The Toscanini programmes

Havergal Brian

Selected and annotated by Malcolm MacDonald

If the public is to judge from prevalent criticism, they must conclude that Toscanini’s skill as a programme builder is less than his genius as a conductor: and the public will be right, with certain reservations!3. The performance of any work — no matter from what stage of development in orchestral music — played by Toscanini cannot fail to excite the greatest interest from the point of view of the art of the interpreter. Reading the original programme-prospectus of April last, I cannot for my part see where Toscanini's insight in programme-building failed him.

For a topsy-turvy programme commend me that given in January last by the Dresden State Orchestra at Queen’s Hall: Siegfried’s Trauermarsch (from Götterdämmerung) was played before the Siegfried idyll: and the final item was the Tannhäuser Overture, which being encored was succeeded by the _Die Meistersinger o_verture. The arrangement was a mixed assortment and had a distinctly disturbing influence, in spite of the magnificent playing of the orchestra. This programme of the Dresden Orchestra lacked psychological insight4: and if it had not become a London custom to offer orchestral programmes psychologically correct, no one would have troubled about it. But the teachings of Manns and Wood are not to be denied.

When a master so supreme as Toscanini comes to London, we certainly should make the most of his coming. He should have all the rehearsals he demands. We speak of the superlative interpretation of Beethoven’s Waldstein sonata by Paderewski comparing it with that of lesser pianists: and following a similar course with regard to Toscanini, we must agree that it is a mistake for him to choose familiar works only.

It is impossible to probe the psychology of the mob, musical or otherwise, no one knows why Toscanini’s name and personality throws a spell over those whose musical knowledge is in the elementary class. If this mob were told that another and greater than Toscanini was to conduct at Queens Hall, there would he a ruch pell mell to welcome the newcomer, just as the Paris mob turned from Bourbon to Bonaparte, and then turned back. At the moment Toscanini is at Versailles, or shall we say Queen’s Hall, the seats of which place are sold out as soon as it is known that he is going to conduct. What he is going to conduct is evidently of small importance to the mobile vulgus.

For the musician, Toscanini’s art is an entirely different matter. Altogether apart from the spell he throws over the mob, the cultured musician recognises in Toscanini’s interpretation something superb and unique. He omits nothing, and his fastidiousness and care are but a sensitive regard for the composer whose work he is interpreting. Therefore, with such a genius at hand, whose first thought is the composer and his work, it was an oversight for the BBC not to have invited from him an alternative set of programmes, or to have suggested a scheme which would have shown, say, a complete history of the orchestral symphony from Haydn or Mozart to date. That Toscanini included a symphony by Shostakovich, the brilliant young Russian symphonist, indicates clearly enough that he has sympathies with the contemporary composer. Perhaps he might have done more had he been encouraged: but I find nothing wrong with the programmes he offered and performed.

  1. Toscanini had conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra in six concerts for the London Music Festival around the time of George VI’s Coronation. His programmes — completely sold out the day the booking opened — were, in the words of Nicholas Kenyon’s The BBC Symphony Orchestra 1930-1980, ‘a little miscellaneous and rambling… a galaxy of orchestral showpieces, with little rhyme or reason except that of sheer exuberance’. They included the Corelli-Geminiani La follia, Busoni’s Rondo arlecchinesco, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloë, Tommasini’s Carneval di Venezis, a Vivaldi concerto, Shostakovich’s first symphony, and extracts from Berlioz’s Romeo et Juliette — as well as a solid diet of Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, and Haydn. ↩︎

  2. Brian reviewed this concert at some length in an article on the Dresden Orchestra which I hope to reprint in a future volume of Havergal Brian on music. ↩︎

On the other hand, by La main gauche

Musical opinion, July 1937, p. 866