Arturo Toscanini was an Italian conductor. One of the most acclaimed musicians of the late 19th century and 20th century, he was renowned for his brilliant intensity, his restless perfectionism, his phenomenal ear for orchestral detail and sonority, and his photographic memory. As music director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra he became a household name through his radio and television broadcasts and many recordings of the operatic and symphonic repertoire. He is widely considered to have been one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.
Toscanini was born in Parma, Emilia-Romagna, and won a scholarship to the local music conservatory, where he studied the cello. He joined the orchestra of an opera company, with which he toured South America in 1886. While presenting Aida in Rio de Janeiro, 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 impresario to seek a substitute conductor. But on the evening of June 30, 1886 maestro Carlo Superti found himself booed by the audience, now prompted by the disgruntled Miguez. Yet another last-minute substitute conductor, Aristide Venturi, could not overcome a hostile, hollering public, and was forced to leave the podium. In desperation, the singers suggested the name of their assistant Chorus Master, who knew the whole opera by heart. Although he had no conducting experience, Toscanini was forcibly persuaded by the musicians to take up the baton at 9:15 P.M., discarded the score, and led a sensational 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 eighteen 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 for some time. 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. This was the beginning of Toscanini’s life-long friendship and championing of Catalani; he even named his first daughter Wally after the heroine of Catalani’s opera La Wally.
However, he also returned to his chair in the cello section, and participated as cellist in the world premiere of Verdi’s Otello 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 the 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”.