Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

Extract from a biographical article, ‘Arturo Toscanini’

We are apt to ask where resides the power of a great conductor. There can be only one ultimate answer: it lies in the capacity to master scores and all that is in them. In this work Toscanini is unequalled, and probably never has been. His ear misses nothing. Ernest Newman once remarked after he had heard Tristan at Bayreuth conducted by Toscanini, that it was the only perfect performance he had sat through in his long life. We in London may never see Toscanini conducting in opera. E.N. evidently regarded his own experience as unique and inexpressible: there were finely shaded nuances he had never heard before, but later reference to the full score showed how right Toscanini’s reading had been.

It is the superior and fastidious qualities of his training, the inflexible power of his fiery imagination that make Toscanini different even from the few celebrity conductors. In Germany and Austria his name has a magic ring that stands for all that is perfect and superlative in orchestral and operatic interpretation. His advent into the principal chair at Bayreuth was heralded with great pomp and ceremony; but he did not cling to the position when he saw that it would become a pivot in politics. He promptly cabled his resignation from New York3. This desire to be free from party strife was shown by his refusal on artistic grounds to conduct a faction hymn; but they restricted his liberty to his own house for his pains4. This incident sheds a ray of light on the sincerity of Toscanini’s attitude to his art.

He has the wish and the power to sink his personality into that of the composer whose work he is conducting. This rare gift, added to his supreme technique, gives a halo of distinction to his interpretations. When Toscanini came to London with the New York Symphony Orchestra, his most fervent admirers were professional orchestral players and conductors. The Eroica Symphony is everyone’s possession to-day: but Toscanini’s rendering of it5 will remain with us as a beautiful and abiding memory through the years that are yet to run.

  1. Toscanini was conductor at Bayreuth 1930-31 - the first non-German to conduct there - but refused to return in 1933 because of the treatment of Jewish musicians in Nazi Germany. ↩︎

  2. The incident took place in Bologna in 1931 when Toscanini refused to programme the Fascist anthem Giovinezza in a concert to the memory of the composer Martucci. He thereupon left Italy until after the War. ↩︎

  3. Probably in 1930, when he visited London with the New York Philharmonic. ↩︎


Musical opinion, November 1934, p. 115