Toscanini Records the Ninth
Arturo Toscanini first conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in Milan half a century ago , and of course he has played it many times since, but not until his eighty-sixth year did he consent to record it; the recording was extended over two days and consumed in all nine hours. What that exacting performance meant to the conductor, the soloists, the musicians, and the technicians has been eloquently described by JOHN M. CONLY, our Music Critic, who was one of the eight listeners privileged to sit through the electrifying ordeal in the vast , sonorous space of Carnegie Hall.
by JOHN M. CONLY
ON March 31, 1952, something happened for which music lovers around the world had been waiting, none too patiently, for a quarter century. Arturo Toscanini, eighty-five years and six days old, walked into Carnegie Hall to put on RCA Victor records his incandescent interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Patently he had rededicated himself all anew to the score, after fifty years’ acquaintance with it. Each note sounded as if it might have been written the day before. As he played, there grew in the minds of his listeners the inescapable conviction that they never really had heard the symphony until now. Quite possibly they hadn’t; quite possibly nobody had.
Ludwig van Beethoven started work on the Ninth in 1817, his forty-seventh year. His deafness was approaching totality. He lived in utter, self-imposed loneliness and in untended squalor. His music was earning ever decreasing understanding and popularity. To undertake six years of labor on the most ambitious work he ever had planned, he had no possible motive but one. This was enough: it was the unshakable conviction (correct, of course) that the world of the future would take his music to its heart.
This conviction has mystified some of his biographers, but needlessly. Beethoven well knew his own achievements. Beginning in 1805, with the Eroica symphony, he had released into the world what almost amounted to a new language. Wordless but potent, infinitely flexible, it reached directly to the core of noble drama deep in every human mind. For fifty minutes, the listener to the Eroica symphony is the hero in surging combat, is the mourning public, is the sane rebuilder in a civilization set free. Beethoven in his own time had seen the idiom take root. In later days it would dominate all Western instrumental music, from the Brahms First to the film score for Walk East on Beacon.
Unappreciated, Beethoven was cut off from his own time. But he knew the idiom as the future would understand it. He went to work for the future, showing in the process how terribly he had needed the language he launched; he had such a great deal to say. There was only one thing he had not foreseen.
For at least half the century and a quarter after his death, Western civilization was to be dominated by a philosophy which valued tangibility and describability to the exclusion of all other qualities. Music’s function was to amuse, to titillate, and nothing more. Music with pretensions beyond this was regarded with actual hostility, particularly in the English-speaking portions of the world. This is not to say that such music was not performed. It was, but largely by and for a sort of oppressed minority of aesthetes. Many of these, it must be suspected, were vessels too frail to contain the enormous emotions of the Ninth Symphony. For here the deaf and tortured Beethoven had dug to the most painful deeps of his own soul, past the terror of death and the shadow of meaninglessness, to deal as best he could with the biggest question he knew — what it means to be a human being, what it takes to be a good one.
Copyright 1942, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston 16, Mass. All rights reserved.
To perform his essential part in this great communication, Toscanini arrived a little before two o’clock, Monday, March 31, at the stage entrance to Carnegie Hall. He was accompanied by his son and manager, Walter Toscanini, and driven in a black custom Cadillac (New York license 10-T-1) by Luigi Gaddoni, chauffeur and general factotum to the Toscanini household. It was a fine, crisp spring a fternoon.
The other 191 parties to the venture had preceded him. At ten in the morning, in an RCA panel truck, came Henry Richel, a genial ex-Viennese, and Ray Hall, a powerful, soft-spoken young Negro, escorting the specially designed tape recorders which they were to operate for the session’s nine tense hours. Next to appear was Lewis Layton, a Victor recording technician for twenty-six years, to install the mixing amplifier and the microphones which would feed it music. The heavy equipment had to be lugged up a narrow flight of stairs to the monitor room, a cubicle above and to the left of the stage. For utmost clarity, which Toscanini demands, two very sensitive microphones, of an all-directional variety, were mounted over the stage itself. To supply balance and perspective, these were supported by three velocity, or ribbon-type, microphones hung in wedge formation back in the empty hall. When all the equipment was in order, Albert Pulley, RCA Victor’s chief recording engineer, joined his crew and double-checked everything. Pulley is a quiet, gray-haired man whose twentyfive years with Victor (fourteen in his present job) have given him an imperturbability which verges on the supernatural, and which he frequently needs.
Next to show up, after lunchtime, were Richard Mohr, RCA Victor’s Red Seal (classical) artist-andrepertory manager, and his assistant, Jack Pfeiffer. Both are urbane, scholarly young men whom Mohr describes as frustrated musicians. Normally only one of them attends a session, but the Ninth was something special. Both wore horn-rimmed spectacles and bore scores, which they laid on the table beside Layton’s amplifier with its VU (volume unit) meter and the monitor loud-speaker through which they would follow the performance. Toscanini is fanatically insistent that every instrument be heard in its part; if any passage is in doubt, it is best that he be warned at once — otherwise his irreversible veto may come down on the whole recording later.
The musicians, when they arrived, were gayer than the technical staff, partly because they had been through all this two days earlier, when Toscanini had broadcast the Ninth over the NBC network. They might have been less gay had they known he had gone home thereafter fuming with dissatisfaction and had refused even to listen to the tapes of the broadcast, but they didn’t. The hundred men of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, reinforced by two extra horns and extra stands of strings in each section, tossed their coats into the front row seats and tuned up. The eighty singers of the RCA Victor Chorale listened to last-minute directions from their leader, young Robert Shaw, who always manages to look like a very large, worried, very bright child. The four vocal soloists, who were to join the chorus in the finale, based on Schiller’s Hymn to Joy, came in last, looking fit but apprehensive. They were Eileen Farrell, soprano, Nan Merriman, contralto, Jan Peerce, tenor, and Norman Scott, bass. No singer is ever confident about the Ninth. Beethoven had long been deaf when he wrote it, and apparently had forgotten the limitations of the human voice. At best it is a twenty-minute ordeal. With Toscanini on the podium, it can be a full hour of absolute torture. Only the veteran Peerce had the nerve to wisecrack: “Who’s afraid of him?” looking over his shoulder in mock panic.
Toscanini mounted the steps (five) into the hall and the stairs (thirteen) to his dressing room. He is extremely myopic; to judge from the way he looks at his watch, his clear vision must extend all of three inches beyond his nose. However, he detests wearing glasses and he is gifted with a fantastic memory. He has memorized every set of stairs he uses — as well as every score he has conducted, and a few he hasn’t — and he doesn’t like to be helped. He walks alone. This, together with the fact that he has a bad knee, the result of an accident two years ago, adds a unique dramatic quality to his presence anywhere. Each time he walks down a stairs (he also avoids handrails) the suspense is almost intolerable.
“Orchestra ready,” came Dick Mohr’s very businesslike voice from the loud-speaker on the stage wall, “Maestro coming down.”
TOSCANINI is barely over five feet tall, though his head is large and leonine; and he looks even smaller in his working clothes, which consist of a black alpaca jacket, buttoned to the neck, gray striped trousers, and black, elastic-sided Italian shoes. Just the same, and any of the eight onlookers in Carnegie that day can attest this, the whole huge, dim auditorium seemed to tingle with almost physical tension when he walked on the stage. Nor did the feeling abate when the music began. Toscanini first conducted the Ninth in Milan almost exactly fifty years earlier, and he had played it many times since. Once, when he was a mere eighty-one, he had said, “I think that is the best I can do.”Now, from the first baton stroke onward, he was proving beyond doubt that he could do better.
As Toscanini recording sessions go, both Pulley and Mohr contend, this was not a tough one, considering the difficulty and importance of the music. Nevertheless, when it was done, more than three hours of music had been put on tape. The symphony itself, at Toscanini’s tempi, lasts about an hour and five minutes. Thus, on the average, he had recorded each portion three times. The entire job took nine hours. It had been scheduled for seven, in two sessions, but Toscanini ran over and required a two-hour session Tuesday night.
He began with the last movement, so that the chorus, recruited to double strength for the broadcast and the recording, might be done with and disband. Once, running through the orchestral introduction, he displayed an interesting device. Toscanini is not, as Beethoven was not, a man of words. In a pregnant passage, wherein the low-voiced strings invoke the theme of the final hymn to joy, he could not get the proper accent from the bass fiddles. He did not attempt to explain what he wanted. He had the cellos play their part alone, while he, in a series of stentorian grunts, illustrated what he wanted from the basses. The next playing, they gave it to him. The following morning he performed the same service for the finale of the first movement. In that instance, the whole string section soloed in a fateful, swelling undercurrent while Arturo Toscanini impersonated the brasses and tympani, shouting and stamping out the notes with a volume almost alarming from a man so small and so old. The hall echoed nobly.
There was seldom any doubt about who, on the stage, was working the hardest. The recording was made in “takes,” each seven to eight minutes long, partly to fit 45 rpm record sides. Often a take would be played back. The orchestra would rest, but Toscanini would conduct all over again, measuring his intent against what came out of the loud-speaker. He was patient. Occasionally he asked the men to “play musically, musically, not stupidly.” But there were no tantrums — not even when the triangle player came in a bar too soon, nor when Jan Peerce unaccountably blew his lines. He spared no one, however. Just before the final choral variation, there is a long, sublime, but terribly taxing round for vocal quartet. He put the soloists through it eight times running. In the last two attempts, Miss Farrell’s voice simply died. Toscanini finally let them go, and the chorus cheered them as they left.
In the half-hour breaks, Toscanini trudged up to his dressing room, took off his steaming jacket, and donned a terry-cloth robe. He drank a little fruit juice or chewed Italian licorice drops. At the very last break, at ten-thirty Tuesday night, he didn’t even bother to go up. He stood on the podium, passing out licorice drops and reminiscences to his fiddlers, who crowded fondly around. Waller Toscanini looked down at the stage through the control-room window and said softly, “Where do you get all that energy, old fellow?” Everyone upstairs was on the verge of exhaustion. It was at that juncture that Toscanini, having made the fourth, first, second, and third movements in triplicate, decided to make the finale of the first movement once more, just to be on the safe side. Then he repeated the first two takes of the fourth.
Finally he called it a day, cheerily bade his players good night, and mounted to his dressing room for a glass of champagne. When Gaddoni drove him away it was nearly midnight, and he felt fine.
WHAT makes this not less amazing is that, between September 28 and March 31, in addition to a full schedule of weekly broadcasts, Toscanini had played twenty recording dates. Among the works taped were five Beethoven symphonies, the First (which will be paired on LP with the Ninth, filling out the fourth record side), Second, Fourth, Sixth, and Seventh; the Brahms First, Second, and Fourth; Wagnerian selections including the Liebestod and Lohengrin preludes, and works by Donizetti, Weber, Prokofiev, Elgar (the Enigma Variations), Respighi, Franck, Cherubini, and Richard Strauss. Not all have the Maestro’s approval for release, which is not easily come by. In the past, Toscanini was not, to put it mildly, well disposed toward records as a musical medium. That this is no longer the case can be credited in no small part to the unstinting, if unsung, efforts of Walter Toscanini.
Walter Toscanini is a middle-sized, graying man with a quick wit, who used to be good at soccer, book publishing, and bibliography. More recently he has become good at photography, artist management, and audio engineering. He is an unspecialized intellectual of a type too rarely found: he has not the slightest trepidation about tackling technical problems. With all this, he is also very much like a man who has been given, ready or not, the custody of the Holy Grail, and he bears his responsibility very well.
It occurred to him, some time ago, that the Maestro might release recordings more readily if he could hear them better; so he acquired a highpowered tuner-amplifier and a variety of handsomely cabineted loud-speakers. However, the latter had been designed for ordinary living rooms, not for the baronial hall, at least fifty feet square and nearly as high, in the Toscanini home near Riverdale, New York. The Maestro likes to hear his music as he hears it on the podium, not remote. Walter experimented tirelessly. At one time he had sixteen public-address speakers, mounted in four corner cabinets, going at once. At that point, fortuantely, he became friends with David Sarser, a young violinist in the NBC Symphony who is also known to all high-fidelity enthusiasts as coinventor of the Musician’s Amplifier, the ne plus ultra of fine home-music equipment.
Sarser became almost a fixture at the Villa Paulina, the Toscanini house, and at once its other fixtures began to multiply as only high-fidelity equipment can. Now the corner of the Maestro’s hall is graced by an Altec Lansing 820-A system, an awesome combination of two huge bass cones and a theater-type treble horn. In the Maestro’s studio upstairs, the sanctum sanctorum of musical America, is a smaller, coaxial Altec speaker in a cabinet specially designed by William Shrader, Washington audio engineer, incorporating a spiral, bass-boosting exponential horn. In the basement, where Walter has converted a quasi-Byzantine billiard room into a sound laboratory, are a magnificent Ampex console tape recorder, several Sarser amplifiers, monitor speakers, and three precision turntables, with Audak and General Electric phono pickups.
Toscanini is very proud of his equipment and, without doubt, it has softened him on the whole subject of recording. When Jack Pfeiffer went to Riverdale with test tapes of the Ninth, a few days after the session, the Maestro kept him five hours listening, but readily gave an okay to two movements, pieced from various takes. Mohr went up later with the rest, and Toscanini was more than merely tolerant. Hearing the adagio movement, he wept briefly, at Beethoven’s vision, and said: “It is so beautiful . . . like the Twenty-first Canto of Dante . . . where all is flowers and light, light, light!”
Of course, not all was flowers and light, even after that. Toscanini has learned to distrust recording procedure from beginning to end, and is never absolutely satisfied with his own judgment. For nearly a month, before the Maestro went vacationing to Italy, Walter labored in his electronic dungeon, playing tape after tape to satisfy his father’s doubts. Walter ruefully claims to be a self-made masochist. He works always in the hope that any fault the Maestro finds will be blamed on him or his cherished equipment, not on the performance or the recording. When the Maestro came back, there were test disk-pressings and more hazards. He has a fine sense of pitch and a phenomenal sense of tempo. A test disk played at 33 4/9 revolutions per minute, instead of 33 1/3 will send him raging to the piano to prove that it is off key. Fortunately, Walter recently got a variable-speed turntable, able to compensate for such variations.
This Ninth, judged as a recording from the test pressings, is very good — certainly by far the best cutting of the work made yet. Like all Toscanini recordings, it features crystalline clarity; there is no attempt at mellowness. This is not the work of engineers; Toscanini actually makes the orchestra sound that way in the concert hall. It is wide in tonal range; according to Albert Pulley it encompasses from 30 to 13,000 cycles per second. Every instrument is heard, but in good perspective. The treatment is ideal for the Ninth, wherein the whole dramatic impact is contained in the structure and dynamics of the music. The last movement, employing the chorus, seems to be recorded at a slightly lower level than the others in the long-playing version, possibly to economize on groove room and allow it to fit on one record side. This is a minor matter, easily corrected by a twist of the volume control.
Why, after fifty years of playing the Ninth but refusing to record it, Toscanini elected to make it this year is anyone’s guess. Dick Mohr says, “ We asked him to,”but he had been asked before. At any rate, he acquiesced. A month before the recording date, he dug out scores of the symphony and spent hours with them at the piano. He asked Walter to play recordings of it —not only transcriptions of his own performances, but interpretations by Bruno Walter, Stokowski, Weingartner, and Ormandy. He listened while, over his head, from the balcony at the sunny end of the hall, his forty-three canaries twittered in their cages.
There may be some bearing in what he said to a friend several years ago, as reported by Howard Taubman in his biography, The Maestro (Simon and Schuster, 1951): “The Ninth is difficult. Sometimes the chorus is not good. The soloists are seldom good. Sometimes the orchestra is not good. Sometimes I am no good. You know, I still don’t understand the first movement.”On Monday and Tuesday, March 31 and April 1, nearly everyone was good, but particularly the conductor. And at eleven o’clock Tuesday morning he put down his baton and told his orchestra: “I think we know now how the first movement goes.”
How it goes, it would be idle to try to tell in words, except to liken it to a bombshell, or to quote sundry sample listeners, whose invariant reaction was: “That is the greatest piece of music ever written.” It can be said, however, that at last the giant symphony really hangs together, from its first ominous note to its last massed cry for human brotherhood.
Toscanini would not like to have this called Toscanini’s Beethoven Ninth. He considers such proprietorial terminology presumptuous, but he needn’t worry. For some time hence, this is going to be called the Beethoven Ninth.