Arturo Toscanini, Music Conductor and Orchestra Ally
The world-famous conductor Arturo Toscanini was a vehement anti-Fascist who publicly opposed Hitler. In solidarity with Bronislaw Huberman and Jewish refugee musicians, Toscanini conducted the first opening season concerts of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, now known as the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, in 1936-37. Toscanini’s experiences in Palestine are featured in the following excerpt from “The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro” (2012) by Cesare Civetta, published by Amadeus Press, an imprint of Hal Leonard Performing Arts Publishing Group.
Book Excerpt: Palestine Orchestra
When the Polish violinist Bronisław Huberman founded the Palestine Symphony Orchestra, he asked Toscanini to conduct a benefit concert in New York for the new orchestra. Toscanini decided to travel to Palestine in December of 1936, train the orchestra, and conduct the first concerts of what later became known as the Israel Philharmonic, composed of refugee Jewish musicians who had escaped persecution. Toscanini refused to accept a fee or reimbursement for his travel expenses.
Toscanini: “I had to show my solidarity.” “It is everyone’s duty to help in this cause according to one’s means.”
The news of Toscanini’s plans to inaugurate the orchestra attracted more musicians to join the orchestra and resulted in very successful fund-raising for the new venture. Toscanini stayed for more than a month. The dress rehearsal for the first concert was open to artists and workers. “The public’s response was one of overwhelming emotion. The president of the Hebrew University broke into uncontrollable tears.” There were nine sold-out concerts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Haifa, and concerts in Cairo and Alexandria. In Tel Aviv, crowds stood outside near the windows and some people even climbed onto the roof attempting to hear. At the end of the first concert, the ovation lasted for more than thirty minutes.
Toscanini was very interested in the extramusical affairs of Palestine. In addition to rehearsing the Palestine Orchestra and conducting its inaugural concerts, Toscanini expressed his humanitarianism through bonding with the Jewish refugees.
He was enthusiastic to see Palestine’s potash plants and agricultural settlements. He visited Bethlehem, Nazareth, the kibbutzim and experimental farms. He attended a Passover feast, a Seder, and visited the Hebrew University where he attended a lecture on Hebrew literature. When he asked his chauffeur why he seemed depressed, Toscanini was told that because his wife was expecting their baby, she was unable to attend the concerts. In response, the Toscaninis visited the young couple at their home.
In his first weeks in Palestine, Toscanini experienced what he called “a continuous exultation of the soul.” He called it the land of miracles, where Jews who had been doctors, lawyers, and engineers in Germany had become farmers who transformed sand dunes into olive and orange groves. Toscanini was given a piece of land upon which a common-house dedicated to him was to be built. “I must tell you that . . . my heart has been enriched by so very much affection!” He went twice to Ramot HaShavim.* “The farmers were overjoyed to be able to present Mrs. Toscanini with a basket of eggs from their henhouses . . . “The Toscaninis and Huberman planted trees on this piece of land at a special ceremony, and school children sang folk songs and children’s songs for them. Toscanini said it was difficult for him to speak because of the power of the impressions he had received, and Signora Carla wept openly.”She wrote to their daughter, Wanda: “When we left we were both crying. If you stop to think of what they have achieved through sheer labor, it is nothing short of miraculous.” Because of the many music lovers who couldn’t procure tickets to the concerts, Toscanini opened some rehearsals to the public at a small admission charge for charity. Upon arriving at the venue for the first public rehearsal thirty minutes early, he was surprised to find no one outside entering the hall. The audience had arrived before; the hall was packed to capacity. Children were in the arms of their parents. The quiet and interest of the audience almost caused him to weep.
* Established in 1933, Ramot HaShavim was the first agricultural community to be founded in Israel by immigrants from Germany.
The excerpt “Palestine Orchestra” from “The Real Toscanini: Musicians Reveal the Maestro” is used with permission by the author and Amadeus Press. In the book’s introduction, author Cesar Civetta includes a quote from Daisaku Ikeda, Buddhist philosopher and peace activist: “Toscanini was not able to separate art from daily life. For him, pretending not to see injustice was not only stifling to his humanity but fatal to his art. When one’s spirit is twisted, one’s backbone is twisted as well. It was Toscanini’s solid conviction that his daily actions must reflect his conscience.”