Arturo Toscanini: Second Cello and Conductor

Arturo Toscanini played second cello in an orchestra that played the music of Giuseppe Verdi—with Verdi conducting it! While playing Verdi’s opera Otello, Toscanini played the music as Verdi had written it, including a pianissimo in the last scene of Act 1. During intermission, Verdi came toward the cellists and asked, “Who plays the second cello?” Toscanini was so frightened that he could not move, so another cellist pushed him and said, “Ignoramus, when the great Verdi talks to you, stand up!” Toscanini stood up, and Verdi said to him, “Don’t play too soft—play stronger.” Toscanini objected, “Maestro, you marked pianissimo.” Verdi replied, “Never mind. It must be heard—play naturale.” From that experience, Toscanini concluded that a pianissimo in Italian music is different—louder—than a pianissimo in German music. Usually, of course, Toscanini closely followed the markings of composers. A famous conductor once led an orchestra in Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony and then asked Toscanini for his opinion. Toscanini replied, “It was bad—all too slow. Why don’t you follow Schumann’s markings?” The famous conductor replied, “The markings are wrong. No good. They’re too fast.” Toscanini shouted, “I’d rather be wrong and close to Schumann than right and close to you!”

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