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Baum On Books

Book Review: This Was Toscanini — The Maestro, My Father, and Me

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A new and expanded edition of a book first published 58 years ago about a man said to have been the world’s greatest conductor shows why the myth took hold and why it remains unchallenged.

Arturo Toscanini was unique. A musician of genius, including a photographic memory, Toscanini could boast – but never did – of having a repertoire of 120 operas and 400 symphonic works he could conduct by heart. God help the musicians trying to follow him.

But then again, Toscanini attracted the best of the best, one of whom, Samuel Antek, Toscanini’s first violinist in the famed NBC Symphony Orchestra he founded and led for 17 years, wrote about him in an intimate memoir, This Was Toscanini, but Antek died of a heart attack in 1958, at age 49 before finishing it. That was just one year after the death of the Maestro, who had retired from the NBC orchestra only two years earlier — at the age 87!

The memoir, This Was Toscanini, came out in 1963 but now we have This Was Toscanini: The Maestro, My Father, and Me by Lucy Antek Johnson, Antek’s daughter, who lives in Westport. Chapters, with new material, proceed like duets, presenting Samuel Antek’s remembrances and then some of hers. She writes, “I am musical but not a musician” (she’s a TV producer), but at home, it was “never a question of if I would study an instrument, but rather which one." It turned out to be the piano. The cello was Toscanini’s.

Lucy Antek Johnson's reproduction of her father’s engaging, conversational recollections include the Maestro’s colorful, Italian-inflected imprecations — a favorite word of revilement for the orchestra being “VERgogna,” shame. He never praised his musicians, never said bravi.

But he also never affected a “a stick trick,” wildly waving his baton or making faces. The musicians knew what the Old Man, as they called him, knew — that he got into their souls. This was more likely to happen by the way at rehearsals as opposed to concerts or recording sessions.

The inclusion in the book of famed recording engineer Robert Hupka’s striking, chiaroscuro-like, perfectly composed black and white photographs of Toscanini’s face and hands, taken secretly, beautifully show the Old Man’s “inexplicable magnetism.”

There are also neat tidbits throughout, such as Toscanini’s insistence that concert programs be silk cord and cardboard, so there would be no page rustling. This new edition of This Was Toscanini adds material about Antek, a child prodigy, and was prompted by a publication in 2017 biography, Toscanini: Musician of Conscience, written by famed music critic, teacher and Toscanini specialist Harvey Sachs, who supplies the forward here.

It was Sachs in fact whom Lucy Antek Johnkson got to know when he was writing his book, who suggested that she should reissue her father’s memoir and add her own recollections.

She had taken a memoir writing course a few years earlier and many of the people she met in Westport either knew Toscanini first hand or through his recordings.

Yes, there is piano but also piano forte! A total musician, an uncompromising enemy of Nazism and Fascism, Toscanini could be imperious but never narcissistic. “Playing with him,” Antek writes, “was like a musical and spiritual regeneration. Making music became the noblest of professions and aspirations. This was the miracle of Toscanini.” Indeed. Would that the world might ever be so blessed again.