No musician has been more admired than Toscanini. His conducting, over a period of nearly seven decades, made him a legend, for the reforms he instituted in the opera house and the concert hall as well as the sheer excitement he generated; as a moral force he had few parallels, within or without the realm of music. He died 22 years ago, nearly three years after his last concert (an unfortunate, rather tragic event) and only three months short of his 90th birthday.
There is by now an entire generation that knows the name Toscanini through anecdotes about his rehearsal rages and knows his musicianship only through recordings which are neither fully representative of the maestro at his best nor competitive with sonically superior versions of the respective works recorded by other conductors. Even those of us old enough to have attended Toscanini's concerts or heard them broadcast tend to think of him in terms of caricatures -- as a martinet, a literalist, a humorless man whose only passion was his art, an unlettered peasant whose genius was instinctive, a conductor of narrow musical sympathies and uncertain taste, one who drove the music harder and played it faster than anyone else, one who chose second-rate singers for his operatic broadcasts in order to ensure total control for himself, etc., etc.
There has always been a popular biography available, by someone who knew and/or worked with Toscanini, to cater to and capitalize on such images: It is refreshing to have the air cleaned in the newest "Toscanini," which its author describes as "the first to be published by someone too young to have met Toscanini or to have attended one of his concerts."
In terms of objectivity, this is surely an advantage, for such an author has no particular ax to grind, no old scores to settle, and is more likely than the subject's contemporaries to be free of any wish to slant or color his portrait to suit his own ends. Harvey Sachs, identified as a conductor himself, was born in Cleveland in 1946 and must have read everything in print about Toscanini, dug up every shred of correspondence and talked to everyone still around who could give him any first hand recollections; he wrote and produced a number of radio documentaries on the maestro prior to completion of his book last year.
Like Eleanor Perenyi in her recent biography of Liszt, Sachs gives his various predecessors what for without trying to be polite about their shortcomings; like Perenyi again, he has done an exceptionally thorough job of research and verification. His "Toscanini" is not an "appreciation," and is not an analytical or evaluative book, such as Robert C. Marsh's "Toscanini and the Art of Orchestral Performance" or Spike Hughes's "The Toscanini Legacy," but is rather a very comprehensive story of the conductor's life, as both man and musician. There is not much about specific performances of specific works, but there is much in the way of reminiscences and reports to illumine his essential approach to music-making -- and his character. It is all very absorbing and very convincing because Sachs is sparing with adjectives and more generous with quotations and examples.
While the tales of temper tantrums, broken batons, flung scores and trampled spectacles are all true enough, Toscanini's compassionate nature tends to get lost in these familiar and colorful stories. He did not fire orchestral players casually; he made many appearances for causes he believed in without accepting payment, frequently contributing sizable sums of his own; when he failed to use tact, he usually apologized with real humility. If he browbeat and humiliated singers in rehearsal, the serious ones were more than grateful for what he taught them, and a tonguelashing would often be followed in a day or two by warm and even affectionate encouragement. (It was not vindictiveness, but simply expediency, that impelled him to tap out the beats on Robert Merrill's head when the baritone was having trouble in a tricky phrase in his duet with Licia Albanese in the second act of "Traviata.")
Verdi's principle of "only one creator" was venerated by Toscanini, but he did take some liberties with certain scores, and he was neither humorless nor heartless. There were more than a few rehearsals in which he admonished his players and singers that the notes alone are not enough. Even in his 80s, when he returned to Milan to conduct concerts at La Scala, he burst out during a rehearsal of the final movement of Brahms' Fourth Symphony: 'It says 'Allegro energico e passionato.' 'Energico' -- you don't play with energy! 'Passionato' -- you don't play with passion! It's written in Italian, but here are Italians who don't understand it!" In the same series, rehearsing the "Liebestod" from "Tristan und Isolde," he demanded: "For God's sake, what do you have where your hearts should be?"
Although Toscanini was surely naive in some respects, he was by no means unlettered or simple. As a young man he committed to memory most of Dante and much of Shake-speare, and his literary horizons continued to broaden until his last years. He was a serious collector of art, and once remarked: "I don't know whether I like music or painting better." He was also an enthusiastic mountainclimber, and he found time for other activities, too. In 1903, when he was six years married and the father of three, his affair with the soprano Rosina Storchio produced a son; a dozen years later his affair with Geraldine Farrar may have had a good deal to do with his decision to leave the Metropolitan Opera; he was to remain an astoundingly active philanderer into his 70s. "He could not resist women and they could not resist him," says Sachs, who is careful to point out also that Toscanini never either awarded or withheld musical favors on the basis of sexual ones. There are no "juicy details" on any of the maestro's amatory adventures -- only a passing observation where appropriate to fill in the picture -- but there are details, splendidly documented, of his dealings with composers, librettists, impresarios, colleagues, his family, dictators and fellow-idealists.