The Real Toscanini, a Wonderful New Book

Cesare Civetta's 'The Real Toscanini' Highly recommended!(Photo: The Real Toscanini)
Cesare Civetta's 'The Real Toscanini' Highly recommended!(Photo: The Real Toscanini)

Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957) was the dominant personality in America’s concert life from 1937 until his death 20 years later. 

David Sarnoff and RCA built the NBC Symphony especially for the Maestro, and concerts were broadcast weekly from Studio 8-H in New York’s Rockefeller Center.

The radio made Toscanini famous to all, after a career of 50 years that had made him revered in music circles worldwide.

Toscanini conducted the first performances of La boheme and Pagliacci.  He held music directorships at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. His appearances at Bayreuth and Salzburg included his iconic stagings of Fidelio, Die Meistersinger, Die Zauberflote, Tristan und Isolde and Tannhauser. Toscanini’s orchestral repertoire ran from Haydn to Samuel Barber, who he encouraged to create the Adagio for Strings.

Many a book has been written on Toscanini. YouTube is loaded with his performances going back to the 1920s. Biographer Harvey Sachs has written two marvelous book plus a collection of correspondence.

Now, a young conductor Cesare Civetta has written The Real Toscanini, Musicians Reveal the Maestro. Civetta’s book is partly based on an extensive radio series he produced at WFUV in New York in the 1970s. There were plenty of people around 35 years ago who knew and worked with Toscanini. Now, as these voices fade with time,  it is wonderful to have them speak to us in this book.

My generation knows Toscanini primarily from the NBC Symphony recordings. Many are hair-raising, brilliant. I wouldn’t want to be without the Respighi tone poems and music of Debussy and Rossini.

But the truth is Studio-8H, as much as we love Saturday Night Live, is acoustically lousy for music. Recordings from 60 years ago are over compressed, flattened and not telling the whole story. You need words, you need descriptions and first hand accounts.

Civetta delivers: Surviving members of the NBC Symphony were interviewed at length.  Singers Licia Albanese, Jan Peerce and Giuseppe Valdegno offer insights Toscanini’s meticulous rehearsal methods.

The maestro’s technique was “clean and clear”. Infamous for his titanic rages, everyone agreed that Toscanini’s whole live was music, and that his interpretations were long on clarity and beauty.

This book is perfect for any music lover. It will,  as the best books on musicians must, drive you back into Toscanini’s recordings, compressed or not, so your ears may complement what your eyes have read.