July 1, 2002
The Letters of Arturo Toscanini
Sachs, editor. Knopf
(hardcover US $35)
This provocative new book
presents several hundred letters by Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini which
were discovered in archives, private collections, and auctions by author-editor
Harvey Sachs after his authoritative Toscanini biography was published in
Any new data about
a figure as historically important and as poorly documented as Toscanini must be
welcomed. The temperamental Italian maestro was a major figure in the musical
life of Europe and America from the 1930s until his death on January 16, 1957.
Yet despite his fame and popularity, he left almost no written legacy, being
averse to any form of self-advertisement or publicity. Toscanini never wrote an
autobiography, musical essay, or program note. His public life--including his
clash with fascism, exile in America, and brilliant career leading the NBC
Symphony broadcasts--was documented by the press and followed by the public, but
he never authorized a writer to tell his story. His biography has been deduced
and inferred from the outside, by witnesses, table talk, and analysis of his
business practices and music-making.
This is why these
letters are important, though not as significant or informative as most
reviewers have pretended. The New York Times
exaggerates when it calls this "a major contribution to our understanding of
Toscanini." Taken alone, they offer a distorted and distasteful portrait of a
great man. As an antidote, they should be read in conjunction with Sachs's
biography of the conductor.
Nor are they, as
the Times again pretends, a "great read." Compared
to great letter writers such as Virginia Woolf and Dylan Thomas, Toscanini was a
telegrammatic scribbler. Since he did not write for posterity, you won't find
the kind of treasurable aphorism, mature wisdom, or illuminating anecdote that
enlivens and enriches the writings of Hector Berlioz, Richard Wagner, Erik
Satie, Virgil Thomson, or Ned Rorem, to name just a few great musician-writers
who did have an eye on posterity.
violently. His life was full of controversy, power struggles, and passion. Had
he been born in the Renaissance he would have been a condottiere, defending his
city-state, poisoning his enemies, and bedding his neighbours' wives. His are
the letters of a man of action, driven by an idealism and perfectionism which
delighted audiences but alienated his underlings and enemies. He can be scathing
to the inadequate. Singers are "cretins" and "dogs," publishers crooks, Richard
Strauss a money grubber, Stokowski a pompous fool. Yet oddly, the patriarchal
and censorious Toscanini seems to have been clueless with respect to his own
family's peculiarities, particularly his granddaughter Sonia's lesbianism, and
his daughter Wanda's loveless marriage to the infantile, unstable, homosexual
In letters to
Mussolini and President Roosevelt, Toscanini takes political stands despite the
risks. Unlike Richard Strauss, Furtwangler, and other quasi-fascist figures,
Toscanini opposed Fascism and suffered for it. To his credit, he was as tough on
himself as he was on his enemies. These letters reveal a very Catholic sense of
guilt, insecurity and self-criticism. "I am incapable of hypocrisy," he wrote.
From a medical viewpoint, he seems to have suffered from chronic melancholy,
misanthropy, and pessimism.
letters offer no revelations that will alter Toscanini's place in music and
political history, his hitherto secret sex life is laid bare. He was constantly
unfaithful to his wife. In several letters he begs his mistress for pubic hairs
and a handkerchief spotted with her menstrual blood. These fetishes he wears
inside his clothes when he conducts. In letter after letter he fantasizes about
One closes this
book with a sense of fatigue and satiation, blinded and deafened by a life lived
at white heat. Toscanini's emotional intensity was High Romantic; his erotic
passions and fetishism were Edwardian; his political idealism that of a medieval
martyr; his musical vision in the noble line of Beethoven, Berlioz, and Wagner.
Today Toscanini could not exist. Union orchestras would not tolerate him. Record
companies and publicists would airbrush away his rough edges and steer him clear
of politics. Treasurably, regrettably, he was the last of the sacred monsters.