The twentieth century saw no more exciting conductor than Arturo Toscanini, whose electric performances from the turn of the century to the 1950s have been dazzlingly documented on record and on film. La Scala, Milan, The Metropolitan Opera, New York, the Bayreuth and Salzburg Festivals, the New York Philharmonic, the Palestine Orchestra and the NBC Symphony Orchestra were all transformed by his involvement with them. His range of repertoire and his engagement with the contemporary composers from Verdi to Barber are of enormous significance. Among the many world premieres he conducted were Puccini’s La Bohème, La Fanciulla del West and Turandot; Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, and Barber’s Adagio for Strings, all staples of the repertoire.
His fiery temperament, perfectionism and dominating personality made him a formidable person on and off the rostrum. His engagement with politics and his loathing of fascism in his native country and elsewhere transformed his outlook. He refused to perform in countries or with artists who espoused extreme right-wing politics. Thus he refused to perform in Italy after 1931, in Germany beginning in 1933 and in Austria from 1938 on. He supported and gave sanctuary to anti-fascist and anti-Nazi refugees from Europe, not least Friedelind Wagner, granddaughter of the composer. His engagement with the music of German composers was just as significant as with Italian masters: he gave the Italian premieres of Wagner’s Siegfried and Götterdämmerung and played many scores of Richard Strauss, including the first production in Italy of Salome and a number of unforgettable performances of the symphonic poems, including most memorably Tod und Verklärung and Ein Heldenleben.
Toscanini loved literature and art as well as music and was a prominent friend of writers and artists. He was also a collector, perhaps not in the systematic manner of a Brahms or a Hirsch, but clearly as a connoisseur and lover of fine things. The present collection derives mostly from the conductor’s legacy as it was inherited by his son Walter (1898-1971) and his grandson Walfredo (1929-2011). The collection in fact reflects the career of the conductor and contains items acquired by him either directly from the composers, their families and his friends. Thus it is the case that many of the finest items have never been offered for sale on the market. Their freshness and interest are of overwhelming importance.
The first sketches for the opening of Falstaff, a work performed by Toscanini throughout his entire conducting career, were presented to him by Verdi’s niece and have remained in the Toscanini family ever since; there is also a complete draft of the “Ave Maria”, from the Four Sacred Pieces. There are letters and manuscripts sent to him by Puccini, Boito, Leoncavallo, Catalani and Richard Strauss which have similarly never appeared on the market.
One of the highpoints, the autograph manuscript, hitherto believed lost, of Mendelssohn’s wonderful overture Die schöne Melusine, a work frequently performed by Toscanini, was given to him on the occasion of his birthday by a great performer, Rudolf Serkin. Toscanini’s engagement with other great artists is visible in his Steinway Grand Piano, played on by his son-in-law, the pianist Vladimir Horowitz. Please note that this piano is not on view at Sotheby’s London, or New York, but at the Steinway showrooms in New York.
More tangible evidence of Toscanini the conductor are a collection of his batons, including one presented to him in 1888 marking his debut in Milan. A number of them are damaged: Toscanini was notorious for breaking and hurling batons at moments of acute frustration in rehearsals. The collection contains evidence of his ferocious temper. Finally, there are a number of items of memorabilia and photographs: a caricature of Caruso and a silver head of John the Baptist, a tongue-in-cheek presentation to the conductor after the premiere of Salome in Italy.