Sunday, April 7, 2013


I saw recently on Facebook (god help us with social media!!!) a bunch of fools making generalizations about Mussolini's Italy and the composers who stayed there. They had no idea of what they were talking about. It's sad, in a way, that what, after all, are technical marvels, are thus used by the ignorant and lazy.

For those who would like to know what was going on, there are two essential books (so far), that are very well researched and were written long enough ago to be full of interviews with musicians who were trained or already performing in Fascist Italy.

In English, one's only choice is the very balanced and carefully considered Music in Fascist Italy by Harvey Sachs (Norton), published in 1988. For those who can manage Italian (with dictionary if needed) there is Musica e musicisti nel ventennio fascista by Fiamma Nicolodi, Fiesole, Discanto from 1984. For a reliable history of Fascism in Italy there is A Primer of Italian Fascism (European Horizons) [Paperback] Jeffrey Thompson Schnapp (Editor, Translator, Introduction), Maria G. Stampino (Translator), Olivia E. Sears (Translator) from 2000.

For this post I am more interested in Sachs and Nicolodi. Both concern themselves mostly with music under Mussolini's rule which peeked with his disastrous alliance with Hitler which began in 1936 in support of the monster, Franco, and continued uneasily until Mussolini joined the Axis and, ruinously, the war, in 1940.

Sachs makes the point that while Mussolini smothered architecture, literature and the cinema, his effect on music was less definitive. It was felt most in new operas. Unless they were comedies along the lines of the delectable Wolf-Ferrari works, without a satiric edge, librettos could raise "difficult" issues. But this is not the only reason non- operatic music blossomed under Mussolini for the first time in Italy since the extraordinarily rich Baroque period. Although The Fascists saw to it that only those they trusted were in power at the various institutions of training and performance in Italy, those functionaries felt far less in danger of reprisal from above than was the case in The Soviet Union, where everybody was a target, and prominence brought more danger. After 1930, Soviets repressed "experiment" and "innovation", using those words where it suited them. Because the intermediaries controlling music were politicians themselves, they were (rightly) paranoid.

In Italy, Mussolini delegated power to three musicians, all composers. The best of these was Giuseppe Mulè who shared power with the virtuoso suck up Adriano Lualdi whose slavishly adulatory letters and telegrams to Mussolini are shocking to read, and another true believer, best known as a music critic, Alceo Toni, although he also composed. Of the three, Lualdi was closest to the kind of nastiness one associates with Fascist regimes. There are those who think Toni was playing the game, while Mulè, the most gifted of these three, and by some interpretations the most influential within the regime, seems to have seen his mission as promoting living composers and seeing that they had commissions and performances. Though he was a fairly successful opera composer in Italy, without an international reputation, he had a passion for instrumental music, and all three of these men believed in the importance of a sophisticated and well formed technical basis for composition (and instruction in the conservatories became much more rigorous as is attested by members of the first Quartetto italiano and the conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni, interviewed in Sachs' book).

This led to a preference for the genius, Luigi Dallapiccola, and colleagues of his, some more gifted than others, such as Petrassi, Ghedini, Pizzetti, Cassella, Malipiero, Rocca.

Respighi was the best known Italian composer internationally, though more for his colorfully orchestrated, somewhat empty of content Roman Trilogy, than some extraordinary intellectual efforts (his Variations on a Theme of Hindemith is a distinguished work by any standard). His enjoyable music based on Baroque composers was very much in the spirit of the times. Mussolini appropriated Respighi because of his fame but actually left him nonplussed; the composer had virtually no interest in politics. Puccini had been a passionate supporter of Mussolini in his last years, and all the older Italian opera composers of less than amazing work, Zandonai, Cilea (virtually an amateur though still beloved by the queens), Giordano and Mascagni had close ties to the regime -- though to be fair to Mascagni, as much a con as an artist, he manipulated huge sums out of the government in exchange for almost nothing, ending with the disaster called Nerone in 1935 almost totally a recycling of a failure from 1907 that in parts didn't even fit the libretto. It was a portrait of Il Duce that did not please Mussolini since it seemed to be a send up as performed by the great tenor, Aureliano Pertile. (Pertile as Nero as Mussolini is pictured above). Tenor and composer found themselves in bad odor after that but not in prison or the grave, which would have happened elsewhere. The tenor went on though less prominently, records show his voice as more worn. The composer, 70, was able to wrangle occasional conducting jobs, and ended up dying in destitution shortly after the war (kept alive in part by lunches sent him by his holiest fan, Pope Pius XII). His funeral was not attended by a single Italian in an official position.

The Germans gradually gained more control in Italy by the late 1930's, forcing Mussolini to enforce racial laws (there is some anti-Semitic language in Fascist speeches before then but nothing was done to Jews -- in fact the Jewish Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was selected to compose incidental music for a vast Fascist spectacle around the play Savonarola by Rino Alessi in 1935 and congratulated heartily by the Duce himself, as well as very well paid. In later years he voiced his surprise at the turn to racial repression on the part of the regime, the more so because his champions all along had been the anti-Fascist and, in Italian conservative circles, detested Alfredo Casella and even worse, Arturo Toscanini).

The Germans changed Italy so much that in 1939 Castelnuovo-Tedesco cabled Toscanini for help in getting out. Toscanini who was not an American citizen could do nothing concrete, but Jascha Heifitz and the great American violinist, Albert Spalding, arranged the tricky issues of getting entry visas for Castelnuovo-Tedesco's large family and between them brought pressure on the Italian government, which initially refused to issue exit visas for the family. The gifted Vittorio Rieti was one of the most acclaimed younger composers in Italy through the mid thirties, but when the Germans arrived he saw the future, and was able to arrange to get to America through Casella.

One reaction to the sudden shift caused by the Germans was a masterpiece composed by Luigi Dallapiccola, perhaps the greatest among Italian composers of the era.

He was married to a Jewish woman, which made no difference -- until 1939 when an article in a Fascist newspaper denying there was a "racial" problem in Italy, convinced Dallapiccola that this was Orwellian "Newspeak", and indeed, that Germans, with some opportunistic Italian collaborators, were about to start roundups. He realized his wife was in danger. He composed his magnificent canti di prigionia for Chorus and Instrumental ensemble. This is a profound expression of terror and grief, viewing what was going on as an Apocalypse. He arranged for one performance in Rome, 1940, days before hoards of Germans with the Gestapo arrived in Italy.

In 1943, working on his opera, Il Prigioniero in Florence, he realized he had to go into hiding -- he chose a rural area near by. Igor Markevitch, then 31, later a great conductor and gifted composer, would bicycle out from Florence with news of whether those "underground" thought the Dallapicollas should move (they did, several times) or split up (the composer realized his wife was safer in a back street apartment in Florence where the neighbors had no intention of noticing her, than she was with him). Casella, always a controversial figure with few friends in the government, had also married a Jewish woman, and their daughter was therefore Jewish. For a time they escaped the Gestapo in Rome, but were tipped off that their apartment would be raided. They split up and went into hiding. Already dying of cancer, Casella was able to live long enough to see the Germans beaten back and to write his farewell, The Missa solemnis pro pace.

Mussolini was fired by the King in 1943 and imprisoned, rescued by Germans and made a puppet dictator, but trying to escape Italy in 1945 was caught and killed by partisans.

For those who love music, the 'problem' of collaboration in Italy was not so great as it was in Germany and Austria under Hitler where the terrifying organization of repression was remarkable in its time -- it was John Simon, the now ancient critic (one of the few who deserves the term) who suggested in the '70's and 80's that the use of "originality" as an aesthetic quality was nonsense. He averred, as a (non Jewish) refugee from the Nazis, that the only great original in the 20th century was Hitler. He remarked that it was Hitler who had the unheard of idea that technology could be used for total control of a society as well as systematic mass murder.

But Italians have never been well organized or able to act in consort to achieve a communal goal. Although Mussolini's henchmen could inspire terror when they put their minds to it, all of them (mostly criminals who had done time) had their own agendas, mistresses and their own networks of influence, obligation, friendships and regional affiliations. That was (and in many ways still is) Italy. No doubt Mussolini did update some aspects of Italian government ("the trains run on time"), and try to force more organization on his supporters. But it was only when he ruinously joined the war that he was essentially made irrelevant and German technology took over with the usual resulting terror and cruelty (mitigated by a largely silent public resistance).

Mussolini was a strange figure, though perhaps not so strange in Italy. He was essentially a buffo bully, part strutting tenor, part gourmand, part sex fiend, a champion napper and, as it happened, a serious music lover with some training to support his love. Except his love did not extend to opera. Of course he had to appear at important evenings but he made this deal with his large, bulky sons: He would come to the front of the box and wave to the audience, making his presence known. Then he would sit on a sofa. His sons, instructed to act enthusiastic, would drag their chairs in front of the sofa, and Mussolini, now invisible, would recline to sleep for the rest of the opera.

Knowing the Internet, it's time to be careful. I am not defending a dictator who was sufficiently cruel and power mad to deserve the term, and I am not writing as an apologist for anti-Jewish or any "anti" politics -- and we still have plenty of those in "Fecund America today" (Emerson). But Italy under Mussolini welcomed Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg, both banned by the Nazis. Igor Stravinsky was a popular figure in Italy (granted he was an opportunist and to the Right politically, but he was widely considered a musical radical and eventually had to flee Europe). Though European Fascism saw Communism as the greatest threat, Mussolini invited Soviet performers and, in defiance of their country, insisted they personally pocket their fees. Until and even past 1940 to some degree, Jewish composers and American black artists such as Paul Robeson and the choral Fisk Jubilee Singers were welcome. Bela Bartók, a ferocious anti-fascist, made much needed money in Italy before he fled Europe (and nearly starved in America, finally dying of medical neglect from initially misdiagnosed leukemia in New York City, but lived long enough to be evicted from his apartment on his death bed.) Strangely, the premiere of Berg's Wozzeck was a critical hit in Rome in 1942 -- starring the twenty seven year old Tito Gobbi, conducted by the sixty four year old Tullio Serafin.

But to make some final generalizations: When the great Primo Levi, poet, writer was arrested by Italian Fascists for working in the Resistance, in 1943, he writes in Se questo è un uomo, (Survival in Auschwitz in America) that he and his fellow prisoners were treated with the utmost kindness by their Italian jailers, visited daily by doctors, well fed, decently housed and kept warm.

(picture: Primo Levi around the time of his arrest)

Then the Germans came.

Levi was sent to Auschwitz where his expertise as a chemist kept him alive; but even as one selected to live, he was brutalized daily. Finally, desperately ill, he was heaved into a truck and fell under a pile of corpses. The camp was about to be liberated, the truck ("evidence") was driven away, captured by allies and unloaded. He was discovered barely alive and nursed back to health. The Italians who had been left alive when he was taken for dead, were all killed by the Germans before they fled.

Levi is not naive about the Italian Fascists but he was never beaten by them, starved, nor before his political activity and arrest, had he lived in fear. The second he was taken by Germans the beatings started, administered by German-Jewish "trustees" as well as Aryan soldiers. He understood something about the degrees of evil that possess humans here on this sick, ugly earth. His account is far from an apologia for Italian Fascism; but it is a terrifying realization that there are so many degrees of cruelty in the world that sane and decent people will still race to embrace one degree of cruelty or another. There is only the buffeted "self", a prisoner of that disease, consciousness, and then there are enemies, even of the same blood and background.

Before getting to a CD of Dallapiccola's best work, a few stories. One of the greatest post war Italian musicians was Bruno Maderna.

He was a brave and reckless partisan, who was sent to a concentration camp. It was lucky he wasn't killed. But perhaps he was aware that death was impatient for him; he died suddenly at 50, in 1973. Both Pierre Boulez and Luciano Berio wrote memorials for him, Rituel in memoriam Bruno Maderna is one of Boulez' most moving pieces. The amazing Quadrivium -- astounding to hear live -- along with Aura and Biogramma are on a DG CD (OOP but findable cheap) led by Giuseppe Sinopoli, also short lived. And Maderna led the best, most insightful performance of Wozzeck to be documented, on a DVD from Hamburg on Arthaus (one can listen to a music only track where his command of detail and precise realization of directions in the score are amazing).

One should be fair about opera singers -- it doesn't seem as though most behaved honorably in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or the Soviet Union -- where, again, long rule bred several generations of virtuoso backstabbers who had great voices. One can make an effort to single out this or that "star" as worse than usual, but most performers of all kinds went along to a degree. In Italy, productive composers were usually set up with a modest workload teaching job, and given generous commissions before the money began to run out in the late '30's. They were only incidentally in the line of fire. But performers needed engagements to survive and the best paying were used as rewards for those who were (sometimes) slavishly loyal as well as glamorous.

Perhaps one should be shocked that the world famous Beniamino Gigli loved Hitler so much that his home was a virtual shrine with autographed tributes from Der Führer and his genocidal friends. He had also fawned on Mussolini. His post war memoirs are cautious, of course, but an autobiography written during the war, Confidenze is franker. When officials searched his home after the Germans fled he was told his career was over. "You'll be back," he said. And indeed, within a few months, they were, begging him to perform. But most singers went to Mussolini -- in homage -- but also for favors. And then there were those who were of the genus, femme fatale. Like all dictators, Mussolini bugged the phones of everybody who worked for him. Sachs found a hilarious document of a furious conversation between Roberto Farinacci, one of Il Duce's most criminal henchmen, and the famous and beauteous mezzo, Gianna Pederzini. It starts with Farinacci passionately rebuking Pederzini for her fickleness and ends with her enumerating his shortcomings (literally and figuratively) in bed! (page 18)

But on to Dallapiccola and a CD from Chandos (part of a series).

These pieces from Dallapiccola’s prime have a glittering, caressing beauty, which masks an extraordinary musical mind. Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-75) was arguably the most remarkable of an important group of Twentieth Century Italian composers. His main rival, Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882-1973)was also very gifted, and like Respighi and Dallapiccola himself was fascinated with Renaissance and Baroque composers (Casella, likewise).

Malipiero prepared the first responsible performing edition of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea and, while irrelevant now, what he did is much better than the campy, heavily cut romp scotch tapped together by Raymond Leppard after the war. Malipiero invented his own kind of serialism (Schoenberg would have been bewildered) and hated the very "German" idea of thematic development, feeling that musical matter had to move continually and never repeat. In some of his last works his took some advice from his pupils, who included the great Bruno Maderna.

Most of Dallapiccola's rivals wrote some operas as he did himself (Malipiero was an enthusiastic Fascist until he fell out with Mussolini over his setting of a Pirandello play. He remained pro-Fascist in a somewhat eccentric way, but though thoroughly cosmopolitan in training and experience hated Germans, writing virulently anti-German letters to the distinguished Ildebrando Pizzetti about how betrayed he felt by Mussolini's pact with Hitler).

But most of these composers emphasized instrumental rather than operatic work. In Dallapiccola’s case, ironically he was to become most famous for his moving opera, Il Prigioniero started when Mussolini was deposed by the King and imprisoned, continued in despair when the dictator was "rescued" by the Germans, and the composer had to go into hiding with his Jewish wife. In some ways, his later opera, Ulisse, is more profound and personal. But it may be that free of the demands and limits of the theater, his instrumental and choral pieces have more individuality and power.

He was the first Italian to master the twelve tone technique of Schoenberg (though with some personal touches, such as the mutually exclusive use of triads in harmonic progressions). But like Alban Berg, Dallapiccola often ‘punned’ on tonality, manipulating his tone rows and other vertically organized harmonic devices so that the horizontal melodic line ‘almost’ resembled recognizable if elusive ‘tonal’ music. Though the overall sound of his work is gorgeous, he is an inventor of fugitive but haunting melody.

The most imposing work on this CD is the Variations for Orchestra (1952). The row Dallapiccola uses breaks now and then for four notes: B-A-C-H (B natural in German usage), which are then reabsorbed into brilliant manipulations of that row through eleven short movements. In homage to the great German master, Dallapiccola’s counterpoint is breathtaking in its effortless complexity, yet the segments have a wide expressive range. In both the Variations and Piccola Musica Notturna (1954, the title is a tribute to Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”) Dallapiccola is paying homage to his friend, Anton Webern. There is a similar shimmering delicacy, an aphoristic quality, but the Italian’s sound world is his own, and the ability to allow sighing, sweet melodies to arise and subside into a beautiful well of soft but fascinating harmonic and instrumental gestures is hypnotic. In Due Pezzi (1947), Dallapiccola demonstrates that serial music can be utterly alluring. This is one of his most rigorous scores – but, as is often true in his music, there is a subtle glance backwards at the late Renaissance – Carlo Gesualdo with his spiky chromatic harmonies haunts this piece.

This school of Italians was highly cosmopolitan, and Igor Stravinsky loomed large in the work of most. Tartiniana (1951) superficially seems to be in the style of Stravinsky’s Pulcinella (Dallapiccola’s older contemporary, Casella, in his Paganiniana and Scarlattiana uses a more obviously Stravinskian style). This is a “freely” tonal work -- the actual key of a given section is mysterious right up until the final, sometimes unexpected chord. From that tension, Dallapiccola derives a piece that combines the melodic sweetness of the selected Tartini tunes for violin (made more fascinating through artful fragmentation) with arresting, sometimes thorny, sometimes lovely harmonic procedures. It is evocatively scored for chamber orchestra without violins for maximum contrast with the solo violin line (skillfully played here by John Ehnes).

The Fragments from the Ballet ‘Marsia’ (1947) provide a sample of Dallapiccola in the theater. The exquisite music confesses Dallapiccola’s love for Debussy. On first hearing music by the Frenchman, the Italian was ‘paralyzed’ for a time, unable to compose. Thirty or so years later the example has been absorbed into a now luxuriously alluring, now eruptive series of meditations on music itself (at least in the suite) – the story is about the ill advised challenge of the flautist, Marsia (the satyr Marsyas in English) to the god of the lyre, Apollo. The five movements are almost a lexicon of the expressive choices, caressing to ferocious, a 20th century composer can make, held together by subtle motifs, varied, juggled, turned upside down.

The BBC Philharmonic plays with virtuosity and the conductor, Noseda, somewhat lacking in distinction, is careful and respectful.

There has been a rejection of serialism in some places and American Academic serialism (still alive here and there) eventually did the technique no favors. But used by a hugely gifted, endlessly inventive creator like Dallapiccola, the method yields much unforgettable, indeed, essential music.

James Ehnes, (violin, Tartiniana)
Gianandrea Noseda (conductor)
BBC Philharmonic

Chandos – CHAN 10258

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