This Was Toscanini: The Maestro, My Father, and Me by Lucy Antek Johnson and, first, by her father Samuel Antek, tells of a legend: Arturo Toscanini is widely considered the greatest conductor of the modern age and remains a towering figure in the world of classical music. His explosive passions, dynamic music-making and legendary leadership continue to inspire and influence today’s musicians while still captivating new generations of enthusiastic fans. Here is an intimate musical portrait of the Maestro, told from the perspective of first violinist Samuel Antek, who played under Toscanini’s baton for 17 years in the famed NBC Symphony Orchestra.
In this expanded second edition, Samuel Antek’s reflections gain sparkling new facets of insight from his daughter Lucy, with vivid recollections about her father and his most memorable musical partnership. In this interview, she delves even deeper into even more! Read our review of this triumphantly returned book here.
Q: What inspired you to create this new and expanded edition?
A: I have wanted to reissue my father’s book for a long time, but I never had a “hook” for how to present it until 2017, which was the 150th birthday of Arturo Toscanini, a cultural icon. When I saw that passages from my father’s original memoir were being quoted in the many articles and books which came out during the anniversary year. I realized that my father’s words about working with the Maestro were timeless and relevant. I knew then that Dad’s book deserved to be read and appreciated by new generations of musicians and classical music fans. It was the right time to publish a new edition.
Q: How do your introductory essays enlighten the 1963 version of the book?
A: When I decided to create an expanded edition I wanted to add new elements which would bring a more contemporary perspective to the original book. I added new photos and wrote essays to introduce each of my father’s original chapters. As the subtitle suggests, the new edition includes my own recollections about my dad, his illustrious career as virtuoso violinist and conductor, and the impact that the Maestro had on our family — and the world — during such a memorable time in classical music history.
Q: With your father a famed violinist and conductor, and your mother an artist, illustrator and pianist, what was it like to grow up in your household?
Music was my father’s profession, but it was also a family activity. My mother, an artist, also played the piano, and I, at the age of 6, started piano lessons. After all, we had a baby grand Steinway sitting in our living room; of course I would take piano lessons! I had a “good ear” and a natural ability but I did not love to practice, nor was there any pressure to excel as a musician. I was encouraged to pursue all my interests and soon I became more serious about studying ballet and art. Although I continued my passion for art and dance, I didn’t choose either of those arts as a profession. I was pulled in a completely different career direction: the world of showbiz. I became a television producer and network executive, of which my parents would have been very proud.
Q: What is one of your most vivid memories of your father playing in Toscanini’s orchestra?
A: I was too young to attend the NBC Symphony concerts — which were broadcasted live every Saturday night from Studio 8H at NBC studios — but I was allowed to stay up late to listen on the radio. It was a thrill each time I heard the orchestra start to play, absolutely sure I could pick out the sound of my father’s violin! I also loved to hear him practicing at home for hours at a time. We had to tip-toe around the house and speak in whispers until he was done.
As I got older, my father, still playing with the NBC Symphony, was also able to pursue his dream to conduct. He became the conductor of the New Jersey Symphony, and I did attend many of those concerts. Especially his children’s concert series on Saturday mornings. (Years before Leonard Bernstein!) Kids came from all over New Jersey to enjoy those weekend events. Sometimes I sat in the audience and sometimes I stood in the wings, beaming with pride.
Q: So who really was Arturo Toscanini and why was he so revered?
Recognized in his own time as an artistic genius, he had rather humble beginnings. He was born into a non-musical family in Parma, Italy in 1867. But with his special gifts, he graduated from the Parma Conservatory as a master cellist. When he was only 19, while on tour in Brazil with an Italian opera company, the conductor suddenly resigned and, since young Toscanini knew the whole repertoire by heart (he had a photographic memory), he was told to grab a baton and start conducting! He never looked back. He soon became the principal conductor at La Scala Opera House and in the first half of the 20th century became world-famous for his meticulous interpretation of composers’ creations, whether operatic or symphonic.
His battle cry was “Look to the score!” His golden rule? “The performer’s job is to come as close as possible to revealing the composer’s intentions rather than using the music for one’s own self-expression.” Also, “Play with your hearts, not your instruments.”
Q: Can you tell us about his infamous moods?
A: They were legendary, and my father describes many of the more memorable ones. Toscanini had exacting standards and the smallest mistake in a rehearsal could set him off! As congenial as he could be offstage, in the rehearsal hall he was well known for his explosive temperament. His frustrations came out in rages peppered with Italian curses. “Vergogna,” meaning “shame,” was a rather tame favorite, but, as my father writes, “every burst of rage served music.” The musicians loved him for it and they believed that as tough as the Maestro could be on the players they became better musicians because of it.
Q: Can you also tell us a little about his fierce political platforms?
A: He refused to perform in Germany once Hitler came to power and, years earlier in Italy, with the rise of fascism, he refused to play the fascist party hymn required at all public events. After one brutal attack by a fascist mob for defying Mussolini’s orders, Toscanini vowed not to play in Italy until the regime fell. When he was offered the position to create a new orchestra for RCA/NBC Radio, he and his family left their beloved Italy and settled in the United States. He didn’t conduct in Italy again until after WWII.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from the revised book?
A: For the reader, we become reacquainted with the “most famous musician of the 20th century” as though we’re part of a master class with an artistic genius. This book is not a biography, it is an intimate, behind-the-scenes, illuminating portrait of the Maestro and his music. It takes us right inside the almost two decades of rehearsals and performances; as though we’re sitting among the players of the NBC Symphony experiencing first hand Toscanini’s creative process, his dynamic approach to a score, his explosive passions and his exacting dedication to properly interpreting composers’ creations.
What was my personal takeaway from this labor of love? During the emotional journey of researching and writing about my family, I discovered a renewed relationship with my late father from an adult perspective rather than the limited memory of an adoring young daughter. Also, during this journey, I developed a soft spot for the irascible, musically brilliant and politically courageous musical legend Arturo Toscanini