Arturo Toscanini: musician at the service of the Scala
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Arturo Toscanini

Artists - Parma 25/03/1867 - Riverdale (New York) 17/01/1957

Biography

Impetuous, highly strung and scrupulous beyond all imagination, Arturo Toscanini would often repeat:  “No one can just sit there and watch or think his part doesn’t count ... if you’re on stage, you’re part of the opera, and the choice is yours – either contribute a breath of life, or be a dead weight, but never make the mistake of thinking the public won’t notice”.

Arturo Toscanini was born in Parma in 1867. He studied at the Regia Scuola di Musica (Royal School of Music) in Parma and in 1896 he conducted at La Scala for the first time, later becoming both its artistic and administrative director. The maestro would always remain faithful to Milan’s world-famous shrine to the bel canto, even refusing lavish financial rewards.

One day an important impresario who worked abroad said to him, “But you don’t even have an actual contract with La Scala!”, to which Toscanini replied “That may be true. Yet I feel morally obliged to La Scala”. Indeed, here he conducted countless operas by the greatest composers of the age, such as Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni and Leoncavallo.

On May 14th, 1931, Toscanini refused to have the orchestra perform the fascist anthem, a move which would see him come under attack by the regime. He took refuge in America where he would remain until 1946. On May 24th of that same year, the newspaper, Corriere della Sera, announced a grand event: “Arturo Toscanini to conduct two concerts in Milan on the occasion of the reopening of La Scala”. It was a veritable triumph and was received warmly by Milan’s joyous music lovers who honoured him with endless applause.

In 1952, he conducted his last Italian concert and he passed away in 1957 in Riverdale, New York, in the USA, aged 90 years. The Cimitero Monumentale (Monumental Cemetery) is his final resting place and it still safeguards the robes of the unforgettable maestro.

Anecdotes and curiosities

In 1886, he set sail for Brazil for a season of Italian opera organized by orchestra conductor Leopoldo Miguez. It is said that on June 30th, 1886, in the Rio de Janeiro theatre, Miguez decided to abandon the podium after an argument with the orchestra at the beginning of Aida. Toscanini, who knew Verdi’s opera by heart, took his place after some urging by his companions. Thus the legend of one of the greatest conductors in history was born.

Toscanini’s outbursts in front of the orchestra are still memorable today. He wouldn’t hesitate to call a first-violinist stupid or to tell a double bass player that they played as though they were an ox dragging a cart. There is a tale of a first violinist who made a collection out of the batons that the maestro broke in a temper during rehearsals.

Later in his long career, during rehearsals for an opera, a prima donna dared to shout in Toscanini’s face, “I’m the star, not you!”, to which the Maestro replied, “The stars are in the sky … Another soprano!”.

On December 5th, 1949, President of the Republic Luigi Einaudi appointed him Senator for life in recognition of his artistic merits; Toscanini renounced the title the following day.

In 1957, as his remains were being transferred to the Cimitero Monumentale, a crowd of Milanese gathered in the Piazza della Scala. A surreal silence descended over the crowd as they listened, through the open doors of the theatre, to the La Scala orchestra who was playing, without a conductor, the “Marcia Funebre per la morte di un eroe” (“Funeral March for the death of a hero”), from Beethoven’s third symphony, in memory of the deceased maestro.

Related places

Via Durini, 20:

Now a museum house;

Zucca in Galleria (still exists):

Frequented by Verdi and Toscanini, among others, on their way back from La Scala and by Umberto I, as the best coffee in the city was served here;

Attorney Luigi Ansbacher’s house;

Teatro Dal Verme:

Toscanini debuted in Milan at the Teatro Dal Verme with La forza del destino (The Force of Destiny) by Verdi, Francesca da Rimini by Cagnoni, and I promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) by Ponchielli. He also conducted the premier of Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci (Clowns);

La Scala Theatre:

The Maestro conducted innumerable operas here, including Siegfried, Lohengrin, Otello, Tosca, Eugenio Onegin, Tristan, La Bohème, Maschere (Masks), Messalina, The Queen of Sheba, Mefistofele, Germania, Hänsel and Gretel, Euryanthe, Il Trovatore (The Troubadour) and Verdi’s Requiem.

Sources and documents

Abbiati Franco, “Concerto Toscanini alla Scala”, Corriere della Sera, 24 May 1946

Stefan Paul, Toscanini, Milano: Fratelli Bocca Editori, 1937

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