Arturo Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra

The NBC Symphony Orchestra was custom-made for Arturo Toscanini. The maestro had been the music director of the New York Philharmonic for more than ten years, ending in 1936. During his time in New York, Toscanini had confirmed his status as the world’s most famous conductor. He was renowned for the discipline and clarity of his performances. He was also famous for his politics. During the 1930’s he refused to work in Italy and Germany. When Mussolini and Hitler denounced Toscanini, they only increased his moral stature. In spite of the political situation, by 1936 Toscanini felt ready to return to his native Italy. He was tired of the grind of frequent performances. Even though he would continue his boycott of performances in Italy, he wanted to be back home.

He changed his mind in 1937, when the head of RCA, David Sarnoff, came calling. RCA was the titan of American broadcasting, having formed the first national radio network—the National Broadcasting Company. Sarnoff proposed to create a world-class orchestra if Toscanini would return to the United States. The musicians would be hand-picked, and the orchestra would play primarily in concerts planned for live national broadcasts. Toscanini would have fewer concerts to perform and more time to shape his orchestra.

Remarkably, the ensemble turned out to be everything that Sarnoff promised. Toscanini conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra for seventeen years, well into the age of television. He finally retired at the age of eighty-seven. Classical music was at the height of its popularity in the United States during those seventeen years, in part because of what Toscanini accomplished in his broadcasts with the NBC Symphony.

Toscanini’s orchestra had a clean, well-articulated sound. His readings are passionate but never muddled. The music is always moving toward a fully conceived destination. These were performances perfectly suited for Toscanini’s broadcast medium, for communication with the masses.

This year is the 150th anniversary of Toscanini’s birth. For the occasion, there is a new, hefty biography, and David Denby’s recent essay on Toscanini in The New Yorker is well worth reading.

Here are two exceptional performances by Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. (You can find many more on YouTube.)

Wagner: Overture to Tannhäuser

Part 1 of 2

(8 minutes)

Part 2 of 2

(7 minutes)

Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition

(32 minutes)

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