Mahler and Toscanini at the Met

Looking for a new book?  Consider Johanna Fiedler’s Molto Agitato: The Mayhem Behind the Music at the Metropolitan Opera. Fiedler, the daughter of famed Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, traces the musical and social history of the Met from its opening performance in 1883 through the end of the 20th century.  Her writing is vividly descriptive, often humorous, and always interesting.  One of the most fascinating things to me about this somewhat informal history are the anecdotes about the famous conductors who have been engaged at the Met, from Gustav Mahler to James Levine. And as the title implies, the story behind this American cultural institution is anything but tame.  Often, the behind-the-scenes events at the Met contain enough drama, intrigue, and suspense to rival that of any of their stage productions.  Consider this description of the confrontation between two of the Met’s early conductors, Gustav Mahler and Arturo Toscanini.

The inevitable clash between the two conductors came quickly, and it was over Tristan and Isolde.  As part of his contract, Toscanini had insisted that he be given a new production of Tristan; Andreas Dippel was given the job of breaking the news to Mahler. As could have been expected, Mahler was furious and refused to agree. He considered Tristan, which had been his debut at the Met, to be his territory, and he threatened to resign.

For the 1908-9 season, Mahler prevailed, but in 1909, Toscanini conducted Tristan. Suffering renewed symptoms of his heart problem, Mahler did not have the strength to fight another battle. Later, he accepted an invitation to become music director of the newly formed Philharmonic Society of New York, while Toscanini settled in at the Met.(pp. 15-16)

A few paragraphs later, Fielder goes on to describe Toscanini’s unusual relationship with the members of the Met orchestra.

His temper was also legendary; he screamed at the players and bellowed offensive names at anyone who made a mistake.  When he said, “The orchestra play like pig!” the orchestra, unused to his cavalier treatment, demanded an apology. Toscanini explained that he couldn’t apologize because the orchestra indeed played “like pig,” although he did offer to open each rehearsal by saying “Good morning.” Not reassured by this concession, the orchestra sent a delegation to Gatti [general manager] to report some of Toscanini’s most egregious insults. “You think that’s bad,” Gatti said to the musicians. “You should hear what he calls me.” (p. 17)

The rest of the book is full of other stories, some of them funny as in the previous example, and others more serious.  There’s also a brief quote near the middle of the book from recently retired Principal Horn, Julie Landsman, but you’ll have to read the book yourself to find it! In short, much of the history of the Met can be described as a battle between various parties for control of the artistic and economic future of the organization, with the musicians and conductors often caught in the middle.  Molto Agitato is a great read, both educational and entertaining.

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