him away from his impossible situation as a basically decent man forced to suck up to the Nazis in public time and time again — but the Jewish members of the board had a hissy-fit and said under no circumstances would they allow a Nazi, which Furtwängler technically wasn’t since he never joined the Nazi Party, to conduct the New York Philharmonic.) In the 1970’s a lot of young conductors glommed on to Furtwängler as a sort of anti-Toscanini — leading to a lot of long, slow performances of core 19th century repertoire by people like Daniel Barenboim (listen to his performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and compare it to Furtwängler’s 1951 Bayreuth recording and you will hear the difference between a genius and a mediocrity who’s trying to copy him) — and then in the late 1980’s the pendulum started swinging again, this time under the lash of the “historically informed performance” movement, as Roger Norrington recorded an influential cycle of the Beethoven symphonies that used small, chamber-sized orchestras, period instruments and zippy tempi (Norrington’s Beethoven Ninth took a little over an hour versus the 1951 Furtwängler’s 78 minutes). After not having heard them for years, I got a download of Toscanini’s 1950’s Beethoven recordings a few years ago and was amazed at how contemporary they sounded; how they captured the drama and inner life of the scores even if they came short on passages requiring profundity (like the first movement of the Ninth, which Furtwängler in Bayreuth made a deeply moving, spiritual experience and Toscanini seemed to be rushing through to get to the “good stuff” at the end, in which he faced and mastered the technical challenge of pulling together orchestra, chorus and vocal soloists, at which Furtwängler’s Bayreuth Ninth had fallen short).

There are other aspects to Toscanini — The Maestro, including its rather odd treatment of Toscanini’s womanizing; the film mentions one notorious affair he had with Metropolitan Opera soprano (and major movie star, even though it was still the silent era!) Geraldine Farrar, which allegedly led to his abrupt departure for Italy in 1915 (elsewhere I’ve read it had to do with the Met’s wanting to allow encores in the middle of opera performances, a practice Toscanini detested, along with a factor that did get mentioned here: Italy’s involvement in World War I — ironically, on the same side as the British, French and ultimately the Americans — and Toscanini’s desire to be part of the war effort, which he achieved by leading a military band at the front and actually winning a decoration for having played under fire and inspired a regiment of the Italian army to take a crucially important hill). It doesn’t mention that, despite being in a long-term marriage (to Carla DeMartinis, daughter of an Italian merchant and the woman who bore Toscanini his four acknowledged children), Toscanini, like such other musical geniuses as Richard Wagner and Duke Ellington, did not believe that marriage = monogamy. Indeed, his first departure from La Scala in 1903 got embroiled in sexual as well as musical politics; the following year, when Puccini’s Madama Butterfly literally got booed off the stage at its premiere at La Scala in 1904 (with Cleofonte Campanini having the unenviable task of replacing Toscanini as conductor), the audience was well aware that the soprano in the title role, Rosina Storchio, had been having an affair with Toscanini. When her costume blew over her head in the second act, a prankster in the audience yelled out, “Butterfly is pregnant! Ah, the little Toscanini!” Storchio actually was pregnant with Toscanini’s child at the time, though she had a miscarriage later. Rosen’s script for Toscanini — The Maestro makes his dalliance with Farrar seem like an exception when in fact it was a long-term pattern — and like so much of Toscanini’s biography, facts about his womanizing haven’t really come out until after his death and after the NBC hype machine stopped running interference for him.

My own feelings about Toscanini are genuinely positive; I’m old enough that I learned much of the standard symphonic repertoire from his records, and there are some of his performances (like the 1950 NBC recording of Debussy’s La Mer) that I think are unsurpassed to this day. I can hear what his critics are talking about — that he was too glib, that his tastes were too conservative (the man who was arguably the greatest conductor of the 20th century left only one movement of the ballet score Petrouchka and otherwise recorded nothing by the man who was arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, Stravinsky — though Toscanini not only gave the world premieres of three Puccini operas and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci but also in his NBC years gave the world premiere of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, which became a classical standard in the 1980’s when it was used in the film Platoon), that he zipped through scores with too little feeling — but overall his recordings are at an incredibly high standard. Once you acknowledge that Toscanini’s way is not the only way these pieces should be played, his records still have enduring value — and his story, even in this rather whitewashed version, is worth telling as well.