November 25, 2020

“Sundays at the Sarnoff” Zoom Event Talks about Toscanini

MUSIC HISTORY: Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, which he led from 1937 until 1954. The orchestra was the idea of David Sarnoff, president of RCA.

By Anne Levin

The great conductor Arturo Toscanini had resigned from the New York Philharmonic and retired to his native Italy when RCA president David Sarnoff proposed creating a symphony orchestra, led by Toscanini, for radio concerts. The maestro was initially uninterested in the proposal, but Sarnoff prevailed, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra debuted, with Toscanini on the podium, on Christmas Day, 1937.

The relationship of Toscanini and Sarnoff, and the 17-year history of the orchestra, are the focus of a “Sundays at the Sarnoff” Zoom event being presented Sunday, November 29 at 1:30 p.m. by the Sarnoff Collection at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ). The talk will trace the history of Toscanini’s time with the orchestra, relaying anecdotes and showing some of the collection’s artifacts and photographs.

“Toscanini and David Sarnoff were friends,” said Florencia Pierri, curator of the collection. “They sent each other gifts over the years, some of which are very strange. I love that we have Toscanini’s house keys. We have a conductor’s baton that he used, some of his records, and photographs, autographed portraits, and coins. We did a pop-up exhibit a while ago which told the story of how he was convinced by Sarnoff to come out of retirement to lead the orchestra, as well as how his career transitioned from radio to television. We played some of his old records. We won’t be able to play them this time around. This talk is just a fun little music history lesson.”

The Sarnoff Collection was originally established in 1967 by RCA as the David Sarnoff Library in West Windsor, growing to include a museum, archives, and library. The more than 6,000 artifacts related to 20th century developments in communication were donated to TCNJ in 2010. At the same time the library and archival holdings, which include Sarnoff’s papers and memorabilia related to the histories of RCA and the RCA Laboratories, were transferred to the Hagley Museum and Library in Wilmington, Delaware.

When Sarnoff became president of NBC in 1926, he wanted to add more
cultural programs to the radio network’s offerings. “In a statement to the press, he says the radio network had ‘an obligation to foster the love of good music.’ So, he did a lot of things to try and create more high-level music at NBC,” said Pierri. “Part of that was an attempt to give NBC a symphony orchestra, in 1937. By then, RCA was trying to make a recovery from the Great Depression, and they doubled down on cultural programming.”

A full symphony orchestra was created. “Sarnoff didn’t know Toscanini personally at that point,” Pierri said. “By that time, Toscanini had retired from the New York Philharmonic and was back in Milan. Sarnoff tasked his music director to go to Milan and convince Toscanini to work for NBC. Essentially, he said, ‘Don’t come back unless you have a Toscanini with you.’ Eventually, the music director was able to convince him to come back to the U.S.”

Judging by a letter from Toscanini, dated February 5, 1937, that is part of the collection, the music director did a good job.

“My dear Mr. Sarnoff,” it reads. “I am very happy to accept your invitation to broadcast a series of symphonic concerts over the National Broadcasting Company beginning December 1937. It is a great pleasure to me to think that I shall be able to put myself once more in touch with the radio public which gave me, in my last season with the Philharmonic, the greatest proof of its appreciation and sympathy.”

Toscanini originally planned to do just one season and go back, but the performances were so well received that he eventually spent 17 years in the job. “Over those years, he struck up a friendship with Sarnoff and presented him with several gifts,” said Pierri. “For Sarnoff’s 51st birthday, Toscanini gave him a copy of his handwritten score from Verdi’s Requiem. Toscanini always worked from handwritten scores.”

By the time Toscanini finally retired from the orchestra, he was 87. “The very last time he conducted, it was kind of a disaster. He got a big confused on live TV, and he left,” said Pierri. “That was his last time on TV. But up until then, he did seem to really love conducting first for radio, and then for TV.”

The “Sundays at the Sarnoff” Zoom events are an extension of live programs that were presented at the collection before the pandemic. To register for the November 29 talk, visit “We have a good crowd of regulars who have been museum visitors, and we seem to get some new people at each event,” said Pierri. “It’s a good way to connect and get new people interested in the collection.”