Out of copyright. Transferred from personal archive.

Source: The musical mirror, July 1931, p.181,194
Text copyright: John Foulds, 1931

Toscanini's first visit to England. A critique and an appreciation
by John Foulds

Hailed beforehand as 'the greatest musical event of the season,' the visit to London of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra and Arturo Toscanini may be said at once to have more than fulfilled expectations; and their four appearances (two in the Albert Hall and two in the Queen's) are freely spoken of as 'the best orchestral concerts ever heard in London.' Though I have a congenial distrust of superlatives I could easily bring myself to agree with this one, were it only that, in so doing, one opens the doors to all sorts of constructive and informative comparisons and correlations, and arrives at certain conclusions which, whether right or wrong, can hardly fail to be stimulating and may be helpful. And as I am writing for readers of The musical mirror (musicians and music lovers of all kinds) and not for the general public, I may permit myself a slightly more detailed and technical commentary than would be admissible in, for example, a daily newspaper.

The orchestra

Certainly this Orchestra is one of the best I have ever heard, being equalled only by the Boston Symphony Orchestra of pre-war days, and I am credibly informed by a trusty confrère who gives chapter and verse) by the Philadelphia Orchestra. It possesses grand sonority without mere weight, brilliancy without rauciousness; delicacy which never degenerates into thinness; sweetness and suavity; and a rare clarity in full tutti and in those passages of complicated ployphonic writing in which so many orchestras fail. It has soloists of extraordinary talent and rank-and-file players of wonderfully high average ability.

Quite outstanding is its adaptability of style, conforming more readily than any I have ever known to the characteristics of the different composers' works. Why is this? Turn to the list of players and you are answered. In this orchestra you find Italian, German, French, English, Russian, Jewish, Rumanian, Dutch, Czech, Polish, and I know not what other nationalities. When welded into one instrument, as Toscanini welds his mélange of nationalities, and the best of all its elements exploited to the full, the result is necessarily superb. Recollect, and compare with this, the unquestionable excellencies of the practically all-Dutch Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, the all-American Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the all-French Colonne Orchestra (I will refer later to the all-English London-Symphony and Hallé orchestras), and you will have little difficulty in accounting for the unusually facile adaptability of style referred to above. The international personnel of this orchestra was only possible of achievement by a committee which entirely over-rode prejudicewhich allowed no narrow nationalistic barriers to interfere with its determination to have the best possible players, and which permitted no consideration of race or country to weigh either for or against such choice. The same aims, and the same lack of the slightest tinge of Chauvinism, resulted, many years ago, in the splendid Boston Symphony Orchestra already mentioned. Also, a Society, which will pay its rank-and-file players a minimum fee of £25 per week, can command the services of excellent performers. Another factor contributing to the marvellous efficiency of this orchestra is—work. The orchestra rehearses every day!

Now I must not be misunderstood to mean that none but a mixed-nationality orchestra is capable of reaching such perfection, for I think otherwise. Where, then, is it a possibility> I reply, in England. We have in this country players with all the potentiality of these, and if we could offer the equal financial inducement we could create, in time, an orchestra of similar calibre, and equal adaptability. (Obviously, I am speaking here not of the financial possibility of the establishment of such an orchestra, but of the artistic potentialities of our players). Brahms said to my master, Hans Richter (from whom I had it), that just because England had no fixed and rigid national musical idiom nowadays, as have, for example, France, Russia, Italy, Germany, therefore he looked for the next great forward movement in the art to this country. It is for the same reason that our players are more free by temperament to look in any direction at will, and give an equally good account of themselves in classical or romantic, archaic or modern works, of any nationality.

The programmes

Presumably the choice of items in these four concerts was made by Toscanini, and it was pretty comprehensive. Speaking purely personally, I would have preferred for their Rossini item a more mature work that his little Italiana in Algeria Overture ; for their Strauss a later (and, I think greater) work than his Tod und Verklärung. But even so, what a feast! Italian (very little of this, but perfectly played); German—Bach, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Wagner, Strauss; a little modern French; one Russian work only; and a soupçon of local colour--Elgar and Goosens, such was the schemeinteresting and well-balanced.

The tour had comprised visits to France, Switzerland, Italy, South Germany, Austria, Hungary, North Germany, and Belgium. In most of these countries, I understand, works by native composers had figured in the programmes, just as English works did here, which leads to a consideration of the extraordinary versatility of


When we consider that he conducts all these programmes entirely from memory, and, as we have seen, adds modern works to his repertoire apparently ad lib., there is room for sheer amazement at the vitality of this highly specialized gift in a man of sixty-three years. It is, of course, a gift of somewhat less importance than his purely musical talents, but there is no doubt that the possession of it does set free his other gifts, and liberate his remarkably complete personality to an extent that might not otherwise be possible.

This question of playing or conducting from memory has always been a subject of discussion among musicals. Speaking from long experience, in both capacities, I should say that there is a point below which the extra anxiety involved in the effort to render a work from memory is a distinct handicap: that musicians in this category (including—I say it kindly—many of our recitalists) ought to use the printed copy without the slightest hesitation. Beyond that point, that is to say, where the memorising of a work has been completely achieved and its recollection become largely a subconscious operation, the gain is enormous. Lucky indeed is the musician who possesses this faculty, though it should be remembered that many of our greatest (exactly as with actos) have it not. Toscanini's memory is proverbial, and I have seen none put it to greater use than he.

All the platitudes apply more perfectly for him than for any one else. He "allows the music to speaker for itself", yet it speaks more perfectly for him than for any one else. He "never obtrudes his personality between composer and listener", yet without his personality the composer reaches us less nearly. He "never for a moment loses complete control", yet his climaxes are among the most imposing tone-structures we can remember. He "is equally at home in Italian, German, French and Russian music", yet he realizes to the full and passes on to his audience all the varied characteristics of their national temperaments. He has, of course, the magnetic personality necessary in a great conductor, as had Nikisch, Richter, Mahler; indeed, as with all these, one has felt that were he a musician of merely average talent, his intensely vivid and pervasive magnetic quality would itself have forced him to the front. These psychological aspects of the musical art and artists will, I am sure, be given greater and growing attention in the future. They are inconceivably important to creator, interpreter and listener,and ought to be granted at least a modicum of consideration in the curricula of our music colleges.

I cannot remember two (perhaps equally great) conductors more dissimilar in this respect than Richter and Toscanini. The former, at his best, used to increase his field of magnetism in a marvellous way, seeming to include the whole audience in his emotional sweep: the latter remains apparently more self-contained, and forces the audience to contribute its quota of emotion-possibility which he then moulds in a way that can only be described as quasi-hypnotic. Richter might be said to carry the whole audience with him; Toscanini, to attract the whole audience to him. All in all, he is probably the greatest conductor living.

Some details

It was odd to see half of the double-bass players using the old-fashioned (one had thought obsolete) method of bowing. It is arguable whether they do not lose in delicacy what they gain in weight. The tone of the first oboist is greatly praised by some and disliked by others; but the evaluation of timbre and beauty of tone is a very variable quantity, and largely a matter of personal opinion. Horns were excellent. The system of having five players to cover the four parts, and thus conserving the solo player for extraordinary demands was fully justified in such superbites as the glorious solo in the Brahms Second Symphony. Brass was sonorous without 'brassiness'. Double castinets and tambourines in the Venusberg Music, and double gons in the Moussorgsky, were an effective departure. The nuisance of rattling metal music-stands was in evidence at the Albert Hall. Wooden ones, of course, should always be provided for orchestras. One harp in the Venusburg Music wasinsufficient either for hall or an orchestra of these dimensions. One melodic and one instrumental detail in the Wagner works were not in conformity with what that composer taught Hans Richter, who has handed it down. The same applies to one detail of tempo in the Brahms.

All of which remarks—here included for the sake of completeness—are of no account whatever as against the delights of our most memorable concert experience in a great many years.

N.B. The musical mirror at this time at least contains a section entitled 'Music to'day' at the beginning of every monthly edition