As a conductor he was a martinet and his total dedication to the composer was as distinct as William Furtwängler, for example, was not. He began his musical career as a cellist. When he was 19 he found himself as cellist and assistant chorus master, part of an Italian troupe performing in Brazil at São Paulo and Rio. The chorus and orchestra were to be filled out by locally hired talent. The Brazilian conductor Miguez was severely criticized in the Press after a performance of Faust. He sent an open letter to the newspaper accusing ‘the foreign singers’ for the bad performance.
In the next performance the locals booed Miguez down. Toscanini who was late in coming found total confusion in and front of the curtain. One from the audience pointing to young Toscanin shouted,’Let him try! He knows the opera by heart.’ The impresario and the Italian troup turned to the cellist to save day and he did. His debut on the night of June 25, 1886 was a triumph.
When the WWI broke out there were pressures on him to leave out Beethoven and other German composers from the programmes, as concession to prevailing patriotic sentiments. He refused to let politics interfere with music.
In the matter of Fascism he resisted it. When Mussolini became dictator there was directive to display his portrait in all public buildings and play Giovenzza, the Fascist hymn before all concerts. Whole of Italy it was enforced except at La Scala, Milan.
In the end Toscanini had to choose self-exile than give in. In 1943 when Il Duce fell the day after, two big banners appeared in front of La Scala asking Toscanini to come back and he did.
He fell foul with Hitler also. In the summer of 1933 he was invited to Bayreuth to conduct Wagner on his 50th Death Anniversary. Personally it was to be realization of a dream long cherished. But on April 1, 1933 Hitler proclaimed a national boycott of all Jewish shops. Next day Toscanini decided to refuse to conduct Wagner in Bayreuth. Not even Hitler’s conciliatory letter could change his decision.
Later the maestro was in the USA and he was the conductor of N.B.C and scheduled for a rehearsal. The news reached him that Hitler’s troops overran Salzburg, the city of Mozart.
The same day during rehearsal he exploded over a trifle. Having stopped the rehearsal he went to his dressing room, locked himself and wept.
His memory was as keen visually as well as aurally. His photographic memory absorbed a page at one glance in its entirety. One day when he was rehearsing the orchestra at the end of Act I of Tristan and Isolde he suddenly stopped and asked,’where is the cymbal?’
There was no cymbal crash marked in the score. They showed that there was no cymbal marked and he was not convinced. Finally Wagner’s manuscript was fetched and there was the cymbal crash. Over the years it had somehow dropped out.
His rehearsals were quite intense that he once remarked,’every rehearsal is like a concert to me; and every concert like a debut.’