Arturo Toscanini was born in Parma, Italy in 1867. He went to the Parma Conservatory and graduated as a cellist in 1885. The opportunity to conduct came early in his career while on tour with an Italian opera company in South America. The Brazilian conductor resigned and Toscanini took over the direction of ĎAidaí at short notice and successfully conducted for the remainder of the tour. It is said that he went on to conduct performances of eleven more operas, apparently from memory!
Between 1887 and 1898 Toscanini conducted at many opera houses in Italy and was appointed principal conductor at La Scala in 1898. In 1908 he was appointed principal conductor at the Metropolitan Opera New York where he remained until 1915 when he returned to Italy to give free concerts to war veterans until the end of the first world war. He rejoined La Scala in 1919, and was artistic director from 1921 to 1929.
Toscanini then turned his attention to the concert hall, and for the rest of his career he conducted mainly symphony orchestras. He was principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra from 1929 to 1936, and in 1937 he became conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra which was established specifically for him.
Toscanini was opposed to Fascism and would not conduct in his native Italy until after World War II. He refused to conduct in Germany because of the treatment of Jews. He conducted the inaugural concert of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra in 1936, and in 1938/9 he conducted at a festival in Switzerland where the orchestra was made up of Jewish musicians who had fled from Germany.
With the NBC Symphony Orchestra he conducted in a series of highly acclaimed broadcasts and made a number of records. He stayed with the orchestra until 1954. He also appeared with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, The New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and the Philharmonia Orchestra.
Toscanini was widely acclaimed as one of the greatest musicians of the 20th century, and was noted for his belief in fidelity to the composerís intentions. He was a perfectionist and could be extremely temperamental. His tantrums, baton throwing and abusive behaviour are now legendary. He had a prodigious memory and it has been estimated that by the end of his career he could play over 200 symphonies and up to 100 operas without needing to refer to the score!
Toscaniniís last public performance was in 1954; he had an apparent lapse of memory while conducting Tannhauser. It has since been suggested that this may have been due to a transient ischaemic attack, but whether this was true or not, he obviously saw it as a signal for him to retire. He was after all, 87 years old. He died three years later in New York, but was flown back to Italy to be buried.
Toscanini made a large number of recordings during his career, but the sound quality of many of them is not good by modern standards. For some of them this is simply because of age, and for others, notably some of the NBC recordings, the recording studio acoustic was poor. Many people believe that the recordings made with the BBC Symphony Orchestra offer the best sound quality.