Toscanini: Preserving a Legacy in Sound
Few conductors have so significantly impacted operatic and symphonic performance practices as Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), whose talents extended far beyond his gifts of eidetic memory and absolute pitch. The Maestro, as he was commonly known, was a master at engineering environments to optimize the aural experience for his audiences.
His legacy is forever imprinted in the operatic reforms he instituted during his time as the artistic director of Milan’s Teatro Alla Scala (1898-1908). The concept behind Toscanini’s reforms was simple—eliminate audience distractions. Common opera house practices of the time such as dining, fraternizing, or latecomer seating were forbidden; anyone in need of a restroom break close to showtime went at his or her own risk. Additionally, Toscanini insisted on dim lighting for ambiance and had a pit built literally to sink the orchestra to remove it, including Toscanini himself, from sight.
These reforms worked in tandem with the Maestro’s intense, uber-disciplined technique to produce the powerful performances for which he was celebrated. Toscanini was invited to conduct orchestras at several renowned venues including the Bayreuth Festival (1930) and the Metropolitan Opera (1908–1915), and he was the music director of the New York Philharmonic (1926–1936), becoming even better known for his performances of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss, Debussy, Rossini, Verdi, Boito, and Puccini. In 1937 at the age of 70, he became the principal conductor for the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The orchestra, formed specifically for Toscanini, was part of a cultural programming initiative by the RCA Corporation to offer weekly radio broadcasts of classical music starring the most famous conductor of the era. Toscanini’s determination to have the sound quality of the broadcasts match the live performances was a key factor in the success of the NBC Symphony Orchestra radio concerts, despite the notoriously dry acoustics of studio 8-H, and unprecedently revived interest in classical musical performance, birthing the music appreciation movement in the 1940s.
Toscanini retired three years before his death in 1957. His career is well documented in printed works, ephemeral materials, and surprisingly, thousands of hours of recorded sound, predominantly held at the Library for the Performing Arts in the Rodgers and Hammerstein Archives of Recorded Sound (RHA). There are over 40,000 recordings on various sound carriers of Toscanini’s performances, rehearsals, and posthumous related materials in several of RHA’s collections—the largest being the Toscanini Legacy collection of sound recordings (1926–1968). Considering the fact that sound capture was in its infancy during the early twentieth century, it is amazing that an audio collection this large exists.
2017 marks the 150th anniversary of Arturo Toscanini’s birth and to commemorate this, the Library for the Performing Arts is hosting an exhibit titled Toscanini: Preserving a Legacy in Sound. With the use of materials from collections held in New York Public Library archival collections, the exhibit celebrates the life of one the most important figures in classical music. It also functions as an educational tool to increase awareness about the importance of sound archives and preservation. This conflation is what makes the exhibit amazing.
- A dual timeline of Toscanini’s life and the history of recorded sound peppered with a wealth of rare archival items including excerpts from Toscanini’s 1898 contract with La Scala and a photograph of Guglielmo Marconi, pioneer of telegraphy and early radio.
- Kiosks with audio and video of NBC Symphony Orchestra performances conducted by Maestro Toscanini.
- One of Toscanini’s batons.
Selections from the Toscanini family library of books and collection of LPs for patrons to play and listen to onsite (the LPs are duplicates).
- Interviews with professional engineers on the rare sound formats and players on display including the Edison Phonograph - Model A, Berliner Gram-o-phone - Type B, Webster-Chicago Wire Recorder, and Selenophone U7.A display of antique sound formats and players including the Edison Phonograph -Model A, Berliner Gram-o-phone -Type B, Webster-Chicago wire recorder, and Selenophone U7.
- Historical record industry documentation like “Instructions for the making of smooth center mothers” for the manufacturing of 78rpm records.
- A wall of 10-inch open reel tapes of Toscanini’s broadcast performances and rehearsals that is the backdrop for the “preservation station” where staff members will process these invaluable recordings.
Toscanini: Preserving a Legacy in Sound is open now at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center and ends April 7, 2018. Please visit the library’s website for the hours of operation and information on the upcoming public programs in honor of the Maestro!