Whatever may be said about the lack of centrality of serious music in twentieth-century culture, there can be no doubt that it has engaged the attention of the dictators for whom our epoch is so infamous. Though none of us can be sure of the precise connection between art and life, for totalitarian regimes that connection has been always absolute, and often bloody.

Music, too, was given the benefit of Mao’s loving thought.

Nearest to us in this dismal record of the manipulation of art for the aggrandizement of illicit power is the China of Mao Tse-Tung, especially the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Mao’s campaign against the arts was crafty in the extreme, for it was based on the suppression of the same artists who only slightly earlier, under the rubric of “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom,” had followed the demands of their own aesthetic goals. While most Western attention was concentrated on the torture of writers, music, too, was given the benefit of Mao’s loving thought. Western intellectuals, quick to defend literature, seemed hardly to react when performers of European music had their hands broken, or when the classic Peking opera was re-directed by force to embody the dictates of Maoist social doctrine. Indeed, many of our own avant-gardists showed a thoroughgoing concern for the new at the expense of the old; the English composer Cornelius Cardew, for example, proclaimed himself on the side of Mao Tse-Tung’s thought, and to our own John Cage, zany as ever, it seemed as if the (to him) admirable old fellow might well be responsible for “the bringing together of the family.”

A bit further back in time there was the chilling fate of the USSR under Stalin, and before him, Lenin. These two monsters and the system they created subjected the Russian musical tradition of Glinka, Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikowsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Rachmaninov to the demands of proletarian agitprop and socialist realism. Prokofiev and Shostakovich, the first having come to maturity before 1917 and the second trained by products of the ancien régime, were alternately treated as Communist stars and as petit-bourgeois villains. Fortunately, Shostakovich’s tragic story—thanks to the work of Solomon Volkov—is well known in the West; that of Prokofiev, who had the misfortune not to outlive his tormentor Stalin, is still curiously muffled. The emigration of Soviet performers from their once-promised land has produced at least three major accounts of life under tyranny. In Valery Panov’s To Dance (1978), Jasper Parrott’s Ashkenazy: Beyond Frontiers (1984), and Galina Vishnevskaya’s Galina (1984) we learn in sordid detail what it was like for a dancer, a pianist, and a singer to experience the terror of Bolshevik artistic success.

For most non-Jewish musicians, normal musical life went on under Hitler and even flourished.

When we go still further back to musical life in Adolf Hitler’s Germany and Austria, we encounter a paradoxical situation. For Jews, and for those non-Jewish musicians too closely associated with the despised twelve-tone compositional techniques of the proudly Jewish Arnold Schoenberg, life was a living (and usually a dying) hell, in which even total capitulation was unavailing. But for most non-Jewish musicians, normal musical life went on under Hitler and even flourished. Scarce resources were always made available, and gifted performers, even when concert halls and opera houses were nightly being destroyed, were favored beings, uninterfered with as long as they continued to entertain their audiences. Some of these remarkable artists—one thinks immediately of Wilhelm Furtwängler, Herbert von Karajan, and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf—went on to become constitutive influences on postwar musical life. While major controversy has often swirled around these artists and their colleagues, there can be no doubt that, in the absence of any evidence of specific criminal acts, their art has been allowed to triumph over their political pasts.1

There is another twentieth-century regime which in this respect deserves our consideration. Mussolini’s Italian fascism, more than a decade before Hitler’s conquest of power in Germany, was deeply concerned with art in general and music in particular. Now, with Harvey Sachs’s Music in Fascist Italy, the first serious treatment in English of music under Mussolini has appeared.2 The story Mr. Sachs tells is both deeply interesting and highly inconclusive. In any case, Mr. Sachs has put us in his debt for giving us such a thorough account of music and politics in fascist Italy and for relating this sorry spectacle to the wider panorama of Italian music from the turn of the century to the end of World War II.

There is a note of bygone glories present from the very outset of Mr. Sachs’s book. He begins with the death of Giuseppe Verdi in 1901, an event which marked the end of a career that had taken the art of opera from his early masterpieces to the artistic heights of Otello (1887) and Falstaff (1893). For a half century, Verdi had carried not just Italian opera but Italian music as a whole on his broad shoulders. Despite the one-opera successes of Mascagni, Leoncavallo, Giordano, and Cilea, only one true successor to Verdi was to emerge: Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924). While one would hesitate to place the less musically and dramatically profound Puccini on the same level as Verdi, the fact remains that in the operas from Manon Lescaut (1893) through Turandot (completed in 1926, after Puccini’s death, by Alfano)— and very much including La Bohème (1896), Tosca (1900), and Madame Butterfly (1904) —he created a body of highly popular repertory works, and that in so doing he was the last composer, of whatever national origin, to accomplish the feat.

But whereas Verdi had in all ways been an innovator, Puccini was an autumnal figure, content to provide beautiful Italianate melodies, richly harmonized and orchestrated with touches of French impressionism, all in the service of theatrically effective, well-made, and heart-wrenching plots. With Puccini’s death, Italian musical leadership—at least as measured in critical esteem—passed from the composers of opera to those of instrumental music. New operas continued to be written, but the old level of mass success was nowhere to be found.

As a political figure he was part magician, part mountebank, part fool, and part monster.

Even more disastrous for opera as a living art form was the sad fact that much of opera’s traditional audience went over to film. At the same time, the new instrumental music hardly proved able to take up opera’s slack. Of all the composers writing symphonic works and chamber music, only Respighi managed to find a secure place in the repertory, at home or abroad. And even his three popular and gaudy symphonic poems, Fountains of Rome (1917), Pines of Rome (1924), and Roman Festivals (1929), have won little respect from critics or other composers. The only other important Italian instrumental composer of the period, the modernist Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), now seems quite forgotten, even in his homeland.

This dismal picture of Italian music must not be allowed to obscure one simple fact: the Italian people have for centuries been, and remain to this day, one of the most musical peoples in the Western world. Such composers as Palestrina and Monteverdi, Vivaldi and Domenico Scarlatti, Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini—and Verdi and Puccini, have shaped our very conception of melody and form. Italian singers have for centuries given us our idea of the musical use of the human voice. The families Guarneri and Stradivari have defined for us what string instruments should sound like. In our own time one Italian conductor in particular, Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957). has determined for us how Italian as well as German music should be performed. And we must not forget, either, the contribution of Italian émigré instrumentalists in forming American symphony orchestras at the turn of this century, and for many years thereafter.

It was this paradoxical situation of glory and desuetude that Benito Mussolini inherited just after World War I. As a political figure he was part magician, part mountebank, part fool, and part monster. Entering politics as a socialist of the Left, he soon developed a winning socialism of the Right, and made his own person the symbol of the revival of Italian national greatness. Even worse for music, he was a reasonably competent violinist, a sometime music critic, and, in general, a music lover.

What made Mussolini and his fascism so suicidally attractive to so many Italians also endeared him to musicians. Undoubtedly his first and greatest appeal was the promise of order. World War I had been a disaster for Italy in the loss of lives and treasure; the political and economic struggle which followed the war seemed to push the nation to the brink of anarchy. For Puccini in 1924 (as quoted by Mr. Sachs from an account of the composer’s conversation), the political choice was clear:

I don’t believe in Democracy because I don’t believe in the possibility of educating the masses. It is like trying to hold water in a wicker basket! Without a strong government headed by a man with an iron fist, like Bismarck in Germany in the past and like Mussolini in Italy now, there is always the danger that the people, who construe freedom as mere license, will become undisciplined and wreck everything. That’s why I'm a fascist: because I hope that fascism will achieve in Italy, for the good of the country, the pre-war German national model.

Such feelings were hardly confined to the pro-German Puccini. Even Toscanini, Italian patriot to the core, supported Mussolini as a means of dealing with the weaknesses of Italy’s political structure: as Mr. Sachs points out, Toscanini at first admired Mussolini’s “Bolshevik-like platform” enough to stand for Parliament as a (losing) candidate on the Mussolini ticket.

Closely bound up with order as a selling point of fascism was nationalism. The territorial settlements following World War I had not brought Italy the rewards that its participation in the fighting had promised: the decline of Italian power seemed to suggest a parallel decline in Italian culture. Mussolini promised a transformation of the Italian image from that of the easygoing, folk-song-loving Neapolitan layabout to that of Imperial Rome. Though in actuality the solid musical achievements of this new dispensation were to be largely confined to the Roman symphonic poems of Respighi, fascism seemed to promise a renewal of professional and general music education, a better life tor performers, the revival of Italian composers of the past, and the making of a new national atmosphere in which great music could once again be written.

Finally, fascism appeared to provide a new idea of what kind of music should be composed. By the early 1920s, the crisis of modern music had already become manifest, and nowhere was it more apparent than among conventionally trained musicians. Opera, it was clear, had come to an end as a constantly evolving and popular art form. It was equally plain that younger Italian composers, as their colleagues everywhere, were turning away from nineteenth-century romanticism to a modernism variously associated with the atonalism of Schoenberg, the neo-classicism of Stravinsky, and the various brands of futurism, including those connected with the Italian writer Fillippo Marinetti (1876-1944). Whatever the exact nature of the new music, it was obvious to all that it would not possess the melodic and harmonic power and charm that had made Italian music so successful.

Perhaps the most succinct statement of the romantic reaction against modernism was contained in a 1932 “Manifesto of Italian Musicians for the Tradition of Nineteenth-Century Romantic Art,” signed by leading Italian musicians including Respighi and Riccardo Zandonai (1883-1944), the composer of the then fairly popular opera Francesca da Rimini (1914). Mr. Sachs’s selection from this document expresses the feelings many musicians have harbored but few, in Italy or elsewhere, have been willing to state publicly:

Our world has been hit, so to speak, by all the squalls of the most reckless “futuristic” concepts. As it grew more furious, the password truly aimed at the destruction of every old and ancient artistic ideal .... What have we gained from this? Atonal and polytonal honking. And what has been achieved by objectivism and expressionism? What’s left of them? ... A sense of facile rebellion against the centuries-old fundamental laws of art has infiltrated the spirit of young musicians .... The future of Italian music seems safe [according to the modernists] only at the tail-end of all the different types of foreign music .... There are [also] those who wish to re-chew the cud of our distant musical past. Above all, however, the last century’s romanticism is being opposed and combatted ….

The manifesto then goes on to speak of the specifically Italian context:

We Italians of today ... in the midst of a revolution that is revealing, once again, the immortality of Italian genius . . . feel the beauty of the times in which we live and wish to sing of them, in their tragic moments as well as in their ardent days of glory. Yesterday’s romanticism... will also be tomorrow’s romanticism ….

The problem, of course, was to put all these inchoate desires into practice. Here all the hopes were dashed. Instead of art and artists in power, there were bureaucracies and administrators arranging the thousand petty jealousies, intrigues, and incompetencies characteristic of musical life. And so under Mussolini, as Mr. Sachs confirms, nothing in music really changed, though everything became even more shabby and seedy than it had been before.

Beautiful and successful new music, despite numerous contests and prizes, was not written.

In music education, studies were written, and committees met, but musicians continued to be ill-trained and Italian children were taught ever less of their country’s glories. Badly needed new concert halls were not built, and some existing ones—as in the case of the acoustically excellent Augusteum in Rome—were even torn down. Beautiful and successful new music, despite numerous contests and prizes, was not written. On the positive side, performers, many of them first-rate, continued to appear, and the old operatic masterpieces continued to be put on and venerated.

At first, the worst that happened under Mussolini was that the personal politics so common in operatic and musical life were allowed to play on a national stage. Usually this meant no more than favoritism shown to party hacks, and a largely pro forma submission of policy matters to Rome, in many cases to Mussolini himself. But the potential for violence was always present, and in at least one case turned into a major embarrassment for Mussolini and a major turning point in the image abroad of Italian fascism. Mr. Sachs devotes much space to describing the regime’s attempt, in 1931, to force Toscanini to begin a concert in Bologna with the fascist anthem “La Giovinezza.” When it became known that Toscanini would refuse, he was roughed up just before the concert by a fascist tough. The world outcry was tremendous, and Toscanini did not conduct again in Italy until after World War II; even before his self-imposed exile in the United States, this fiery Italian patriot became the most admired symbol of anti-fascist Italy.

The fascist regime remained surprisingly hospitable to musical modernism even after the war started.

On a less glamorous level, however, Italian music went on, and the fascists did little to discourage new developments in contemporary music. The early 1930s, for example, saw the founding of two important music festivals, the Festival internazionale di musica in Venice (from 1930) and the Maggio musicale in Florence (from 1933). Both these festivals programmed much difficult new music, including works of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, and Berg: the last two composers were thus welcome in Italy at a time when they and their music were proscribed in Germany. Similarly, Jewish performers, including Bruno Walter, Fritz Kreisler, and Otto Klemperer, were welcome in Italy well after they had become outcasts under the Nazis.3

The fascist regime remained surprisingly hospitable to musical modernism even after the war started. Amazingly enough, Berg’s Wozzeck, a prime example of what Hitler called entartete Kunst (degenerate art), was performed in Italy in 1942. Even the dode-caphonist Luigi Dallapiccola (1904-1975) was lightly treated. For Jewish artists, of course, everything changed after the strengthening of the alliance between Mussolini and Hitler after 1938. Thenceforth, Jewish composers and performers were excluded from Italian music, though physical repression was not employed against them until the German takeover of much of Italy in 1943.

For those who love music, it is troubling that what they cherish has come to this pass.

More than four decades have now passed since democratic government has returned to Italy. It is perhaps the most surprising message of Mr. Sachs’s book—but a message which rings true—that the trends in musical life already so visible in the early 1920s have changed little under freedom from what they were under tyranny. Grand opera has become even grander, and even less of a truly popular and organically growing form. And though Mr. Sachs does not stress this point, it is clear from his analysis that the musical avant-garde—associated with such traditionally modernist figures as Dallapiccola and Luigi Nono (born 1924, and the husband of Schoenberg’s daughter Nuria), and the more experimentally inclined Bruno Maderna (1920-1973) and Luciano Berio (born 1925)—has carried what passes for new music in Italy even farther away from romanticism and any possible public sympathy. And over everything—whether in opera, concert life, or music education—hangs the suffocating fog of bureaucracy, made dense with the political arrangements and accommodations that seem to form an inevitable part of massive government support. The Italians are still a musical people, and they still love music, but with every passing day the vital and particular characteristics of Italian musical culture —even in the field of opera, which they invented—grow less.4

For this unhappy outcome, one would very much like to blame Benito Mussolini, his lackeys, and the Italian musicians who, in order to survive and in some cases get ahead, slavishly collaborated. But while the historical record does indeed show that the fascists were swine and that many artists behaved badly, it does not prove that fascism did very much more than administer, in a confused and inefficient way, a decline that had set in somewhere around the turn of the century, and that has continued to this day.

Before we blame the Italians for this musical decline, we must recognize the sad fact that serious music, viewed as a living art, has not done well in our time. At the turn of the century contemporary music meant the symphonies of Brahms and Tchaikowsky, the late operas of Verdi and the first of Puccini, the early works of Debussy and Ravel, the tone poems of Strauss, the Enigma Variations and the Dream of Gerontius of Elgar. All those marvelous pieces—and many more— have shown an astonishing life and permanence. Now we live in an age of which the last forty and more years have seen almost no accretions to the accepted repertory. The greatest European music festivals, as always the models for America as well as for Europe, stress celebrity performers doing celebrity works in pleasing ways; indeed, it all reeks of the title of a German opera-tune LP of a few years ago: Weltstars singen Welthits. Whether the country under discussion is Germany or Austria, Italy or France, the Soviet Union or Japan, England or the United States, music has become an international task, and one which belongs increasingly to show business.

For those who love music, it is troubling that what they cherish has come to this pass. It is perhaps even more troubling that the problems so blatant in musical life may well be only a particularly obvious manifestation of a much wider contemporary shortfall in the creation of high culture. The fears expressed about the present and the future of music are, on this analysis, similar to the worries many involved in the other arts feel as they survey their own fields and compare what they see to the past.

To talk of these fears and worries is not to say that nothing of artistic worth has been created in our epoch. There have been marvelous things done in this century in painting, architecture, dance, poetry, fiction, and music too; but what once seemed to be a flood has for long been a trickle, and that trickle now seems to be a drought. To talk, as so many do today, of “postmodernism,” of the triumph of stylistic pluralism and diversity, or of the happy destruction of boundaries between popular and high art, is only to commit the error Matthew Arnold so tellingly identified (in The Function of Criticism at the Present Time) as having “the grand name without the grand thing.”

It is certainly plausible to assign responsibility for what has gone wrong to the undoubted depredations of totalitarian regimes and ideologies. But even so, there can be little doubt that democratic governments and philosophies, no matter how much they are worth fighting and dying for, have done little better in the creation of art. We do not know why this should be so, and, needless to say, our commitment to liberty must not be dependent upon liberty’s use-value for art. Perhaps democracies, as a historical phenomenon, are still far too young to create the greatest artistic civilizations; perhaps the creation of such an austere and not immediately gratifying culture is a demand we have yet to make of our free societies and of ourselves.

It is a measure of the importance of Harvey Sachs’s study of music under Mussolini that his story destroys our easy notion that by itself democracy provides the royal road to art and civilization. As a result of Music in Fascist Italy, we are further than ever before from thinking that a simple solution to the problems of culture and its creation can be found in political systems, operating by and in themselves.

1 By contrast with the reasonably full documentation of Maoist and Soviet policies and their effects, to the best of my knowledge no first-rate account by a major participant in wartime German musical life has yet appeared, at least in English translation.

2 Music in Fascist Italy, by Harvey Sachs; Norton, 271 pages, $24.95.

3 It is a pity that Mr. Sachs did not check more closely his attribution of Jewish status to certain important artists. Thus he mistakenly calls the nineteenth-century German and Protestant composer Max Bruch a Jew, as he does the German, half-Catholic, half-Protestant Bertolt Brecht, dramatist and collaborator of the Jewish Kurt Weill. Moreover, it is surely misleading to speak, as Mr. Sachs does, of Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Strauss’s great collaborator in Elektra, Der Rosenkavalier, Ariadne auf Naxos, Die Frau ohne Schatten, Die aegyptische Helena, and Arabella, as the composer’s “Jewish librettist”; Hofmannsthal was but one-quarter Jewish, and the Strauss-Hofmannsthal works were performed in Germany throughout the Nazi era. 

4 In this regard, last season’s overpraised La Bohème at the Metropolitan Opera was instructive. The most noteworthy aspect of the production was not the conducting of Carlos Kleiber, as refreshing (if un-idiomatic) as it was, but the singing: it was amazing to see how little Italianate charm two reigning Italian stars, Luciano Pavarotti and Mirella Freni, had to contribute to this, for them, national classic.