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Music in the Early Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 13 Music and Totalitarian Society
Richard Taruskin

The most conspicuous feature of interwar totalitarianism as it affected music was the obvious fact that the two countries that had more or less dominated the international musical scene in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Italy and Germany, were to be found among the totalitarian powers. It is also an obvious historical fact that Italy and Germany lost their commanding musical positions during the twentieth century. The obvious question, then, is how, and to what degree, these two facts may be related.

Italy’s arts policy during the period of Fascist rule was far less intrusive than the policies of the other totalitarian states. This was in keeping with the principles of the corporate state, which respected individual initiative and the autonomy of the professions, and was therefore not inherently hostile to modernism. Stravinsky’s cordial relationship with Mussolini is already evidence of this tolerance. In fact it was more than tolerance: Mussolini took pride in his advanced artistic views and was glad to have Italy play host to international festivals of contemporary music like the one in Venice in 1925 at which Stravinsky performed his Sonate for piano “sotto il patronato di S. E. Benito Mussolini” (under the patronage of His Excellency Benito Mussolini).

Fascist cultural bureaucrats might be as philistine as their counterparts anywhere, issuing blustery, well-publicized manifestos against “atonal and polytonal honking” and “so-called objective music.”9 But Schoenberg, atonal honker par excellence, toured Italy with Pierrot lunaire in 1924, and his music continued to be performed there under prestigious auspices until 1938, five years after the composer had been forced out of Germany. Alban Berg’s concert aria Der Wein had its Italian premiere at the Venice Biennale (biennial festival) in 1934; the composer, in attendance, was resoundingly fisêted. Wozzeck was given at the Rome Opera as late as 1942, with the war raging. (By then it had been banned not only in Germany but in Berg’s native Austria as well.)

Also performed during that wartime season was the ballet The Miraculous Mandarin, the most modernistic composition by Bartók, the most outspoken anti-Fascist among modernists, who by then had for two years been a voluntary exile from Europe. These examples of artistic tolerance, moreover, were more than matched by the racial tolerance that the Fascist government exhibited, in pointed contrast with Germany, until 1938. Refugees from Hitler like the conductors Bruno Walter (1876–1962) and Otto Klemperer (1885–1973) regularly performed in Mussolini’s Italy. The Sacred Service, a setting of the Reform Jewish liturgy by Ernest Bloch (1880–1959), a Jewish composer of Swiss birth, had its world premiere over Radio Turin in 1934.

In contrast to Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, where the banning of artworks was common, Mussolini’s government actually suppressed a musical composition only once, in 1934. The unlucky work was an opera, La favola del figlio cambiato (“The fable of the changeling son”) by Gian Francesco Malipiero (1882–1973), to a libretto by Pirandello. The ban was provoked not by the music, but by the setting of the second act, which takes place in a brothel. It exemplified the prudery that all totalitarian regimes have in common, regarding sexual license as a certain path to political disorder.

Music And Music-Making in the New Italy

fig. 13-2 Ernest Bloch with his children: Lucien, Suzanne (who became a pioneering scholar and performer of early music), and Ivan.

Still and all, the Fascist period did lend a new and unique coloration to Italian music. It was no coincidence, to begin with, that the most eminent composer of the period, and the one most lavishly promoted by the government, was known best (especially abroad) not for his operas but for his symphonic music. Ottorino Respighi (1879–1936) did write operas, of course—ten of them. Few composers from opera’s birthplace did not. (Even Casella wrote three, one of them in honor of Mussolini’s imperialist campaign in Ethiopia.) But all agreed that Respighi’s operas were a “secondary and uneven” branch of his output, to quote John C. G. Waterhouse,10 the foremost English expert on twentieth-century Italian music. What brought him international fame were his superbly scored programmatic suites for orchestra: Fontane di Roma (“Fountains of Rome,” 1916), Pini di Roma (“Pines of Rome”, 1924), Vetrate di chiesa (“Church windows,” 1925), Trittico botticelliano (“Botticelli triptych,” 1927), Feste romane (“Roman festivals,” 1928).

As their very titles suggest, these works were pictorial in character rather than narrative. As an orchestral colorist Respighi was rivaled during his lifetime only by Ravel. He developed his skills by studying the scores of Richard Strauss and by submitting his early attempts for critique to Rimsky-Korsakov, the best possible teacher, during the musical seasons of 1900–1901 and 1902–1903, which Respighi spent in St. Petersburg as leader of the viola section in the orchestra of the Maryinsky Theater. He prided himself particularly (as did Strauss) on the precision of his musical depictions.

The most famous instance of Respighi’s precision—the use of a phonograph recording of a singing nightingale in the Pines of Rome—has become controversial. Such literalness, it is often argued, misses the artistic point. (Indeed, as long ago as the first century ce, the Greek writer Plutarch, in his biography of King Agesilaus of Sparta, recounted how the king, “being invited once to hear a man who admirably imitated the nightingale, declined, saying he had heard the nightingale itself.”) More darkly, it has been suggested that both the recourse to what in 1924 was “high technology,” and the extreme resort to realism (to the point of coercing the listener’s imagination), were indicative of a Fascist mentality.

That may be overstating the case in retrospect. But the extravagantly vivid nationalism of Respighi’s scores, sentimental and aggressive by turn, and almost unprecedented in Italian music, is less easy to disengage from the clamorous politics of the day. Some of it was nostalgic or archaic, in the neoclassical fashion. Respighi arranged three orchestral suites (1917, 1923, 1931) of Antiche arie e danze per liuto (“Ancient airs and dances for the lute”) based on transcriptions by the pioneering Italian musicologist and early-music performer Oscar Chilesotti. More interesting were the works in which Respighi took his thematic material from Gregorian chant. These included the Church Windows for orchestra, but also several nonprogrammatic compositions, like the Concerto gregoriano for violin and orchestra (1921), the Quartetto dorico (“String quartet in the dorian mode,” 1924) and the Concerto in modo misolidio (“Concerto in the mixolydian mode”) for piano and orchestra (1925).

And then there is Feste romane, Respighi’s most modernistic score, full of polytonal and polyrhythmic effects and heavy with somewhat belated reminiscences of Stravinsky’s neoprimitivist ballets. Its first movement, “Circus Maximus,” gives full rein to the pre-or anti-Christian sentiments that the Fascist regime glorified in the name of Il Duce, the new Caesar. Deploying a huge orchestra with virtuoso facility, Respighi evokes the sadistic spectacles of ancient Rome. In its central episode, a band of Christians (identifiable by their hymn) is stalked and set upon by lions (identifiable by their cacophonous snarling and roaring) while the crowd goes wild and the bucinatores (trumpeters) rend the air with fanfares. The ending, seemingly modeled on the blaring chords that bring Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” (from the Symphonie fantastique) to its grisly conclusion, lacks the saving irony of its prototype.

The abnegation of Christian meekness and humility in favor of Roman aggression and audacity was an explicit plank in the Fascist platform. Its musical analogue, equally explicit, was the brash orchestral virtuosity Respighi’s scores exemplified. In 1931, Mussolini sent around a circular to Italian diplomats abroad on the need for projecting a new image of Italy—spartan, ruthless, militaristic. Aware of the historic importance of music in framing the national reputation, the Duce gave it special attention, heaping special scorn on the recently deceased Enrico Caruso (1873–1921), the great tenor who had in his time been Italy’s chief musical ambassador:

I prescribe that from now on, no favor be shown in any way to musical initiatives—operas, vocal recitals, concerts or musical soirées—and that they be treated icily. Exceptions will be made for symphony orchestras, whose performances give an idea of collective group discipline. All the rest must be ignored. It is high time that the world—that is, hundreds of millions of men—get to know a different type of Italian from that of yesterday—the eternal tenor and mandolinist for the entertainment of others. Caruso and the like were or are the old Italy.11

The chief musical representative of the new Italy, by Mussolini’s implied definition, was Arturo Toscanini, in the opinion of many the century’s most important conductor, who (among many greater accomplishments) was instrumental in popularizing the work of Respighi and other modern Italians abroad. Toscanini revolutionized orchestral performance precisely in the way that Mussolini emphasized (undoubtedly with Toscanini in mind), and in a way that also exemplified the ideal of objective performance practice identified in Chapter 8 with neoclassicism. A Toscanini performance, to a degree previously unprecedented, was a display of “collective group discipline” that aimed above all for a scrupulous (“uninterpreted”) realization of the musical text.

At the time Mussolini came to power, Toscanini was known primarily as a conductor of opera, in which field he was already supreme. Since 1898, though with several interruptions for engagements and residencies abroad (including a seven-year stint at New York’s Metropolitan Opera), he had been the artistic director of La Scala, the Milan opera theater and Italy’s premiere performing arts institution. His range was broad, encompassing Wagner, Debussy, and Chaikovsky in addition to the full Italian repertoire. He had given the world premieres of Leoncavallo’s I pagliacci (1892) and of two operas by Puccini: La bohème (1896) and La fanciulla del west (“The girl of the golden West,” 1910). He was the first non-German to be invited to conduct at the yearly Wagner Festival in Bayreuth.

Unlike most opera specialists, Toscanini had a longstanding interest in the symphonic repertoire. He conducted the Municipal Orchestra of Turin from 1898, and gave with it the world premiere of Verdi’s last major work, Quattro pezzi sacri (“Four sacred pieces,” including a Stabat Mater and a Te Deum) for chorus and orchestra. He first achieved world celebrity as a symphonic conductor during the 1920–1921 season, when, already past the age of fifty, he made a tour of Europe and America with a newly constituted La Scala Orchestra (called the Orchestra Arturo Toscanini for the occasion). In under eight months they gave 133 performances before audiences totaling over a quarter of a million.

These concerts were received everywhere as a revelation, in part for purely technical reasons. The crisp attacks and cutoffs, the transparent textures, the rhythmic precision of Toscanini’s performances far exceeded contemporary standards, as may be corroborated by listening to the recordings he made with his orchestra at the Victor Talking Machine studios in Camden, New Jersey. Critics used to the Germanic approach to Beethoven and Brahms complained about Toscanini’s relentless tempos and his “small, short-breathed and over-detailed”12 conceptions (to quote Richard Aldrich, the reviewer for the New York Times). But audiences found the approach irresistible, and so, in consequence, did concert managers.

By 1926 Toscanini was dividing his time between La Scala and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (which had been led, from 1909 to 1911, by Gustav Mahler, the supreme apostle of the elastic German Romantic tradition). After two years as guest and associate conductor of the orchestra, Toscanini was appointed music director of the Philharmonic, which had just merged with its chief rival, the New York Symphony, to become the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra. The next year he resigned from La Scala; except for guest appearances at festivals, his opera days were over.

He led the New York orchestra, which he took on triumphal tours of Europe, until 1936. He retired at the age of sixty-nine and returned to Italy; but the very next year, in 1937, he received an invitation from David Sarnoff, the head of the National Broadcasting Company, to return to America to lead a handpicked orchestra that would be created for him, that would do its performing on the radio rather than in the concert hall, and that would record the entire standard symphonic repertoire for Victor, the producers of Toscanini’s first records, which was by then a subsidiary of Sarnoff’s corporation. Toscanini led the NBC Symphony for seventeen years, until he re-retired, in 1954, at the age of eighty-seven. He died in New York in January 1957, two months short of his ninetieth birthday.

For the culminating phase of his career, then, Toscanini worked almost exclusively through the broadcast and recording media, achieving through technology a fame no “classical” musician had ever previously known (except, perhaps, and ironically, Caruso). He fulfilled, and then some, Mussolini’s musical prediction for the New Italy, which is also ironic, since Toscanini and Mussolini had fallen out in the 1920s (leading indirectly to the conductor’s retirement from La Scala), and during the 1930s and 1940s, decades spent almost entirely in America, Toscanini traded heavily on his anti-Fascist credentials and lent his celebrated name and priceless services to Allied wartime propaganda.

For this reason it may seem bizarre to discuss Toscanini in the context of totalitarianism. And yet the kind of performances he achieved were attributable as much to the dominating force of his personality, and his dictatorial behavior, as they were to his musical insight. Musicians who played under him, and who were subject to summary dismissal, experienced a veritable reign of terror that is documented not only in anecdotes but in recordings that were surreptitiously made of Toscanini’s appalling outbursts of temper. Toscanini justified his behavior precisely the way political dictators do, by claiming that the ends justified the means. “Gentlemen, be democrats in life but aristocrats in art,”13 he told his orchestras. Only the strictest hierarchy of command could achieve the precision results for which Toscanini became famous, and which the musical world has treasured ever since. But if Mussolini cannot be excused his violations of human rights because he made the trains run on time, is it right to excuse Toscanini’s tyrannical behavior because he made his orchestras play in time, or submit more obediently to the composer’s notations?

Toscanini’s hostility toward Mussolini, and his fortuitous situation as an American “exile,” made the double standard easier to maintain; but with historical distance it is clear that Toscanini was no political resister. He actually declined his one documented opportunity to give public voice to principled political opposition to the dictator, when he refused to sign an anti-Fascist manifesto circulated in 1925 by the philosopher Benedetto Croce. His run-ins with Mussolini had mainly to do with the Duce’s attempts to infringe upon the conductor’s authority at La Scala. It was a matter of symbolic trifles, like playing the Fascist hymn (La Giovinezza, “Youth”) before performances, or displaying the leader’s portrait in the foyer. The story of Toscanini vs. Mussolini was the tale of two Duci engaged in a protracted battle of wills.

And so the difficult problems raised by the relationship between Toscanini’s methods and his results continue to nag. It is a particularly crisp and concentrated instance of the old, perpetually renegotiated dilemma concerning the relationship between the competing, possibly incompatible ideals of equality and excellence. Toscanini’s revolutionary transformation of orchestral performance, amounting to the creation of a new standard of clean, efficient, uncomplicated (in a word, streamlined) execution, chimed well with Fascist ideals of polity. He contributed more than anyone else toward turning the art of musical performance into an “Art of Being Ruled,” to borrow the title of a book of essays by Wyndham Lewis, a British modernist writer and painter who was notoriously a Fascist sympathizer in the years preceding the Second World War. Can we now endorse the artistic results and at the same time ignore or reject the political parallel? If we cannot, is artistic excellence achievable within a democratic society, or is it to be regarded as politically tainted?


(9) “A Manifesto of Italian Musicians for the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century Romantic Art” (signed by, among others, Ottorino Respighi, Ildebrando Pizzetti, Riccardo Zandonai and Riccardo Pick-Mangiagalli), La Stampa (Turin), 17 December 1932; Harvey Sachs, Music in Fascist Italy (New York: Norton, 1987), p. 24.

(10) John C. G. Waterhouse, “Respighi,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. III (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 1295.

(11) Benito Mussolini, Opera omnia XLI (Rome, 1979): 424; Sachs, Music in Fascist Italy, p. 17.

(12) Richard Aldrich, New York Times, 12 January 1921; Joseph Horowitz, Understanding Toscanini: How He Became an American Culture-God and Helped Creat a New Audience for Old Music (New York: Knopf, 1987), p. 86.

(13) Quoted in G. Barblan, Toscanini e la Scala (Milan, 1972); Sachs, Music in Fascist Italy, p. 213.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Early Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 13 Music and Totalitarian Society." In Music in the Early Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume4/actrade-9780195384840-div1-013003.xml