Ernő Lendvai

Toscanini and Beethoven

The Reconstruction of the

"Seventh Symphony"

There are such musical experiences (and these are perhaps the most primary) that cannot suffer a ‘literary’ interpretation, just as one cannot aestheticize upon mathematical rules. Toscanini’s elemental experiences were of this type. He did not belong to the aestheticizing group of conductors, and unlike Bruno Walter, Furtwängler, Weingartner and other great conductors, he never felt the need to translate the language of music into the language of literature. It is said that he preferred to settle aesthetic disputes at the piano, showing what was ‘good’ and what was ‘bad’. Perhaps it never occurred to him that there are other ways to debate about music than with the music itself. The highest artistic category that he was aware of was the concept of ‘good’ and ‘truth’, and no musician or conductor could have received a greater compliment from him than to be called an ‘honest’ man. It is from this that the chosen subject of this study is neither Toscanini nor Beethoven, but rather the question of artistic truth as seen through the relation between them. It is precisely from this point that we arrive at the most surprising result: although Toscanini did not belong to the literary type of artist, more can be learned about aestheticism from him than from any other performer of his age.

His unbelievable expertise, around which legends have arisen, was merely a manifestation of his spiritual greatness. The fate of his concerts was decided at home, next to the score – it was here that he felt himself truly happy.The concert hall, as he confessed, meant immeasurable suffering to him, while rehearsals tried him, being superhuman tests in both the spiritual and physical sense of the word. His way of always treating tricks of the trade as ‘secrets’, and only having the main point – the artistic realization – in front of him, can perhaps only be compared to the humility and puritan thinking of Bartók. For this reason he did not follow the explanatory-didactic technique established in the practice of many conductors, but usually notified his players of the strictly technical solutions (such as bow stroke, staccato, tenuto; his remarks were usually of a general nature: ‘Cantare! Sostenere!’). If necessary, he would sing the melody in his husky voice, yet he trusted in the effect of his baton and the ability of the orchestra to react. His whole behavior emphasized almost ostentatiously that the conception of the performance can only be justified by the musical realization, and that an aesthetic purpose by itself has no justification – everything depends on whether it manages to manifest itself through the performance. Thus, for the sake of our examination, only one source remains: the finished product itself – in the present case, the recording of the Seventh Symphony with the NBC orchestra from the 1951-52 Beethoven-series.1)

1) The earlier recording of the Seventh Symphony was made in 1936 (78 rpm) (Toscanini was unsatisfied with the front side of the record, therefore he repeated the ‘Poco Sostenuto’ in 1942). The more intimate knowledge I have of the questions of performing arts, the more I believe in the ‘old’ conductors – the recording of Toscanini made 16 years later provides us with an almost shocking example of the process of crystallization. I would like to make mention of the technical equipment used to help this work. In the interest of the precision of observation, I used a (custom-built for this ) sound-frequency filter, a volt-meter, occasionally an oscilloscope, speed control, and further, an elliptical-needled dynamic up-beat head (ADC 66oE and ELAC Studio 322 E), and to prevent the discoloration of the sound, I used a special vibration-damped platformed speaker (Goodmans Axiom 80).