Many Returns, Mostly Happy: Toscanini at NBC

“I want you to go to Milan and get him. The American radio listener deserves the very best in music. All we can lose is a few weeks of your time and the expenses of the trip. No more cables. Get on a boat.” That is what, back in the fall of 1936, RCA president and NBC chairman David Sarnoff told New York Post music critic Samuel Chotzinoff, whom Sarnoff made musical director at NBC. The man “Chotzy” was to go get was none other than the legendary Arturo Toscanini, born on this day, 25 March, in 1867. Earlier that year, Toscanini had announced his retirement from the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and, on 1 March 1936, he had conducted what he meant to be his final radio concert as guest conductor of the General Motors Symphony. Nearly seventy, Toscanini could hardly be expected to jump at the opportunity of raising his baton in a series of weekly broadcasts; but that is just what General Sarnoff had in mind.

Chotzinoff, who was a friend of the temperamental Maestro and later recalled his career in the somewhat less than faithful Intimate Portrait, sailed for Europe, to make Toscanini an offer he could not refuse. He was promised an orchestra “hand-picked from the finest virtuosi available,” along with the enticing sum of $40,000 and the offer to have his income tax paid by the network. According to Thomas DeLong, it took a shrewd businesswoman, Toscanini’s wife (pictured above), to convinced Arturo that it was worth his while to return. The best part of the deal, though, was getting away from Mussolini, whom Toscanini openly despised.

The first of the Saturday evening concerts, broadcast live from studio 8-H at Radio City, New York, was heard on Christmas in 1937. As Francis Chase wrote in the October 1938 issue of Radio Stars, a studio audience of

over 1,400 persons sat breathless as the white-haired, flashing-eyed, dynamic little figure of Toscanini mounted the podium before one of the greatest symphony orchestras ever assembled; certainly the greatest ever presented wholly for the radio audience. The finest instrumentalists from many great American orchestras sat beneath the master’s baton, while in the brilliant audience, listeners hardly breathed. There was not the faintest rustle of a program (so that no slightest sound should mar the transmission, programs had been printed on silk).

Less attention was paid to the studio acoustics, which, as B. H. Haggin argues, were “unresonantly dry, flat, hard and made airlessly tight by the audience which filled the studio.” That did not stop the perfectionist from demanding the best from his orchestra, and, judging from the rehearsal recordings shared on NBC’s Biography in Sound tribute, aired on the day after Toscanini died, the Maestro was fierce in his criticism. “Do you believe that I am crazy?” he asked the performers, not waiting for a reply. “No,” he insisted, “sensitive.”

Year after year, the aging and only very gradually mellowed Toscanini vowed to retire—but for seventeen seasons he returned to the studio until, on 4 April 1954, he stepped from the podium for the last time; having faltered and dropped his baton during a performance temporarily taken off the air and replaced with recorded music, Toscanini walked off for the last time, before the orchestra had played the final chord. He was eighty-seven years old.

The stick with which he conducted the NBC orchestra (if himself not always too well), must have been a kind of crutch to Toscanini. It not only kept him going, but had America begging him to return. It enabled him to hold together a body of artists, at an age when most men can barely keep theirs from falling apart.


Related recordings
“The Man Behind the Legend: A Tribute to Arturo Toscanini,” Biography in Sound (22 January 1957)
Beethoven, Symphony No. 5, NBC Symphony Orchestra, (probably 11 November) 1939

4 Replies to “Many Returns, Mostly Happy: Toscanini at NBC”

  1. Wow! The Toscanini biography in sound left me wanting to tell everyone I know to get onto Broadcastellan. You don\’t have to appreciate classical music or be old enough to remember when NBC had a world class synphony orchestra to be fascinated with that history in sound. What a rare find. I must listen again.

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  2. Well, send them straight to the Internet Archive. That\’s where many of the Biography in Sound recordings are being shared. The two books on Toscanini can be found there as well. In fact, all the sources I used are available online. My own contributions have been slight; but the anniversary seemed like a good opportunity to catch up with the man.I\’ll be thinking of him tonight, while at a classical concert. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales is in town. I don\’t know what it is with me, but there\’s always a radio angle.

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  3. NBC recorded over fifty porograms on Toscanini in \”The Man behind the Legend\” from 1963 onwards, hosted by Ben Grauer. Join the Yahoo Operashare group and you will be able to download them all.As for Chotzinoff\’s 1956 book on Toscanini, anyone serious about the man knows this is not a serious book at all, with dozens of deliberate fabrications.

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  4. Thank you for alerting us to this valuable resource. I guess that opening a tribute to Toscanini, however minor, with the words of Samuel Chotzinoff is likely to be a provocation to those “serious” lovers of classical music—and, with justice, to those who appreciate sound research. Apparently, the book is to Toscanini enthusiasts what Mommie Dearest is to devotees of Joan Crawford.Then again, Radio Stars is not a scholarly source, either. What I meant to do here, keeping up with the out-of-date, was to present a contemporary sketch of the figure, the legend of Toscanini. Even NBC\’s 1957 tribute references Chotzinoff, who, traitor though he may have become, was nonetheless a friend to Toscanini. I noticed that the less than academically sound Wikipedia makes no mention of Chotzinoff in its entry for Toscanini. He has been effectively edited out of the biography. Perhaps, this is taking revision(ism) a little too far?That said, I have made a few adjustments to the above.

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