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Arturo Toscanini was born in Parma, Italy, on March 25, 1867, and died in Riverdale, New York, on January 16, 1957. Many regard him as the world's greatest conductor. In addition, Toscanini's anti-Fascist stance during World War II distinguished him as a symbol of freedom and humanity.
Toscanini received his musical training at the Parma Conservatory, and by thirteen he was playing cello in the local opera orchestra. A stint with a traveling opera company led to one of the most remarkable debuts in musical history: for a performance of Verdi's Aida in Rio de Janeiro the nineteen-year-old Toscanini was pulled out of the cello section to substitute for the absent conductor. Toscanini, who had never conducted professionally, led the entire performance from memory.
Returning to Italy, Toscanini honed his craft by conducting at second-rank theaters. He continued to play the cello and was in the orchestra at the first performance of Verdi's Otello. In 1895 Toscanini was appointed musical director of the Teatro Regio in Turin, and in 1896 he conducted his first symphonic concerts. The following summer he married Carla De Martini, and their son, Walter, was born in 1898. Daughters Wally and Wanda followed in 1899 and 1907, respectively.
Toscanini was appointed musical director of the Teatro alla Scala in 1898. While there, he set standards that reinvigorated traditional operatic interpretations. In 1908 Toscanini transferred his talents to the Metropolitan Opera. After seven seasons in New York, he resigned and returned to Europe. With Italy's entry into World War I, he conducted patriotic benefit concerts and even led an army band on the battlefield. After the war Toscanini returned to La Scala, where he supervised a complete overhaul of the company. As a result, La Scala enjoyed a decade of unprecedented artistic success, including the orchestra's tours of North America. At this time Toscanini made his first phonograph recordings.
With the political situation in Europe worsening, in 1926 Toscanini accepted an invitation to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He continued to appear at La Scala through the 1929 season. Toscanini made his first appearance at the Bayreuth Festival in 1930, despite the protest of members of Richard Wagner's family who objected to a non-German on the podium. In 1931 Toscanini became embroiled in a political incident with worldwide repercussions: after refusing to play the Fascist hymn at a concert in Bologna, he was beaten by a group of thugs. He was subsequently warned to leave the city, and his passport was confiscated. The international outcry was phenomenal, and Toscanini's battle with Mussolini became a symbol of the struggle for democracy in Europe.
As World War II approached, Toscanini continued to assert his political beliefs. In 1933 he refused Hitler's invitation to perform at the Bayreuth Festival. The following summer he conducted at the Salzburg Festival, initiating a legendary series of concert and opera performances. Toscanini continued to perform in Salzburg until 1938, when the political situation in Austria compelled him to resign. He participated instead in the inaugural concerts of the Palestine Symphony Orchestra. In 1944 Toscanini appeared in a pro-democracy film entitled Hymn of the Nations.
Toscanini continued as principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic through April 1936. At that time, David Sarnoff, the president of RCA, proposed the formation of an elite radio orchestra expressly for Toscanini's use. The NBC Symphony broadcast its first concert under Toscanini's direction on Christmas night in 1937. The impact of the NBC Symphony's live and recorded performances on America's cultural life was immense, helping to initiate the music appreciation movement of the 1940s.
In 1946 Toscanini returned to Italy in triumph to open the renovated Teatro alla Scala, which had been demolished during the war. Besides his NBC duties, which included a tour of the United States in 1950, he continued to conduct in Europe. In 1954 Toscanini made his last concert appearance, conducting the NBC Symphony Orchestra in an all-Wagner concert. He died three years later, two months shy of his ninetieth birthday.
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