David Bruce: Toscanini Anecdotes

Arturo Toscanini had poor eyesight — one of the reasons he memorized his scores was so that he wouldn’t need to refer to them during performances or rehearsals. He once wanted perfection in the tinkling of some very small antique cymbals to be used in Berlioz’ “Queen Mab” scherzo. Several musicians failed to meet Toscanini’s standards, so Sam Borodkin — who played such instruments as the bass drum, glockenspiel, tam-tam, and gong — said that he would try to do it. Mr. Borodkin succeeded brilliantly — but through the use of a trick. Instead of using two antique cymbals and hitting them against each other, he used a metal triangle stick and hit it against one antique cymbal. Because Toscanini had such poor eyesight, and because Mr. Borodkin was bent over his music stand, hiding the metal triangle stick, the trick succeeded in fooling Maestro Toscanini.

Even as a young conductor, Arturo Toscanini felt strongly about his art. When he was scheduled to conduct his first concert in Turin, he first rehearsed the orchestra in the orchestra pit, but he also wanted to rehearse the orchestra on the stage because that was where the orchestra would be during the concert and he wanted to make sure the orchestra would sound right from that location. However, the manager of the theater felt that rehearsing on the stage was not necessary, so Maestro Toscanini said that he would not conduct without the rehearsal. When the time of the concert came, Toscanini was home in bed. The manager came looking for home, but Toscanini still refused to conduct. The concert was given at a later date — after Toscanini had rehearsed the orchestra on stage.

Arturo Toscanini had a phenomenal memory and conducted without a score — but he had a reason for doing so. His eyesight was not very good, and to see the notes he would have had to bring his eyes very close to the score, so a score was useless to him while conducting. After Toscanini began to conduct without a score, other conductors began to imitate him in a pretentious way — at the beginning of a performance, some conductors would walk to the conductor’s podium, close the opened score, then begin to conduct. Horn player Harold Meek of the Boston Symphony Orchestra believes that many conductors would benefit from having a score in front of them, as did such fine conductors as Serge Koussevitzky and Sir Georg Solti.

Famed conductor Arturo Toscanini disliked giving interviews and to get out of giving them, he occasionally played tricks on reporters. Samuel Chotzinoff, the music critic of the New York World, once had an interview with Mr. Toscanini, but was surprised that the Maestro had only a very weak grasp of English. There was nothing to do but to give up on the interview and leave, which Mr. Chotzinoff did. Later, Mr. Chotzinoff found out that Mr. Toscanini spoke English much better than he had pretended. Eventually, the two men became friends, and Mr. Toscanini was pleased with Mr. Chotzinoff’s praise of his acting ability as demonstrated the first time they met.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini never gave encores. While giving the first performance of Euryanthe by Carl Maria von Weber, Toscanini was at first pleased by the applause of the audience following the overture. However, the audience kept applauding and demanding an encore. For 10 minutes, Toscanini stood with his back to the audience, and he grew angrier and angrier because he wished to proceed with the performance. Finally, he turned around, screamed “No bis(encore)” to the audience, broke his baton and threw the pieces at the audience, then left the stage. The première was postponed until the following week.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini once wrote composer Richard Strauss for permission to give the first performance in Italy of Strauss’ Salome. After receiving permission, Toscanini began to prepare the piece. However, he later discovered that Strauss himself was going to conduct Salomein Italy the week before Toscanini was scheduled to conduct it. Immediately, Toscanini took the train to Vienna, where he called on Strauss and said to him, “As a musician I take off my hat to you, but as a man, I put on 10 hats.”

Maestro Arturo Toscanini once was terribly angry at tenor Leo Slezak because he once swallowed a quarter note during a performance. Mr. Slezak begged for forgiveness, which Maestro Toscanini eventually gave. This forgiveness made Mr. Slezak, a large man, so happy that he picked up Toscanini, a small man, and kissed him on both cheeks. This enraged Toscanini more than before, and he stayed enraged at Mr. Slezak for two weeks.

Conductor Arturo Toscanini had a fabulous memory. At the beginning of a rehearsal, a clarinetist told Maestro Toscanini that something was wrong with his clarinet and he couldn’t sound B-flat. Maestro Toscanini was silent a moment as he thought about all the works to be rehearsed that day, then he told the clarinetist, “It is all right. There isn’t any B-flat in your parts this afternoon.”

Arturo Toscanini, the famous conductor, used to show his displeasure when it was merited at rehearsals. He once got so angry that he tried to break his baton, but it bent and wouldn’t break. He then tried to tear his handkerchief in pieces, but it was made of good material and wouldn’t tear. So Toscanini took off his jacket and tore that to shreds.

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia, mayor of New York City, loved music. Once he was asked to conduct the band of the New York Fire Department at Carnegie Hall. Learning that the director of the hall planned to make the concert a special occasion, La Guardia told him, “Please, no fuss. Just treat me the way you would treat Toscanini.”

Someone was amazed at Arturo Toscanini’s phenomenal memory — he conducted without a score in front of him — and asked, “Tell me, maestro, how do you learn all those scores from memory?” Toscanini replied brusquely, “I learn them.”

Conductor Arturo Toscanini was passionate about music and wanted all of his musicians to put their blood into their work the way he did. At a rehearsal, he told his orchestra, “Put your blood! I put my blood!”

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Copyright by Bruce D. Bruce; All Rights Reserved

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