Victor de Sabata Italian conductor 1892-1967

Victor de Sabata Italian conductor 1892-1967

Victor de Sabata (April 10, 1892 – December 11, 1967) was an Italian conductor and composer. He is widely recognized as one of the most distinguished operatic conductors of the twentieth century, especially for his Verdi, Puccini and Wagner.  He is also acclaimed for his interpretations of orchestral music. Like his near contemporary Wilhelm Furtwängler, de Sabata regarded composition as more important than conducting but achieved more lasting recognition for his conducting than his compositions. De Sabata has been praised by various authors and critics as a rival to Toscanini for the title of greatest Italian conductor of the twentieth century,  and even as ”perhaps the greatest conductor in the world”.

Victor de Sabata Italian conductor 1892-1967

Victor De Sabata was born in the city of Trieste, at the time part of Austria-Hungary, but now in Italy. His Roman Catholic father, Amedeo de Sabata, was a professional singing teacher and chorus master, and his mother, Rosita Tedeschi, a talented amateur musician, was Jewish. De Sabata began playing the piano at the age of four, and composed a gavotte for that instrument at the age of six. He composed his first work for orchestra at the age of twelve. His formal musical studies began after his family moved to Milan around 1900.

In Milan, Victor de Sabata studied at the Giuseppe Verdi Conservatory, excelling at piano, violin, theory, composition and conducting, and graduating cum laude in composition, piano and violin. He would remain a virtuoso pianist and violinist up until the end of his life  In 1911 he performed in an orchestra under the baton of Arturo Toscanini who influenced him to become a conductor. De Sabata’s first opera, Il macigno, was produced at the opera house of La Scala on March 31, 1917 to a mixed reception. It was frequently performed during the next few years.

Conducting career


In 1918 Victor de Sabata was appointed conductor of the Monte Carlo Opera, performing a wide variety of late-19th century and contemporary works. In 1925, he conducted the world premiere of L’enfant et les sortilèges by Ravel. Ravel said that de Sabata was a conductor ”the like of which I have never before encountered” and wrote him a note the next day saying that ”You have given me one of the most complete joys of my career”. Ravel also claimed that, within twelve hours of receiving the score to L’enfant, the conductor had memorized it

In 1921, while still conducting opera at Monte Carlo, Victor de Sabata began his career as a symphonic conductor with the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia in Rome. In 1927 he made his U.S. debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, substituting for Fritz Reiner in the first eight concerts of the year.He did the same in 1928.


Victor De Sabata conducted the orchestra of La Scala in concert starting in the 1921–1922 season,  and conducted opera there from 1929. He became the principal conductor in 1930 in succession to Toscanini. Soon after taking up the post, he resigned because of a disagreement with the orchestra over the poor reception of his composition A Thousand and One Nights. Toscanini wrote him a letter in order to persuade him to return, saying that his absence was ”damaging to you and the theater”. Victor De Sabata did return to La Scala, and continued in the post for over 20 years. However, he did not reply to Toscanini, and the two conductors remained estranged until the 1950s.

During the 1930s, Victor de Sabata conducted widely in Italy and Central Europe. In 1933 he made his first commercial recordings with the Orchestra of the Italian Broadcasting Authority in Turin, including his own composition Juventus home. De Sabata’s friendship with Mussolini became another factor distancing him from his former mentor Toscanini.

In 1936, he appeared with the Vienna State Opera. In 1939, he became only the second conductor from outside the German-speaking world to conduct at the Bayreuth Festspielhaus when he led Wagner’s opera Tristan und Isolde (Toscanini had been the first, in 1930 and 1931). Among the audience at Bayreuth was the young Sergiu Celibidache, who hid in the lavatory overnight in order to surreptitiously attend rehearsals.

That same year Victor de Sabata made celebrated recordings of Brahms, Wagner and Richard Strauss with the Berlin Philharmonic. He also forged a friendship with the young Herbert von Karajan.  It is unclear why de Sabata was allowed to work in Germany by the Nazi regime despite his part-Jewish background.

In the closing stages of the war, Victor de Sabata helped Karajan relocate his family to Italy.


After World War II, Victor de Sabata’s career expanded internationally. He was a frequent guest conductor in London, New York and other American cities. In 1946 he recorded with the London Philharmonic Orchestra for the Decca recording company. In 1947 he switched labels to HMV, recording with the Santa Cecilia Orchestra in Rome. These sessions included the premiere recording of Debussy’s Jeux. He would go on to make more recordings with the same orchestra in 1948.

In 1950 he was temporarily detained at Ellis Island along with several other Europeans under the newly passed McCarran Act (the reason was his work in Italy during Benito Mussolini’s Fascist regime).  In March 1950 and March 1951 Victor de Sabata conducted the New York Philharmonic in a series of concerts in Carnegie Hall, many of which were preserved from radio transcriptions to form some of the most valuable items in his recorded legacy.

Victor de Sabata’s base remained La Scala, Milan, and he had the opportunity to work with two upwardly-mobile sopranos: Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas. In August 1953 he collaborated with Callas in his only commercial opera recording: Puccini’s Tosca for HMV (also featuring Giuseppe Di Stefano and Tito Gobbi along with the La Scala orchestra and chorus).

This production is widely regarded as one of the greatest opera recordings of all time. One critic has written that Victor de Sabata’s success in this Tosca ”remains so decisive that had he never recorded another note, his fame would still be assured”.

Heart attack and retirement

The Tosca recording was planned to be only the first of a series of recordings in which HMV would set down much of Victor de Sabata’s operatic repertoire. However, soon after the sessions he suffered a heart attack so severe that it prompted him to stop performing regularly in public. His decision to stop conducting has also been attributed to ”disillusionment”.His scheduled December 1953 La Scala performance of Alessandro Scarlatti’s Mitridate Eupatore with Callas was replaced at short notice by an acclaimed Cherubini Medea with Leonard Bernstein.

He resigned his conducting post at La Scala and was succeeded by his assistant Carlo Maria Giulini. Between 1953 and 1957 he held the administrative position of ”Artistic Director” at La Scala. This period was notable for a reconciliation with Toscanini (with whom he had had a cool relationship for twenty years) during a La Scala production of Spontini’s La vestale in 1954.

Victor de Sabata conducted only twice more, once in a studio recording of Verdi’s Requiem from June 1954 for HMV, and for the last time at Arturo Toscanini’s memorial service (conducting the funeral march from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony at La Scala opera house followed by Verdi’s Requiem in Milan Cathedral in 1957. The last decade of his life was devoted to composition, but with few results.

Although Walter Legge offered him an opportunity to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra in 1964 and suggested that he write a completion to Puccini’s opera Turandot, neither of these things occurred.He enjoyed solving mathematical problems in his retirement.Victor de Sabata died of heart disease in Santa Margherita Ligure, Liguria, in 1967. At his memorial service, the Orchestra of La Scala performed without a conductor as a mark of respect.

”Award Victor de Sabata”

The ”Award Victor de Sabata” is named after de Sabata. A prize for young musicians sponsored by the province of Genoa and the region of Liguria, the competition takes place in Santa Margherita.

Selected discography

The recordings that Victor de Sabata made in the studio are, with some exceptions, considered less gripping than the best of his work in the concert-hall and opera-house. (This may be related to the fact that he is said to have hated making recordings).Fortunately there are now several unauthorized ”live” recordings that demonstrate how exciting Victor de Sabata could be on the podium (although the sound quality can be problematic). This contrast comes through in the two different versions of Richard Strauss’s Death and Transfiguration and Verdi’s Requiem listed below.

  • Beethoven, Fifth Symphony, live performance with the New York Philharmonic, New York, 1950 (currently available on Urania and Tahra: Urania is superior)
  • Beethoven, Eighth Symphony, live performance with the New York Philharmonic, New York, 1951 (currently available on Istituto Discografico Italiano)
  • Brahms, Fourth Symphony, studio recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, Deutsche Grammophon 1939 (currently available on Pearl)
  • Debussy, Jeux, studio recording with the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, HMV, 1947. The premiere recording of this work. (currently available on Pristine Audio and Testament)
  • Debussy, La mer, studio recording with the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, HMV 1948 (currently available on Testament)
  • Puccini, Tosca, studio recording with Callas, HMV 1953. De Sabata’s and Callas’s most famous recording. (currently available on EMI and Naxos Records)
  • Respighi, Feste Romane, studio recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, Deutsche Grammophon, 1939 (currently available on Pearl)
This recording was described as ”quite simply, sensational, definitive…The piece blazes with colour” in Gramophone magazine.
  • Respighi, Fontane di Roma, studio recording with the Orchestra of the Accademia di Santa Cecilia, Rome, HMV, 1947 (currently available on Testament)
  • Respighi, Pines of Rome, live performance with the New York Philharmonic, New York, 1950 (currently available on Urania)
  • Schumann, Piano Concerto, live performance with Claudio Arrau and the New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall, New York, 1951
  • Sibelius, First Symphony, live performance with the New York Philharmonic, New York, 1950 (currently available on Urania and Nuova Era)
  • Richard Strauss, Death and Transfiguration, studio recording with the Berlin Philharmonic, Deutsche Grammophon 1939 (currently available on Pearl)
  • Richard Strauss, Death and Transfiguration, live performance with the Vienna Philharmonic, Salzburg, 1953 (currently available on IDI and Nuova Era)
  • Verdi, Falstaff, live performance with Tebaldi and Stabile, La Scala, Milan, 1951 (currently available on Music and Arts, and Urania)
    • ”[o]ne of the most remarkable performances of anything by Verdi ever captured on a disc.” De Sabata ”creates a performance of electric immediacy with an extraordinary attention to the score’s detail and architecture.”  
  • Verdi, Macbeth, live performance with Callas, La Scala, Milan, 1952 (currently available on EMI)
    • Callas and de Sabata ”bring an almost supernatural tension to Lady Macbeth’s disintegration.” ”Despite the poor recorded sound, this comes close to dramatic perfection.”
    • ”Victor de Sabata’s inspired baton makes this performance a gem. Unfortunately, while de Sabata and most of the principals are perfectly fine, there is a severe stature gap in the title role. Mascherini is simply not adequate either to his colleagues or to Verdi’s demands. Consequently, for much of the performance, Callas interprets alone. But her brilliant collaboration with de Sabata pays rich dividends.”
  • Verdi, Requiem, live performance with Tebaldi, La Scala, Milan, 1951 (currently available on Urania)
    • ”A total view of the work can be felt, also a keen ear for relevant detail… Here is the only representation of Renata Tebaldi’s fervent, soaring soprano in music that ideally suited her, a poised ’huic ergo’, finely floated ’sed signifer’, electrifying, as is de Sabata, in the Libera me… All in all, this version takes a very high place in the discography of this work.”
  • Verdi, Requiem, studio recording with Schwarzkopf, HMV 1954 (currently available on EMI)
    • Speeds are ”positively grotesque… All are far below Verdi’s metronome marks with disastrous results on the work’s structure.”
  • Wagner, Tristan und Isolde, live performance with Gertrude Grob-Prandl and Max Lorenz, La Scala, Milan, 1951 (currently available on Archipel)
”[a] staggering performance in spite of its cuts, and the primitiveness of the recording”. The Prelude to Act Three ”is one of the most powerful interpretations of this heart-breaking music on record”.
  • Wagner, miscellaneous operatic excerpts, live performance with Eileen Farrell and the New York Philharmonic, New York, 1951 (currently available on Urania)


Victor De Sabata’s compositions are written in a late-romantic style with similarities to Respighi and, especially, Richard Strauss (one early commentator went so far as to call de Sabata the older composer’s ”adoptive son”). They were quite successful in the 1920s, being performed by conductors such as Toscanini and Walter Damrosch, but are little-known today, although Lorin Maazel had them in his repertoire.

One reason may be that Victor de Sabata did relatively little to perform and publicize his own works, preferring that his music should succeed or fail on its own merits. Critical opinion on the merits of his compositions has long been divided. For example, a 1926 Time Magazine review described his Gethsemani as ”shallow, unoriginal music for which even the philanthropic genius of a Toscanini could not achieve distinction”,  while a critic for International Record Review, writing in the early 2000s, said that the same work ”contains some of the loveliest orchestral sounds I have heard in years”.

Published compositions

  • Il macigno; 2 atti di Alberto Colantuoni (”The Rock”, opera in 2 acts, 1917). Revised as Driada in 1935.
  • Melodia per Violino (1918)
  • Juventus: poema sinfonico (”Juventus: symphonic poem”, 1919).
  • Lisistrata (opera, after Aristophanes, 1920).
  • La notte di Plàton: quadro sinfonico per orchestra (”The night of Plato: symphonic sketch for orchestra”, 1923).
  • Gethsemani, poema contemplativo per orchestra. (”Gethsemane, contemplative poem for orchestra”, 1925).
  • Mille e una notte: fiaba coreografica in 7 quadri (”1001 nights: choreographic fairy tale in 7 scenes”, ballet, 1931).
  • Incidental music for Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, 1934.

Recordings of de Sabata’s compositions

  • Juventus, studio recording with the Turin Orchestra of the Italian Broadcasting Authority conducted by the composer, Naxos, 1933
  • La notte di Plàton, Gethsemani, Juventus, studio recording with the London Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Aldo Ceccato, Hyperion, 2001
  • Piano works, studio recording, Alessandro Marangoni, piano; Bottega Discantica, 2007
  • Mille e una notte, studio recording with the Gewandhausorcheser Leipzig conducted by Riccardo Chailly, Decca, 2012

In Swedish

Victor de Sabata studerade i Milano och inledde sin karriär vid operan i Monte Carlo. Mellan 1927 och 1957 var han också den ledande Verdi – och Puccini-dirigenten på La Scala. Han skrev själv två operor

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