Toscanini was born in Parma, Emilia-Romagna, and won a scholarship to the local music conservatory, where he studied the cello. Living conditions at the conservatory were harsh. For example, his diet consisted almost completely of fish. When he became successful, he never ate anything that came from the sea. He joined the orchestra of an opera company, with which he toured South America in 1886. While presenting Aida in Rio de Janeiro on June 25, Leopoldo Miguez, the locally hired conductor, reached the summit of a two-month escalating conflict with the performers due to his rather poor command of the work, to the point that the singers went on strike and forced the company's general manager to seek a substitute conductor. Carlo Superti and Aristide Venturi tried unsuccessfully to finish the work. In desperation, the singers suggested the name of their assistant Chorus Master, who knew the whole opera from memory. Although he had no conducting experience, Toscanini was eventually persuaded by the musicians to take up the baton at 9:15 pm, and led a performance of the two-and-a-half hour opera, completely from memory. The public was taken by surprise, at first by the youth and sheer aplomb of this unknown conductor, then by his solid mastery. The result was astounding acclaim. For the rest of that season, Toscanini conducted 18 operas, all with absolute success. Thus began his career as a conductor, at age 19.
Upon returning to Italy, Toscanini set out on a dual path. He continued to conduct, his first appearance in Italy being at the Teatro Carignano in Turin, on November 4, 1886, in the world premiere of the revised version of Alfredo Catalani's Edmea (it had had its premiere in its original form at La Scala, Milan, on February 27, of that year). This was the beginning of Toscanini's lifelong friendship and championing of Catalani; he even named his first daughter Wally after the heroine of Catalani's opera La Wally. He also returned to his chair in the cello section, and participated as cellist in the world premiere of Verdi's Otello (La Scala, Milan, 1887) under the composer's supervision. Verdi, who habitually complained that conductors never seemed interested in directing his scores the way he had written them, was impressed by reports from Arrigo Boito about Toscanini's ability to interpret his scores. The composer was also impressed when Toscanini consulted him personally about Verdi's Te Deum, suggesting an allargando where it was not set out in the score. Verdi said that he had left it out for fear that "certain interpreters would have exaggerated the marking".
National and international fame
Gradually, Toscanini's reputation as an operatic conductor of unusual authority and skill supplanted his cello career. In the following decade, he consolidated his career in Italy, entrusted with the world premieres of Puccini's La bohème and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci. In 1896, Toscanini conducted his first symphonic concert (in Turin, with works by Schubert, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Wagner). He exhibited a considerable capacity for hard work, conducting 43 concerts in Turin in 1898. By 1898, Toscanini was Principal Conductor at La Scala, where he remained until 1908, returning as Music Director, from 1921–1929. During this time he collaborated with Alfredo Antonini – a young pianist and organist in La Scala Orchestra.
He brought the La Scala Orchestra to the United States on a concert tour in 1920/21, during which he made his first recordings (for the Victor Talking Machine Company).
Caricature of Toscanini by Enrico Caruso
Outside Europe, Toscanini conducted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1908–1915) as well as the New York Philharmonic (1926–1936). At the end of his season with the Metropolitan Opera in May 1915 Toscanini was set to return to Europe aboard the doomed RMS Lusitania, but instead cut his concert schedule short and left a week early, apparently aboard the Italian liner Duca degli Abruzzi. He toured Europe with the New York Philharmonic in 1930. At each performance, he and the orchestra were acclaimed by critics and audiences. Toscanini was the first non-German conductor to appear at Bayreuth (1930–1931), and the New York Philharmonic was the first non-German orchestra to play there. In the 1930s, he conducted at the Salzburg Festival (1934–1937), as well as the 1936 inaugural concert of the Palestine Orchestra (later renamed the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) in Tel Aviv, later conducting them in Jerusalem, Haifa, Cairo and Alexandria. During his engagement with the New York Philharmonic, Hans Lange, the son of the last Master of the Sultan's Music in Istanbul, who, later, became conductor of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the founder of the New Mexico Symphony Orchestra as a professional ensemble, was his concert master.
During his career, Toscanini collaborated with such artists as Enrico Caruso, Feodor Chaliapin, Ezio Pinza, Jussi Björling, Geraldine Farrar and Lauritz Melchior.
Departure from Italy to the United States
In 1919, Toscanini unsuccessfully ran as a Fascist parliamentary candidate in Milan. He had been called "the greatest conductor in the world" by Fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Toscanini had already become disillusioned with fascism before the October 1922 March on Rome and repeatedly defied the Italian dictator. He refused to display Mussolini's photograph or conduct the Fascist anthem Giovinezza at La Scala. He raged to a friend, "If I were capable of killing a man, I would kill Mussolini."
At a memorial concert for Italian composer Giuseppe Martucci on May 14, 1931, at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Toscanini was ordered to begin by playing Giovinezza, but he refused, despite the presence of fascist communications minister Costanzo Ciano in the audience. Afterwards, he was, in his own words, "attacked, injured and repeatedly hit in the face" by a group of blackshirts. Mussolini, incensed by the conductor's refusal, had his phone tapped, placed him under constant surveillance, and confiscated his passport. The passport was returned only after a world outcry over Toscanini's treatment. Upon the outbreak of WWII, Toscanini left Italy. He returned in 1946 to conduct a concert for the opening of the restored La Scala Opera House, which was severely damaged in the war.
Toscanini returned to the United States where the NBC Symphony Orchestra was created for him in 1937. He conducted his first NBC broadcast concert on December 25, 1937, in NBC Studio 8-H in New York City's Rockefeller Center. The acoustics of the specially built studio were very dry; some remodeling in 1942 for Leopold Stokowski added a bit more reverberation. (In 1950, 8-H was converted into a television studio. It has been home to NBC's Saturday Night Live since 1975. In 1980, Zubin Mehta and the New York Philharmonic began a series of special televised NBC concerts called Live From Studio 8H, the first one being a tribute to Toscanini, punctuated by clips from his television concerts.)
The NBC broadcasts were initially preserved on large 16-inch transcription discs recorded at 33-1/3 rpm, until NBC began using magnetic tape in 1949. NBC employed special RCA high fidelity microphones for the broadcasts, and they can be seen in some photographs of Toscanini and the orchestra. Some of Toscanini's recording sessions for RCA Victor were mastered on sound film in a process developed about 1930, as detailed by RCA producer Charles O'Connell in his memoirs, On and Off The Record. In addition, hundreds of hours of Toscanini's rehearsals with the NBC were preserved and are now housed in the Toscanini Legacy archive at the New York Public Library.
Toscanini was often criticized for neglecting American music, but on November 5, 1938, he conducted the world premieres of two orchestral works by Samuel Barber, Adagio for Strings and Essay for Orchestra. The performance received significant critical acclaim. In 1945, he led the orchestra in recording sessions of the Grand Canyon Suite by Ferde Grofé in Carnegie Hall (supervised by Grofé) and An American in Paris by George Gershwin in NBC's Studio 8-H. Both works had earlier been performed in broadcast concerts. He also conducted broadcast performances of Copland's El Salón México; Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with soloists Earl Wild and Benny Goodman and Piano Concerto in F with pianist Oscar Levant; and music by other American composers, including marches of John Philip Sousa. He even wrote his own orchestral arrangement of The Star-Spangled Banner, which was incorporated into the NBC Symphony's performances of Verdi's Hymn of the Nations, together with the Soviet Internationale. (Earlier, while music director of the New York Philharmonic, he conducted music by Abram Chasins, Bernard Wagenaar, and Howard Hanson.)
In 1940, Toscanini took the orchestra on a "goodwill" tour of South America, sailing from New York on the ocean liner SS Brazil on 14 May. Later that year, Toscanini had a disagreement with NBC management over their use of his musicians in other NBC broadcasts. This, among other reasons, resulted in a letter which Toscanini wrote on March 10, 1941, to RCA's David Sarnoff. He stated that he now wished "to withdraw from the militant scene of Art" and thus declined to sign a new contract for the up-coming winter season, but left the door open for an eventual return "if my state of mind, health and rest will be improved enough". So Leopold Stokowski was engaged on a three-year contract instead and served as the NBC Symphony's music director from 1941 until 1944. Toscanini's state of mind soon underwent a change and he returned as Stokowski's co-conductor for the latter's second and third seasons resuming full control in 1944.
One of the more-remarkable broadcasts was in July 1942, when Toscanini conducted the American premiere of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7. Because of World War II, the score was microfilmed in the Soviet Union and brought by courier to the United States. Stokowski had previously given the US premieres of Shostakovich's 1st, 3rd and 6th Symphonies in Philadelphia, and in December 1941 urged NBC to obtain the score of the 7th as he wanted to conduct its premiere as well. But Toscanini coveted this for himself and there were a number of remarkable letters between the two conductors (reproduced by Harvey Sachs in his biography) before Stokowski agreed to let Toscanini have the privilege of conducting the first performance. Unfortunately for New York listeners, a major thunderstorm virtually obliterated the NBC radio signals there, but the performance was heard elsewhere and preserved on transcription discs. The recording was later issued by RCA Victor in the 1967 centennial boxed set tribute to Toscanini, which included a number of NBC broadcasts never released on discs. In Toscanini's later years the conductor expressed dislike for the work and amazement that he had actually conducted it.
In the spring of 1950, Toscanini led the orchestra on an extensive transcontinental tour. It was during that tour that the well-known photograph of Toscanini riding the ski lift at Sun Valley, Idaho was taken. Toscanini and the musicians traveled on a special train chartered by NBC.
The NBC concerts continued in Studio 8-H until 1950. That fall, needing 8-H for television broadcasting, they were moved to Manhattan Center, then soon thereafter moved again to Carnegie Hall at Toscanini's insistence, where many of the orchestra's recording sessions had been held due to the acrid acoustics of Studio 8-H. Toscanini's final broadcast performance, an all-Wagner program, took place on April 4, 1954, in Carnegie Hall. During this final concert, the aging Toscanini suffered a minor lapse of concentration which became a cause célèbre when broadcast technicians panicked and took the broadcast off-air for about a minute, making the lapse appear much worse than it was.
In June 1954, Toscanini participated in his final recording sessions, remaking portions of two Verdi operas so they could be commercially released. Toscanini was 87 years old when he finally retired. After his retirement, NBC disbanded the Symphony in 1954. Most of its membership joined a 1954 reorganization as the Symphony of the Air, The ensemble made regular performances and recordings until its disbandment in 1963. NBC used the "NBC Symphony" name once more for its 1963 telecast of Gian Carlo Menotti's Christmas opera for television, Amahl and the Night Visitors.
On radio, Toscanini conducted seven complete operas, including Fidelio, La bohème, La traviata, and Otello, all of which were eventually released on records and CD, thus enabling the modern listening public to have at least some idea of what an opera conducted by Toscanini sounded like.
With the help of his son Walter, Toscanini spent his remaining years evaluating and editing tapes and transcriptions of his broadcast performances with the NBC Symphony for possible future release on records. Many of these recordings were eventually issued by RCA Victor.
Sachs and other biographers have documented the numerous conductors, singers, and musicians who visited Toscanini during his retirement. He enjoyed watching boxing and wrestling matches, as well as comedy programs on television.
Toscanini died on January 16, 1957, at the age of 89 at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx in New York City. It was his daughter Wally's 57th birthday. His body was returned to Italy and was buried in the Cimitero Monumentale in Milan. His epitaph is taken from one account of his remarks concluding the 1926 premiere of Puccini's unfinished Turandot: "Qui finisce l'opera, perché a questo punto il maestro è morto" ("Here the opera ends, because at this point the maestro died").
During his funeral service, Leyla Gencer sang an aria from Verdi's Requiem.
In his will, he left his baton to his protégée Herva Nelli, who sang in the broadcasts of Otello, Aida, Falstaff, the Verdi Requiem, and Un ballo in maschera.
Toscanini was posthumously awarded the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987.