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Fascism’s DJ, Il Duce

Alex Constantine - August 5, 2009

Music and Mussolini
By William Ward
Evening Standard

... This week, three Proms featuring the work of Ottorino Respighi, the foremost composer in fascist Italy, will give Londoners an insight into Benito Mussolini's often paradoxical relationship with Italy's musical heritage. The story of how Il Duce set about ransacking the Italian canon to provide the soundtrack to fascism is less often told but it is no less fascinating — and as with the Nazis' legacy, some unexpected side-effects are still being felt today.

Mussolini, who seized power in 1922, was a supreme propagandist who strongly encouraged the development of a very identifiable stile fascista in all the arts. Painting and sculpture, architecture and engineering, advertising and design, popular music, the printed word, newsreels, and his favourite medium, cinema (he called it “the strongest weapon of all”), were harnessed to project himself and his political objectives upon the collective imagination of his captive audience, the Italian people.

Mussolini himself had a fairly reverential view of music. His first major public speech (aged 17) was at a civic commemoration at the death of Giuseppe Verdi in Forli in 1901. He played the violin tolerably well — the photographs of him clutching his fiddle under that famous jutting jaw became iconic in a way that prefigured those of Tony Blair and his Fender, and Bill Clinton tootling on his sax.

He made much play of his love of serious music. He loathed the dance-hall hits of the time and received the great and the good of the music world with great display.

But unlike the racy and often aggressive avant-garde elements of the visual arts — drawing strongly as they did on Futurism, Art Deco and the Modern International Style to further the fascist message — there was precious little in the field of serious music that could be usefully “spun” in the same way. Opera, Italy's greatest contribution to music, had reached the end of its golden age, and a distinctly Italian contemporary school of symphonic music had yet to make its mark.

Puccini died in 1924, two years after Mussolini seized power in Rome, and although a few of his lesser rivals of the verismo school, such as Mascagni, Giordano and Zandonai, wrote a few late works with some muscular militarist sonorities to them, it was really left to the singalong marching songs of the squadristi — the Duce's armed militias — to set Italian pulses racing.

Pre-eminent among symphonic composers of the period was the cautiously academic Respighi (1879-1936), perhaps comparable in style to Elgar, Holst or Richard Strauss. He is best known for his symphonic tone poems The Fountains of Rome (1916), The Pines of Rome (1924) and Roman Festivals (1928) — which are being performed for the first time at the Proms tomorrow, on Friday and Saturday.

Although Respighi never considered them among his best work — his oeuvre numbered nine operas, a good deal of chamber and choral music, concertos, ballet scores, and perhaps most interestingly, his Ancient Airs and Dances, based on Renaissance and baroque lute music — they became instantly popular both in Italy and abroad.

On one level, they are evocative aural postcards of the Eternal City, but on another, they resonate with the glories of Ancient Rome's imperial prowess, which Mussolini was always anxious to associate with himself as a means of validating his largely brutal — though sometimes also comical — tactics.

Respighi was dragooned into Mussolini's hastily invented Accademia Italiana (contrived on the French model of the Academie Française) along with other leading cultural figures such as Marinetti and Pirandello to further validate the regime — yet there is no evidence that Respighi was much impressed by Il Duce's antics.

Instead, like the overwhelming majority of the Italian musical establishment, he mostly acquiesced in it and kept his head below the parapet. This was in contrast to both Puccini — who in his last two years welcomed Mussolini's emergence as a force for political stability, and was made a senator — and Stravinsky, who became a huge fan, regularly performing in Italy throughout the 1920s and 1930s, visiting the dictator and sending him respectful birthday greetings.

In fact, while Mussolini was busy decrying the Western democracies for their perfidious, decadent and spineless ways (and even worse for the Soviet Union), he was amazingly liberal when it came to musical imports.

He welcomed Soviet performers, Jewish composers and American black artists such as Paul Robeson and the choral Fisk Jubilee Singers, the outspoken anti-fascist Hungarian composer Bela Bartók, British figures such as Sir Thomas Beecham, and Yehudi Menuhin. Even “decadent” composers banned by the Nazis, such as Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, were sanctioned — the premiere of Berg's Wozzeck, a grotesque satire on war, was, astonishingly, a critical hit in bomb-damaged Rome in 1942.

The most notable exception to this rule was the most distinguished Italian conductor of the time, and music's most high-profile refusnik, Arturo Toscanini, who, after being publicly roughed up by Fascist goons in Bologna, left Italy in disgust for America. It wasn't until 1938, with the hasty introduction of the leggi razziali — the infamous racial laws inspired by the Nazi model — that there was any serious prejudice towards Jews at all, many of whom were initially among the regime's most ardent supporters, especially in the cultural establishment.

The popular Florentine composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco was a good example, much appreciated by Il Duce.

From 1911 until 1938, when the new racial laws compelled her to leave for exile in Argentina, the Jewish liberal intellectual Margherita Sarfatti was Mussolini's mistress, and undoubtedly influenced his ideas on culture.

Perhaps fascism's greatest impact on the world of classical music was the complete politicisation of its administrative structures. If there was no serious attempt by Il Duce to enforce ideology onto composers of the time, he certainly made sure that all the bureaucrats in every opera house and concert hall were card- carrying fascisti, taking their orders from their political masters before their musical maestros.

So strong was the quality of Italian symphonic and opera training at the time that the impact of this policy was perhaps not strongly felt in the years of fascism. The real scandal is that none of the postwar political parties did anything to change this system. Former fascist bureaucrats simply exchanged their party cards for those of the communists, the socialists and christian democrats, ensuring that today Italian music is still political with a big “P”. It is a major distraction from the production of great music, and a taboo topic that many Italian musicians are still not prepared to tackle, 65 years after the fall of fascism.

William Ward will present Viva la Musica! Viva il Duce! on BBC Radio 3 at 8.20pm on Friday.


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