On the Beat
On the Beat
A new book on Toscanini lets his musicians speak for themselves.
by BRIAN KELLOW
IS THERE A CONDUCTOR
today who represents what ARTURO TOSCANINI represented to the American public in the 1930s, '40s and '50s? Possibly JAMES LEVINE, and — possibly — RICCARDO MUTI. But neither Levine nor Muti, despite their staggering accomplishments, has ever quite reached the level of public worship that Toscanini did. Yet opera performers, like Broadway stars, have difficulty withstanding the test of time, and sometimes we need a palpable reminder put in front of us of exactly what they contributed to our cultural lives. So many Toscanini admirers may cheer the arrival of a new book, The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro (Amadeus Press), written by CESARE CIVETTA, a seasoned conductor and longtime student of Toscanini's career.
The Real Toscanini began life in the late 1970s, when Civetta was an ambitious, sixteen-year-old high-school student with a fierce musical appetite, growing up in the Bronx. Civetta was perplexed that many of the recordings he was listening to didn't quite match up with the Toscanini legend that he had been reading about for years. Largely through his friendship with ROBERT HUPKA, the Viennese photographer who shot Toscanini extensively in rehearsal and at recording sessions, Civetta found his way to many of the orchestra musicians who had played in the NBC Symphony, created for the maestro in 1937, which he directed until 1954. What Civetta discovered were thrilling firsthand accounts of music-making under the maestro that made their way into The Toscanini Legacy, a series Civetta produced for Fordham University's Radio Station WFUV while still in his teens. "I was prompted to go after the orchestra players and get to the bottom of this," says Civetta. "The musicians I interviewed who had played in the NBC Symphony were the highest-paid musicians on the planet. They were raided from all the other orchestras. Concertmasters were offered this beautiful salary to come play in the NBC Symphony — maybe not every woodwind player, but every string player, and the brass players. They played with the great conductors of the '30s and '40s, and although some were accomplished, like FRITZ REINER and DMITRI MITROPOULOS, there was an attitude, some condescension that they felt. When a conductor was condescending, that would turn them off immediately. And even though Toscanini carried on and had temper tantrums, it was never condescending. He would go crazy, but there was this other side of him, throwing parties at his house in Riverdale and remembering them on their birthdays and remembering their wives' birthdays. These were the people I needed to talk to — the horse's mouth."
In the early 1980s, Civetta began to carve out a conducting career that eventually took him from Lincoln Center to Russia. But the interviews he had done for WFUV stayed with him, and eventually he thought about organizing them by subject — tempo, balance, musical architecture, rehearsal methods — and collecting them in book form. The Real Toscanini is the result.
While organizing his book, Civetta was careful to avoid driving home any misleading generalizations about Toscanini's working methods. "When you talk about Toscanini's recordings," Civetta says, "you have to keep in mind that his career lasted sixty-eight years, and most of these recordings are coming from the last, say, eighteen years. At least fifty years go unaccounted for. He's in his seventies and eighties, and we can't assume that they are representative of what he was doing earlier in his career. They're a snapshot of one particular time in his life. He hated making recordings. There was a vertical rod in front of him with a red light bulb, and he had to wait for this red light to go on, and when it did, he had to produce a downbeat immediately. It was not a natural experience in performance, where you can take a breath and begin. Everything was done in five-minute segments, and they had to stop and start to create the same tempo, so it would sound seamless."
Among the Toscanini recordings Civetta cherishes most is the Beethoven Violin Concerto, with JASCHA HEIFETZ. "That first movement is an awfully long movement," says Civetta, "and in the traditional fashionable tempo, all those sixteenth notes make it seem like not very interesting music in certain passages. It can almost sound like finger exercises that go on and on — probably why it's not played as often as it could be. But in the Toscanini recording, they have this unified conception. I think Heifetz is extraordinary, and so is the way Toscanini shapes around him."
Civetta's greatest discovery concerned Toscanini's work ethic. "He was never satisfied," says Civetta. "Even if the critics were using superlatives and the audience was filled with adulation, he was very self-critical. Even in his eighties, when he did the Ninth Symphony, he said, 'I've never been satisfied after a half a century with this piece. This is my last crack at it. We have to do it well this time." One of the author's favorite examples of Toscanini's quest for perfection is his 1946 recording of La Bohème. "On the last page, when the brass come in and Rodolfo discovers that Mimì is dead, it's a quarter-note rest on the downbeat, and they enter on the second beat of the bar. At the rehearsal, he may have said, 'I won't beat the rest, we'll just all come in together on the second beat.' But something happened at the performance. There was a missed entry with that first chord. Some came in early, and some didn't. Some confusion. So after the concert, he asked for the brass section to come to his dressing room, and he said to them, 'Tonight, you will all go home and sleep with your wives as if nothing happened. For me, my life is over.' They simply substituted that passage from the dress rehearsal so they could publish the recording of La Bohème. But that was his attitude. That was the worst possible thing that could happen."
Send feedback to OPERA NEWS.