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The case of Arturo Toscanini

Arturo Toscanini at Konserthuset, on December 3 in 1933.


“By then, his reputation was already at its zenith, and Toscanini fever broke out in earnest. People fought over tickets; magazines were filled with Toscanini, and menus at the restaurants the master happened to visit were signposted later with Tournedos à la Toscanini and the like.”

In a commemorative text about the work of Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957) in Stockholm, violinist Gereon Brodin wrote:

“The fact that he could even be drawn here at all was a triumph of the Royal Swedish Opera’s choirmaster, Tullio Voghera (1879–1943), who was a friend of Toscanini’s. The master was extremely difficult to persuade when it came to guest performances with foreign orchestras. By then, his reputation was already at its zenith, and Toscanini fever broke out in earnest. People fought over tickets; magazines were filled with Toscanini, and menus at the restaurants the master happened to visit were signposted later with Tournedos à la Toscanini and the like. It was probably the first time that symphonic music was so fashionable for us, and moreover, it persisted, and his visit thus became meaningful for the entire Swedish music scene.”

Arturo Toscanini guest-conducted the orchestra on three occasions in the 1930s: autumn 1933, autumn 1934 and spring 1937. Gereon Brodin continues:

“On the first visit, the remarkable happened: he took the orchestra with him to Copenhagen; he did not have time to rehearse a concert with a new orchestra. There were five concerts in all in Stockholm.”

At the first concert in Konserthuset on 29 November 1933, Toscanini conducted music by Cherubini (Overture to Anacréon), Debussy (Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun), Berlioz (La Reine Mab ou la Fée des songes), Wagner (overture and Bacchanale from Tannhäuser), and Beethoven (Symphony No. 7).

“He took great pains to explain what he wanted to create,” remembered Brodin, “for example, by letting his handkerchief slowly fall to illustrate the gentle rhythm and character of Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun.”

A few days later on 4 December, the programme was brand new: Rossini (overture to the Barber of Seville), Brahms (Symphony No. 3), Richard Strauss (Don Juan), Martucci (Notturno and Novelletta) and Wagner (Siegfried’s Rhine Journey).

The guest performance in Copenhagen comprised a selection of works from these two preceding concerts in Stockholm. 

When Toscanini returned one year later on 28 November 1934, the first programme included the following: Mozart (Symphony No. 41), Brahms (Variations on a Theme by Haydn), Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (Nocturne and Scherzo), Sibelius (En Saga) and Rossini (overture to Semiramis).

The second concert on 2 December offered, in the first half, four Wagner pieces (A Faust Overture, Prelude to Parsifal, Good Friday Music from Parsifal, and the Prelude and Isolde’s Liebestod from Tristan and Isolde) and, after the intermission, Beethoven (Symphony No. 3). 

Toscanini’s final concert with the orchestra was given on 16 March 1937: Rossini (Overture to the Silken Ladder), Busoni (Rondò arlecchinesco), Shostakovich (Symphony No. 1) and, finally, Brahms (Symphony No. 1).

It was nerve-wracking to play under Toscanini, recalled Brodin, and the orchestra had enormous trouble with the Busoni piece:

“In Busoni’s Arlecchino overture, the trumpet players played tons of wild notes, and at some point, we were even close to completely falling apart. But it was also terribly nerve-wracking to play under Toscanini, with his tremendous demands and such high tension throughout the process. We certainly got to experience his frequently discussed tantrums. A stream of Italian words would suddenly spill forth, from which one could distinguish swine, idiots, ignorant imbeciles and the like. Scores and batons would fly through the air, and we watched in fear as the angry master left the podium. But he came back, which was good, and which had likely not always been the case in other places.”

Gereon Brodin continues: “But in general, he was patient and friendly, and then we loved him. In the second violin section, we had the good fortune of a countryman in the first chair. He could help us understand the instructions from the podium (Cesare Spedicati, 1879–1950) and he was an optimist who managed to ward off many worrisome incidents with a sense of humour. Interpretation was necessary, for in fact, Toscanini only spoke Italian at that time, plus a few fragmented phrases of French, German and English taunts.”

Gereon Brodin (1901–92) was a member of the first violin section in the Stockholm Concert Society from 1930–46. The quotation is from a commemorative programme about Toscanini which was broadcast on the radio on 10 February 1957, and which was also repeated in Carl-Gunnar Åhlén’s cover text for the box collection entitled Stockholms Filharmoniska Orkester 75 år (Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra 75 years) (8 CDs, BIS).