Gustav Mahler vs Arturo Toscanini at the Metropolitan Opera August 20 2021
In 1907, Gustav Mahler was reigning supreme as conductor of the
New York Met Opera. Then, in 1908, the Italian Arturo Toscanini arrived. The clash between these two enigmatic giants of the music world was inevitable and their polar opposite styles have become the stuff of legends.
The Russian-American pianist and music critic Samuel Chotzinoff (1889-1964), in his autobiography (“Day´s at the Morn”) recalls his early days as a Metropolitan Opera standee and the contest for favor that raged between devotees of Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini. This is an interesting story that we thought was worth sharing with our readers.
Shown in the picture above are Samuel Chotzinoff (center), with his friend Arturo Toscanini and Toscanini´s wife Carla on the sides.
Mahler and Toscanini Arrive in New York
The year after Gustav Mahler came to New York, the Metropolitan engaged Giulio Gatti-Casazza, the impresario of La Scala in Milan, as director. Mr. Gatti-Casazza, in turn was bringing along his conductor in chief, one Arturo Toscanini. This move, someone told us at Katz’s (a music store on East Broadway), was the Metropolitan’s answer to the threat posed by the Manhattan Opera House.
We were all mystified by the news. Few, if any of us, had heard of Gatti-Casazza, or of his compatriot Toscanini. It seemed to us naive on the part of the Metropolitan to expect a pair of Italians to draw away the patrons of the Manhattan Opera House, who were now enjoying fresh, new voices and an entire new repertoire.
Even so great and renowned a musical figure as Gustav Mahler had not been able to do it. What could these Italians do to counteract the appeal of Mary Garden, Nellie Melba, Giovanni Zenatello, Luisa Tetrazzini, Alessandro Bonci and other fresh luminaries? And there was Cleofonte Campanini, chief conductor at the Manhattan, who was by now an idol with the public.
True, the Metropolitan still had Caruso, Farrar, Scotti and one or two other favorites; and of course, it had the Wagnerian operas, most of which were not given at the Manhattan. But viewed realistically, Mr. Hammerstein’s position seemed impregnable.
Mr. Gatti-Casazza and Mr. Toscanini duly arrived, and the papers announced the first week’s repertoire. At Katz’s we were not surprised that Mr. Toscanini should begin the season with “Aida.”
The ignorant public loved melody for its own sake, and “Aida” was a good “vehicle” for popular singers like Caruso, Scotti, Louise Homer and the new Bohemian soprano, Emmy Destinn.
But a month later Toscanini was also to conduct “Gotterdammerung.” We could hardly believe it. An Italian conducting “Gotterdammerung!” It was unthinkable.
Even Mr. Katz, who did not care much about the later Wagner operas, expressed astonishment at such presumption, and said that the new impresario was crazy, and his conductor overambitious. I was puzzled.
I wondered how anyone used to the tinkly music of Verdi could comprehend an intricate score like “Gotterdammerung.” Even if he succeeded in learning the music, how was it possible for an Italian to grasp the epic dimensions of that music drama?
Nevertheless, I felt an obligation to go see “Gotterdammerung” and see for myself, if only to be a witness of the fiasco it would deservedly be. Mr. Katz was more interested in the “Aida.” To get some measure of the capabilities of the new Italian conductor, I decided to accompany him on the opening night.
Toscanini’s First Test
Because of my intimacy with the ticket-taker at the top gallery, we did not have to join the queue at dawn and wait for the doors to open in the evening. We arrived at seven thirty, like any ticket-holder.
By then people were standing three-deep behind the gallery railing, and we had some difficulty in maneuvering our bodies into a position where we could catch an occasional glimpse of the orchestra pit and the stage.
The houselights dimmed and, through a chink between two standees in front of me, I looked down on the orchestra pit. I saw a small figure make its way quickly to the podium and spring onto it. The conductor’s chair had been removed! Toscanini bowed once to the audience, turned his back to it and cut off the applause by rapping a violin stand sharply with his baton.
The Italian conducted standing up, as if he were facing a
symphony orchestra. There was no score on a stand in front of him! He placed his left hand on his hip; his right hovered in the air for a second. His silhouette was neat, precise and elegant. He began the prelude. From the opening bar I felt a tension in myself and in the air.
The latecomers, as usual, poured into the orchestra and boxes. My eyes caught them, but they made hardly any stir, and I heard only the music. I knew the prelude—indeed, I knew all of “Aida” - well, but now it sounded strange.
The little phrase on which it is built floated up to me like a thought, delicate and pure. It did not appear to come from the instruments in the pit. It was shaped and wafted by the little stick in Toscanini’s right hand, a stick that behaved like a sensitive wand.
The prelude gradually became corporeal (something like the prelude to “Lohengrin,” I thought irreverently), accumulated weight, filled the big auditorium with magnificent, balanced sound, receded and died out in a whisper. I had listened to a poetic, even noble introduction. When it died out, serious implications, like overtones, still hovered in the air.
For a moment I forgot that I knew the story of “Aida,” and I wondered what the nature of the ensuing drama could be to meet the promise of these intimations.
Mr. Katz broke the spell by nudging me and whispering, “Not bad, this Toscanini!” It brought me back to earth. I was now ashamed that I had succumbed so completely to an Italian opera and an Italian conductor, and I whispered back, “No, not bad. But wait till ‘Gotterdammerung.’”
Yet throughout that evening I frequently forgot my surroundings and lost myself in the performance. In the intermissions I gave way to dejection, for Mr. Katz was loud, even maliciously so, in his praise of “Aida,” the artists on the stage and, most of all, Toscanini, and I could honestly muster no counterarguments, and only reiterate, “Just wait for ‘Gotterdammerung!’”
A month later we spoke to Jake Belkin, one of the Metropolitan’s second violin players, who occasionally came down to Katz’s to buy music at a discount. We bombarded Belkin with questions about the new conductor. But what Belkin had to tell us only added to my mystification and discomfort. He said that there had been a rehearsal of “Gotterdammerung” that very morning.
The orchestra had been impressed with Toscanini’s abilities at the “Aida” rehearsal. But they were hardly prepared for what had happened that morning.
The librarian had placed the huge score of the first act of “Gotterdammerung” on the music stand in front of the podium. When Toscanini saw the score, he lifted it up and threw it on the floor. He then conducted “Gotterdammerung” entirely from memory.
But that was not all. He actually knew every note, every nuance; he heard mistakes even in fortissimo passages and corrected them; he sang the German words, every one of them. In short, Belkin swore that Toscanini was a prodigy whose like had not been seen at the Metropolitan.
Furthermore, his power over singers and orchestra was from the first absolute, and everybody on the stage and in the pit already stood in awe of him.
Mr. Katz greeted this news triumphantly. I was crushed but I managed to say, “But what about the spirit of ‘Gotterdammerung?’ The German soul of the opera? How can any Italian understand it, let alone bring it out?” Belkin laughed. “He’s got that too, believe me,” he said. “He’s a devil, that’s all I can say, a real devil.”
The next evening H. L. [Harold L. Green], Mr. Katz and I lined the gallery railing at the Metropolitan. Mr. Katz disliked “Gotterdammerung” ut he accompanied me to verify Belkin’s extravagant praise of Toscanini and, I presume, to gloat over my discomfiture should the praise prove deserved.
Very quickly I saw that Belkin’s report was accurate. Toscanini stood in front of his orchestra without the benefit of a note of music before his eyes. He restored the Norn scene, which Hertz had always cut. Though I knew it from the piano score, this was the first time I heard it in performance. But the whole opera was in a sense a restoration for me.
The “Sunrise” episode in the orchestra blazed with a new effulgence; the Rhine in Siegfried’s Journey was a new, imperious, jubilant river; the chorus of Hagen’s men rent the air with a new exigent, lusty rhythm; the death and funeral of Siegfried were grandiose and emotional beyond tears; the Immolation scene and the final pages excited in me a feeling of exaltation that I had never before experienced.
I left the opera house in a daze. Mr. Katz took the streetcar home. H. L. and I walked. For a long time, we did not talk.
When we reached Union Square, I could no longer contain myself. I sat down on a bench and cried, as if something dreadful had happened. Then I felt better, and we continued on our way, talking, discussing and dissecting the performance, and the incredible new conductor.
I still could not understand how a mere Italian could transform “Gotterdammerung” as Toscanini had done that night. H. L. said the only way he could account for it was that Toscanini was a throwback to the Italian Renaissance. In the Italy of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries there were giants in literature, painting and sculpture.
Toscanini was an artist of the same epic proportions. Yes, I said, but it doesn’t explain the man’s identification with the German soul. H. L. wondered whether there was such a thing as a German soul, or, for that matter, an Italian or any other kind.
“What,” H. L. asked me, “was the soul of Hamlet: English? Faust: German? Peer Gynt: Scandinavian? Nonsense. The soul cannot be localized. Each soul is a part of the universal soul. The ‘Gotterdammerung’ we heard tonight was not a German ‘Gotterdammerung,’ but the world’s ‘Gotterdammerung.’”
H. L. was very eloquent and persuasive on the subject. What he found difficult to reconcile with Toscanini’s genius was the Italian’s willingness to conduct trivial operas like “Aida” and “Madama Butterfly” (“Oh. ‘Butterfly’ is all right in its way, but not good enough for a Toscanini”).
“But perhaps he really hates these Italian operas, and he conducts them only because he is required to in his contract,” I put in. But H. L. thought that in view of what Belkin had said about Toscanini’s intransigence, that was hardly likely.
At Katz’s the question of Toscanini versus Mahler could not be long avoided. The Mahler adherents claimed that Toscanini was beautifying Wagner - “gilding” they called it. He was sandpapering the rough, strong, German texture of the music; in a word he was Italianizing Wagner. Toscanini’s Wagner was admittedly lucid and beautiful, but it was not Wagner.
Mahler, on the other hand, while achieving orchestral clarity, still remained Germanic in his concern not to rub down the gritty texture of the music. “Wait till Toscanini attempts ‘Die Meistersinger,”’ one die-hard Mahlerite cried. “That’ll tell the story. That’s one opera you can’t prettify. It’s as German as sauerkraut.”
Gustav Mahler and Willem Mengelberg (front), Cornelis Dopper and Hendrik Freijer (back) Concertgebouw 1909
I kept out of these discussions, mainly from a feeling of guilt. Toscanini had overpowered my senses and my judgment. He had made me forget Mahler, a conductor whom only a few months earlier I had looked upon as the greatest in the world. I was feeling disloyal to Mahler, and I was ashamed of having to be.
Fortunately, Mahler was also a symphonic conductor, and as far as
I knew, Toscanini was only a conductor of opera. To ease my conscience I decided to believe, and openly acknowledge, that Toscanini was supreme in opera - that is, in Wagner; and Mahler, while a great opera conductor, was supreme in symphonic music.
In that way I could be loyal to both and enjoy without misgivings the specialty of each. And a year later the situation was entirely cleared up for me; Mahler left the Metropolitan and gave all his time to the New York Philharmonic, and Toscanini reigned supreme at the Metropolitan.
(Edited from an article published in a Metropolitan Opera program, season 1963-64).
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