b. Parma, March 25, 1867
d. New York, January 16, 1957
Arturo Toscanini began his conducting career at the age of 19. Touring South America as a cellist with an opera company, he was chosen as a substitute conductor for Aida when the company went on strike to protest the incompetence of the locally hired conductor. Despite his youth and inexperience, he was an instant hit and went on to conduct the world premieres of Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci and Puccini’s La bohème in 1892 and 1896, respectively. In 1898, he was appointed principal conductor of La Scala, a post he retained until 1908. He then became principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera.
Toscanini, universally admired in later years as “The Maestro,” made his Philharmonic debut in January 1926. He shared the Music Director post with Willem Mengelberg from 1928 to 1930, jointly overseeing the Philharmonic’s merger with the New York Symphony Society. In 1930, Toscanini led the Philharmonic on a highly successful tour to Europe. The following year, he was attacked and beaten while in Italy for his refusal to play the Fascist anthem, and his opposition to Nazi persecution of the Jews made the front page of The New York Times in April of 1933. Toscanini’s Beethoven cycle with the New York Philharmonic during the 1932–33 season was seen by many as a musical repudiation of tyranny that matched his public opposition to Hitler. At the end of the season he notified Siegfried Wagner that he would not conduct at Bayreuth as previously planned, despite, or perhaps because of, a request to honor German music signed by Hitler himself.
Under Toscanini, the New York Philharmonic became the first orchestra to offer regular, live coast-to-coast radio broadcasts of its concerts, gaining him unprecedented fame and a remarkable salary of $110,000 per year. During his tenure, the Philharmonic performed more than 30 World Premieres and more than 40 US Premieres (including Ravel’s Bolero in 1929). The Maestro resigned in 1936, citing the physical demands of such a commitment. The following year, he became music director of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the radio orchestra founded especially for him and which he led until 1954 — the year of his last concert.
In 1967, 10 years after his death, a WQXR poll found that he was still the second-most popular conductor among its listeners, after Leonard Bernstein. That same year, Bernstein and the Philharmonic performed Verdi’s Requiem to honor the centenary of Toscanini’s birth. With the help of his son Walter, Toscanini spent his remaining years evaluating and editing tapes of his broadcast performances with the NBC Symphony for possible future record releases. He died at his home in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, leaving his baton to his protégée Herva Nelli.