Looking at Toscanini

14th July 2009 | Daily Life, Musings | 0 comments

I watched a fascinating TV drama-documentary about conductor Arturo Toscanini. During his lifetime he was famous for his expressive gestures when conducting. Orchestral musicians who played for him said that it was always perfectly clear what he wanted them to do. It was rather shocking therefore to see him on the archive film. His gestures, though clearly full of emotion, seemed rather wooden and predictable by today’s standards. His face showed that he was intensely ‘hearing’ how he imagined the music should go. But his expression seemed turned inward. He didn’t look around much at different sections of the orchestra, nor did he give cues or encouraging glances to players who had to come in with counter-melodies. I could imagine that his soulful, almost sorrowful expression was inspiring, but his gestures seemed not particularly illuminating.

It reminded me of being at a conference where I heard a recording from the National Sound Archive, illustrating actors of previous eras. One actor in particular was known in his own lifetime for the naturalness of his speech, its likeness to the way that ordinary people spoke. But when we heard a recording, his voice couldn’t have sounded more stilted and artificial. In fact, we burst out laughing as we listened. But our laughter died away as we contemplated how much has changed if audiences of that time considered this way of speaking ‘natural’. What did it mean about the mode of speech which we consider natural and idiomatic? Remembering this experience, I looked at Toscanini with his rather workmanlike physical gestures, and wondered how our interpretation of ‘expressive’ can constantly change with passing eras.

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