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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

Why conductors have great sex

By Norman Lebrecht / April 17, 2002

Eat your entrails, Mick Jagger. The idea that rock stars enjoy the best sex is a popular myth that can be doubly disproved. First, they don't seem to enjoy it much and, second, I know a different breed of artists who are having, and giving, a much better time.

Evidence in this arcane area can be unreliable, but there is a growing body of neutral testimony and first-hand documentation. The serene Joan Baez once described to me how, while touring America with The Beatles, she watched their roadies line up a nightly parade of girls, four of whom would be nodded at by the moptops as they came off stage, then serviced and dispatched. There was no intimacy, no mystery. John Lennon spoke of sex with fans as a part of his public duty, so to speak. He offered to add Joan to the beneficiaries; she politely declined.

Compare the sterile functionality of rock sex to the standard chat-up line of an orchestral conductor who, meeting a young lovely before going on stage, whispers that he is about to perform the Pathètique "just for you". It seldom fails. Conductors have the liveliest, longest and most rewarding sex lives of any human organism.

Sir Georg Solti, weeks before his death in 1997, discussed sex with me as an active combatant. He was 84. Other seniorities have told me that they will carry on conducting until they droop, as if their musical authority is somehow dependent on their sexual virility.

Take the celebrated Andrè Previn, who turned 73 last week. After the collapse of his fourth marriage - or was it his fifth? - to a nice Home Counties secretary, he formed a close friendship with the long, blonde bassoonist of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, before redirecting his mail recently to the fax address of Anne-Sophie Mutter, the slinky German violinist. The widowed Mutter is slightly over half Previn's age. Rumours abound of wedding bells. Whatever the outcome, congratulations are in order.

Previn's concert performances are not always energy-charged. One disgruntled manager, Ernest Fleischmann of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, publicly complained: "He's not physically strong." But put that down to subjective musical criticism, or the old green-eyed monster. There have been no complaints about Previn from ex-spouses and no decline in his pulling power.

I promised you documentary proof. The Letters of Arturo Toscanini is to be published next month by Faber and Faber. The mailbag of a long-dead podium tyrant might appear to be of specialist interest, until you appreciate how large he loomed over the first half of the last century, more famous in his day than Frank Sinatra, and how little we know about him.

Toscanini, who died in 1957, weeks short of his 90th birthday, permitted no cracks in his privacy. He never gave an interview and left no memoirs. Even biographers with access to his papers were left groping in the dark. His letters, wrote Harvey Sachs in 1978, "are relatively few and uninformative".

Barely had these words appeared between hard covers than correspondence began tumbling out of bottom drawers where they had been tenderly stored by former lovers and their heirs. One mistress kept 1,000 letters and telegrams from the peripatetic maestro, some of them filled with detailed anatomical endearments.

Another woman flitted in and out of his arms for years, winding up as his wife's best friend. From the letters that Sachs has now assembled, it appears that Toscanini felt he could not perform at his best on the podium without a grand physical passion awaiting in the wings.

The line he gave his lovers was that sex with his wife, Carla, had ended after the death of a child in 1906. Some of his affairs were flagrant. La Scala was scandalised by his fling with Rosina Storchio, the first Madame Butterfly, who fell pregnant; their child was stillborn. In 1915 he stormed out of New York after Geraldine Farrar, America's operatic darling, demanded that he marry her.

His closest and most secretive liaisons were with musicians' wives. Elsa Kurzbauer, an Austrian, was married to the composer Riccardo Pick --Mangiagalli, who divorced her when he found out. Ada Mainardi's husband, Italy's ace cellist, was more compliant. In both affairs Toscanini regaled his lovers with explicit, even pornographic, accounts of the pleasures they shared.

"My lovely and loving Elsa," reads a typical missive in half-decent English, "I long to finger every sensible and hidden doted spot of you. I will pass all over you like a river of fire... I feel something swelling and cooking. Where is your hungry mouth?"

He enjoyed oral sex in all varieties and liked to ensure that his partners were equally satisfied. In a Mediterranean culture where women's sexual rights were traditionally secondary, and a man giving oral sex is still regarded as a weakling - witness the most hilarious of the Sopranos episodes - Toscanini was a sexual revolutionary. He once told Ada that an old Parma farmer who had known Verdi had assured him that the great composer also gave "a certain kind of kissî. That, somehow, bestowed the benediction of genius on his indulgence.

Prurience apart, the letters of Toscanini draw the clearest possible line between conductor love and rock-star sex. Toscanini loved to give as much pleasure as he took, and he lasted long and well into a lascivious old age. For the supreme maestro, sex was not so much a reward as a repayment. Match that, Mr Jagger.

Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001