Toscanini: Musician of Conscience by Harvey Sachs

COMPOSERS: Toscanini
LABELS: Liveright
ALBUM TITLE: Toscanini
WORKS: Musician of Conscience
PERFORMER: Harvey Sachs
CATALOGUE NO: ISBN 2-370000-385888


Harvey Sachs’s third publication devoted to Arturo Toscanini, a monumental new biography, follows his earlier one (1978) and his edition of the conductor’s letters (2002). The need for a second biography – ‘completely new’, in the words of his explanatory Preface – was made imperative: first by the discovery of those letters, unknown until the 1990s and full of revelations about Toscanini’s extraordinarily complex private life, and then by the more recent coming-to-light of recordings made in secret by his son Walter – recordings which capture Toscanini in old age recalling the past with characteristic vivacity. 

This material has resulted in a vast enrichment of Sachs’s command of his subject. ‘Monumental’ is surely the mot juste to describe the book’s length (864 pages plus index and other addenda) but equally the combination of thoroughness, clarity, psychological perspicacity and deep human feeling which distinguishes every page. Was such a study really needed of a long-dead conductor supremely eminent in his time but a cause of critical controversy thereafter? The reading supplies the answer: for all its massiveness the book proves unputdownable. It offers an in‑depth portrait of an utterly extraordinary man simultaneous with a panoramic cultural and political history of his near-century of life and a no less wide-ranging analysis of all the areas of music and theatre over which he gained such staggeringly complete command.

What profusion of talents was early revealed! In his schooldays he acquired the nickname ‘genì’, the Parmesan dialect word for ‘genius’. As one follows the path of his many battles across the globe for moral correctness in every artistic sphere and probity in public life – if not in his numerous amorous adventures – it becomes clear as never before that Toscanini the man, fiery, energetic, unassuming, extreme in mood swings and rigidly determined all at once, and his public behaviour (above all his unflinching stand against the rise of Fascism and Nazism) were all of a piece. Sachs’s Musician of Conscience subtitle precisely indicates the underlying theme of his magisterial achievement. HHHHH


Max Loppert