“You are no good.” These were not the words Gregor Piatigorsky, a nervous performer, needed to hear as he warmed up before playing a concerto with the New York Philharmonic. The man who uttered them, the conductor Arturo Toscanini, then said, “I am no good.” The effect on Piatigorsky was immediate and lasting; writing about the incident some 30 years later, the cellist remembered wishing he had “died as a baby.” Nevertheless, he kept practicing, kept striving, hoping somehow, in the brief interval of time remaining, to change the maestro’s mind. “We are no good,” said Toscanini just before the two took the stage. “But the others,” he added, “are worse. Come on, caro, let’s go.”

For Toscanini (1867-1957), pursuing perfection was a matter of conscience. Here was the right way, the only way, of being a musician; any other was simply wrong. In this brilliant biography, Harvey Sachs delineates the guiding role of conscience in Toscanini’s life. Sachs writes from a position of unimpeachable authority: The present biography is his second of the conductor, whose letters he has also edited (2002) and about whom he has written a collection of essays (1991).

Mad for music as a boy, Toscanini enrolled in the conservatory in Parma, the town of his birth, at the age of 9. He practiced his instrument, the cello, diligently, but he spent just as much time listening to the practicing of his classmates. To become more conversant with the instruments of the orchestra, he taught himself the violin and double bass. As a pianist, he was fluent (if not exactly polished), and he could, at sight, reduce complex orchestral scores consisting of dozens of parts to make them playable within the compass of his two hands.

Toscanini was aided in assimilating music by his photographic memory. During rehearsals as a young cellist, he was forever looking around him, much to the consternation of his conductor, who assumed he wasn’t paying attention. But Toscanini had no need of the notes on the page; his mind had already absorbed them. He fixed his eye now on the conductor, studying the gestures he made, now on his fellow musicians, noting which gestures they responded to and which they ignored, alert all the while to what he might do differently and what he would do better. (“Formal study of conducting did not exist in those days,” writes Sachs, and Toscanini learned his craft by observation.) He put to use what he learned once he gained the podium, and his wondrously retentive memory allowed him to conduct vast symphonies and operas without recourse to a score.

Success came to him while young, and one achievement led swiftly to another. He was chosen in 1898 to direct the reconstituted La Scala Opera, widely considered the best theater in Italy, if not the world. (One envious critic knocked him, though, for his “Luciferian arrogance.”) He was lured away in 1908 by the New York Metropolitan Opera, whose board of directors spared no expense to improve the condition of the hall and the caliber of the musicianship. (His most vocal champion on the board was the financier and philanthropist Otto Kahn.) La Scala won him back for eight years, only to lose him again, this time to the New York Philharmonic. When in 1936 he resigned from the Philharmonic, it seemed that, as the New York Times put it, Toscanini had “ended last night his career as conductor in America.” But then an NBC executive came up with an idea—“that the network could attempt to bring the world’s most famous classical performing musician back to the United States under their company’s aegis,” Sachs writes. “Given NBC’s huge and growing corporate resources, the network could afford to transform its already substantial, high-quality house orchestra into a first-rate symphonic radio orchestra.” Toscanini’s leadership of the NBC Symphony Orchestra made him, through the power of radio and then television, a household name. And his appearances as a guest conductor of other orchestras were as numberless as the stars.

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Outside music, the touchstone of Toscanini’s conscience was liberty, and he believed its blessings should be enjoyed by all people, free from coercion, unimpeded by prejudice. He was an ardent philo-Semite. While recognizing the genius of Richard Wagner’s art, he wasn’t for a moment taken in by the composer’s Jew-hatred. Wagner the man he considered a “farabutto”—meaning, according to Sachs, scoundrel, crook, or swindler. Toscanini also saw firsthand the anti-Semitism faced by Otto Kahn in the upper reaches of New York society; he could not fathom how the society that Kahn benefited so greatly with his largesse denied him the right to participate in it fully. At his own expense, Toscanini traveled in 1936 to Tel Aviv, where he proudly conducted the inaugural concerts of the Palestine (later the Israel Philharmonic) Orchestra.

A brave anti-Fascist, Toscanini ran afoul of the government of Mussolini. The more tightly Il Duce clamped down on the Italian people, the more Toscanini rebelled. Repeatedly Toscanini refused to conduct “Giovinezza,” the Fascist party’s anthem, before concerts where its playing was required. Once this caused him to be roughed up by a band of young Fascist thugs; afterward his hotel was descended upon by a mob of 200. Eventually, Mussolini arranged to have Toscanini’s telephone conversations wiretapped and his activities watched. In 1938, Mussolini even ordered that Toscanini’s passport be seized; it was restored only when it became clear that Il Duce’s zeal for punishment was outweighed by his dislike for negative publicity from the United States and England. Toscanini immediately left his beloved Italy, not knowing whether he would ever return. Eight years passed, but return he did, after Mussolini was dead and the war was over, to direct the reopening of La Scala.