The Maestro’s Sesquicentennial

A new Toscanini biography recounts his role in the birth of the IPO

March 25 marks the 150th Anniversary of the birth of conductor Arturo Toscanini. His pre-eminence was such that for more than half a century before his death at 89 in 1957, the world knew him simply as ‘The Maestro.’

He lent that international stature to the 1936 launch of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, then called the Palestine Orchestra, by conducting a program that, to mark IPO’s 80th Anniversary, was repeated in its entirety last December, under the baton of Chicago Symphony Orchestra conductor Riccardo Muti. Toscanini conducted the IPO once more, in 1938, further establishing it as the advance agent for the region’s cultural identity and political independence.

Toscanini’s unique role in the history of the IPO, and by extension Israel, is recounted in an exhaustive new biography, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, to be published this June. Harvey Sachs, whose career pivoted from conductor to author after he was inspired to write his first Toscanini biography in 1978, said that his Musician of Conscience is not an update or revision but a completely new book.

“Apart from quotes, there is not one sentence in it that was in the 1978 book,” Sachs said last month. He benefited from a huge cache of archive material that has been released in the decades since his first Toscanini book was published.

“Plenty of details have been corrected and there are changes on almost every subject,” he added. “For instance, there is new material about his relations with Mahler and a lot of family stuff. It’s a much richer picture of this quite amazing character.”

Among the new sources Sachs utilized were previously unavailable Toscanini family archives, La Scala archives, and the archives of the Ricordi Company, which had published most of the works of Verdi, Puccini, et al., and had saved its correspondence with Toscanini.

In the decades following the release of the first biography, Sachs became “very friendly with most of Toscanini’s descendants and along with thousands of new documents, I had access to some 100 recorded conversations that, unbeknownst to the Maestro, his son Walter had recorded during Toscanini’s last years. His grandson Walfredo had preserved the tapes and shared them with me.”

Sachs also authored Reflections on Toscanini in 1991 and The Letters of Arturo Toscanini in 2002. The latter includes much of the Maestro’s correspondence with Bronislaw Huberman, the world-renowned violinist who attracted Toscanini to conduct, free of charge and at his own expense, the December 1936 concert that launched the orchestra.

Until recently, however, one important letter had been missing.

“The contents of the letter had been known for some time,” Sachs said. “Then two or three years ago, after the death of Walfredo Toscanini in 2011, his daughter asked me to please continue going through all the material that was in their New Rochelle home. In the very last of some 100 boxes of material I came across eight or nine pieces of paper held together with a rusty paper clip. On top was that original letter of Huberman’s to Toscanini.”

It was that letter that sought an audience with the conductor to set forth an idea in the “artistic field, the realization of which will likewise not fail to have consequences of the broadest scope from the point of view of both culture and politics.”

Toscanini would meet Huberman and agree to conduct the inaugural concert.

Last September, Muti told Sachs that he would be conducting the Toscanini program for the 80th Anniversary concert.

“Of course,” Sachs said, “I mentioned that I had found this letter and some other correspondence, along with a telegram to Toscanini from Chaim Weitzman, who became the first president of Israel. Muti said, ‘Oh, I will ask Avi Shoshani to invite you so you can present those documents as part of the anniversary!’

“And that’s what I did.”

Because the June release of Toscanini; Musician of Conscience comes as summer vacations begin, Sachs expects any promotional tour and book signings will be held in the fall.

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