Jews and Music in Fascist Italy

The modern nation of Italy had existed for barely more than sixty years when, in October 1922, Benito Mussolini became the country’s prime minister. The previous six decades had constituted the most tranquil period in the history of Italy’s Jewish communities; many had existed since pre-Christian times, others since the immigration of Jews who had been expelled from Spain. With the creation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861, and especially after 1870, when Rome was taken from the pope and annexed as the nation’s capital, official antisemitism ended in Italy.

‘All students of Italian Jewry, whether Jewish or Gentile, Fascist or anti-Fascist, are agreed that there was virtually no Jewish problem in modern Italy,’ wrote Meir Michaelis in his book Mussolini and the Jews. Michaelis quoted Cecil Roth, an expert on the subject, who had declared that in no other country in the world were conditions for the Jews better than in post-reunification Italy.

Despite the fact that Jews accounted for only a tiny fraction of the country’s population – they numbered fewer than 50,000 in 1930, barely more than one-tenth of one percent of a total population of over 40 million – post-reunification, pre-fascist Italy had had one Jewish and one half-Jewish prime minister, and Jews had held many other high-ranking political and military positions. They were especially prominent in the arts and sciences: the novelist Italo Svevo, the poet Umberto Saba, the painter Amedeo Modigliani, the composer Alberto Franchetti (whose mother was a Rothschild) – these and many others were all or part Jewish, as was Giulio Gatti-Casazza, general manager of La Scala (1898-1908) and of the Metropolitan Opera in New York (1908-35).

During the first fifteen years of the fascist regime, Italian Jews were left unmolested, and indeed many of them were enthusiastic supporters of Mussolini. Michaelis pointed out that ‘the number of Jewish university teachers continued to be disproportionately high, and so did the number of Jewish generals and admirals’. Guido Jung, a minister of finance under the regime and an ex-officio member of the Fascist Grand Council, was Jewish, and Alberto Liuzzi, a Jew who had converted to Catholicism, was a consul-general in the fascist militia. The journalist Margherita Sarfatti, Mussolini’s first biographer – and one of his mistresses – was Jewish, and Gino Arias, Carlo Foà, and Giorgio Del Vecchio, all Jews, occupied important positions under the regime. Mussolini himself stated, late in the 1920s, that there were no pure races and that there was no Jewish question in Italy. After the Nazis’ accession to power in Germany, and notwithstanding Hitler’s admiration and, in some cases, imitation of Mussolinian fascism, Mussolini privately expressed contempt for National Socialism (‘savage barbarism [...] murder and killing, loot and pillage and blackmail are all it can produce’) and for Hitler (‘a horrible sexual degenerate, [...] a dangerous madman’). A number of well-known German Jewish musicians who suddenly found themselves eliminated from musical life at home were welcomed in Italy.

By the mid-1930s, however, Mussolini had begun to believe that a war between the fascist states and the ‘feeble’ European democracies was inevitable, that an alliance with Germany was Italy’s best option and that he therefore ought to adopt policies in line with those of his ‘degenerate’ but militarily stronger German colleague. The well-oiled fascist propaganda machine was put to work in order to accustom Italians to the twofold notion that Italians were Aryans and that Jews could not be either Italians or Aryans. In 1938, the Duce, in his infinite wisdom, drew up a ten-point Manifesto of the Race that prohibited most Jews from marrying ‘Aryans’, expelled most foreign-born Jews from the country, and declared that Jews could not (a) be members of the National Fascist Party, (b) own or manage businesses of any sort that employed 100 or more people, (c) own more than fifty hectares of land or (d) do military service. Shortly thereafter, Jews were also forbidden to teach at Italian schools or universities or occupy positions in other cultural institutions. According to Michaelis, ‘Pope Pius XI publicly branded [the Manifesto] as a “disgraceful imitation” of Hitler’s Nordic mythology,’ and King Victor Emanuel III ‘voiced similar views in private, expressing astonishment at the fact that his Prime Minister should have seen fit “to import these racial fashions from Berlin into Italy.”’ But the king and the pope had already swallowed many of Mussolini’s other excesses, from the elimination of free speech and freedom of the press to the repression of all forms of political opposition; as long as fascism was willing to uphold the monarchy and maintain the centrality of the Roman Catholic Church in the nation’s life, they kept their protests against all of the regime’s horrors to a bare minimum. In any case, they no doubt told themselves, Jews were not being deprived of their homes or herded into concentration camps, but ‘merely’ deprived of their civil rights, jobs and property.

Apart from Franchetti, who was already an old man in 1938, the best-known Italian composer of Jewish origin at the time was the Florentine Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (1895-1968), whose music was performed, in the 1930s, by the likes of Walter Gieseking, Jascha Heifetz, Gregor Piatigorsky and Arturo Toscanini. Shocked by the racial laws,  he immigrated to the United States in 1939 with his wife and two sons. He wrote later that what he had felt at the moment of departure from his beloved native country ‘cannot be called sorrow, regret or spiritual suffering: it was an almost physical torment, a tearing asunder, a mutilation. It seemed to be a dress rehearsal for Death; and indeed, since that time something in me has been absolutely dead’.

Other Italian Jewish composers who had received widespread recognition at home also found themselves suddenly ostracized, professionally if not personally. In 1938, Guido Alberto Fano (1875-1961), who had been the star pupil of the well-known composer, conductor and pianist Giuseppe Martucci, was removed from his position as professor of piano at the Milan Conservatory and forced to eke out a living for himself and his family as best he could. Renzo Massarani (1898-1975) had been an ardent fascist and had occupied important positions in the regime’s cultural bureaucracy; the promulgation of the racial laws made his world come crashing down. In Brazil, to which he immigrated and where he spent the rest of his life, he became a music critic but adamantly refused to have any of his compositions performed or republished.

Vittorio Rieti (1898-1994) had already spent much of his career in Paris and eventually immigrated to the USA, where he continued to compose and teach; his works were championed by the likes of Toscanini, Dimitri Mitropoulos and George Balanchine. He died in New York City.

Composer and professor Ferdinando Liuzzi, Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s brother-in-law, taught at the universities of Florence and Rome until the racial laws forced his withdrawal. He went first to Brussels and then to New York, but when he became seriously ill with cancer he returned to Florence, where he died in 1940 at the age of forty-six.

Composers were not the only Italian Jewish musicians affected by the racial laws. Those who played in orchestras, sang in choruses or were in other ways employed by musical organisations also lost their jobs. Best known among these performing musicians was Vittore Veneziani (1878-1958), who had conducted La Scala’s excellent chorus since 1921, but who found himself unemployed from one day to the next. He then took over the direction of the choir in Milan’s synagogue.

Those of us who are familiar with the country know that rules and laws, good or bad, tend to be applied with insouciance in Italy, when they are applied at all. Italy, as more than one observer has noted, is the country in which nothing is allowed but everything is permitted, and to some extent this was true even under Mussolini’s dictatorship. So it was that in the very month in which the racial laws were promulgated, Musica d’oggi, the country’s leading music journal, dedicated much of its issue to Mozart’s Jewish-born librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, on the centenary of his death. Subsequent issues of the same magazine and of the more forward-looking Rassegna musicale referred positively to the work of the musicologist Alfred Einstein and to Richard Strauss’s librettist Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and eulogized the recently deceased cellist Emanuel Feuermann; all three were Jewish, although the articles’ authors did not refer specifically to that fact. One Italian violinist was scheduled to play a well-known caprice by Henryk Wieniawski on a concert at the Milan Conservatory, when an administrator asked him, ‘Wasn’t Wieniawski a Jew?’ He was, but since neither the violinist nor the administrator could ascertain the truth, a typically Italian compromise was reached: the violinist went on stage, announced to the audience that instead of playing the programmed caprice by Wieniawski he would play a caprice by an anonymous composer. He then played the Wieniawski caprice.

But the ‘soft’ persecution of Italian Jews was transformed into something much worse in the fall of 1943, when the Germans occupied the northern half of the country. Guido Alberto Fano went into hiding, first in the town of Fossombrone and then in Assisi; he survived, resumed teaching for a while, but since he was already in his seventies he soon retired. Vittore Veneziani managed to escape to Switzerland. Cesare Ferraresi (1918-81), a young, half-Jewish Milanese violinist, was deported to a concentration camp; he, too, survived and became a much admired soloist, concertmaster, chamber musician and teacher in the post-war years. In Rome, Alfredo Casella (1883-1947), one of the best-known Italian composers of his generation, lived in constant fear of being torn from his Franco-Jewish wife and their daughter, who were subject to arrest and deportation. One evening, having been tipped off about a raid on their flat, the family split up and hid in the homes of friends, not to reassemble until the ‘Jew hunt’ had ended. Renato Levi, a passionate music lover who ran a music shop near La Scala and had been befriended by many of Italy’s best-known musicians, died in a German concentration camp.

We do not know how many Italian Jewish musicians, or Jewish family members of non-Jewish musicians, faced persecution – in forms that ranged from job loss to death - during the years from 1938 to 1945. At war’s end, some of the émigrés returned home, but most remained in their adoptive countries. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, for instance, had become a successful composer of film soundtracks in Hollywood and remained in the United States.

Most celebrated non-Jewish Italian composers and performing musicians had gone along with the regime’s edicts – a few because they were true believers, but most for self-serving reasons. The baritone Titta Ruffo was one exception, but the most famous of them was the vehemently anti-fascist Toscanini, who even went to Palestine twice (1936 and 1938) at his own expense to show his solidarity with the victims of persecution by conducting the Palestine Orchestra (now the Israel Philharmonic). Mussolini even had Toscanini’s passport confiscated in 1938 after the conductor was overheard describing the racial laws as ‘medieval stuff’. Toscanini spent the war years in America but returned to Italy to conduct the inaugural concerts at the restored La Scala, which had suffered severe bomb damage by the Allies in 1943. His first official act in Milan was to reinstate Jewish musicians, including Veneziani, who had lost their positions under the fascists.

Those Italian Jews who had survived the war once again began to contribute to their country’s cultural, political and economic life, and they continue to do so to this day. But it is safe to say that as a group they have never again felt as tranquil as they did before 1938.

© Harvey Sachs


M. Castelnuovo-Tedesco, Una vita di musica, typescript, Vol. I.

M. Michaelis, Mussolini and the Jews (Oxford, 1978).

H. Sachs, Music in Fascist Italy (London, 1987).