Let Our Music Be Played: Italian Jewish Musicians and Composers under Fascism. Edited by Alessandro Carrieri and Annalisa Capristo. Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave Macmillan. 2021.

Reviewed by Jesse Rosenberg

The last twenty years have witnessed significant developments in scholarship concerning antisemitism in Italy during the ventennio, the twenty-year period of Fascist rule (1923-1943). Thanks to historians such as Michele Sarfatti and Giorgio Fabre, the benign view which had hitherto prevailed with regard to the antisemitic laws promulgated by the Fascist government in 1938 — that these were adapted without conviction, in adherence to the dictates of a new alliance with Germany, and represented an unexpected about-face in the treatment of Italian Jews — have been definitively rebutted. The editors of this superlative collection of essays are aware of these newly-acquired insights (one of them, Annalisa Capristo, has co-authored an important book with Fabre), but also, to judge by the variety of approaches taken by the contributors to the book, equally cognizant of the complexities involved in applying these lessons to the field of music.

Several of the essays in this collection stand thematically apart from the topic indicated by the title. Michele Sarfatti’s “Forms and Methods of Anti-Jewish Persecution in Fascist Italy from 1938 to 1943” makes no mention of either music or musicians, but provides a firm basis for understanding the essays that follow by concisely outlining the successive phases of anti-Jewish persecution under the fascist regime. These begin with the persecution of Jewish autonomy and equality, continue with abrogating rights of individual Jews, and conclude with eradicating the very lives of Jews under the German occupation as well as the Nazi-installed Italian Social Republic.  

Conversely, Camilla Poesio’s concluding contribution (“Jazz in Fascist Italy: Social Impact, Politics, and Racism”) barely touches on Jews at all, while providing a goldmine of information about the Italian reception of jazz. As Poesio carefully documents, official denunciations of jazz in fascist-era Italy were motivated principally by the anti-Black racism which arose in the period of the Abyssinian war and the anti-American sentiments aroused by the role of the United States in advocating for sanctions on Italy by the League of Nations as punishment for the same Abyssinian conquest. Only incidentally did these diatribes suggest, after the manner of Nazi attacks on “entartete Musik,” that Jews were responsible for creating and promoting this “degenerate” genre. Poesio thus underscores in musical terms what historians have observed in connection with Italian Jews generally: the impossibility of separating the “Racial Laws” applied to Jews beginning in 1938 from the anti-Black racism of the preceding years. Not unlike the groundbreaking work of Pamela Potter on music in Nazi Germany, Poesio also underscores the crucial difference between official pronouncements and the actions of musicians and the public; jazz was never banned outright. 

Erik Levi likewise attends to the musical relations between Germany and Italy in an essay that barely mentions Jewish musicians at all (“An Expedient Alliance? Musical Relationships Between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy in the Period between 1933 and 1945”) while carefully dissecting both the subtle ideological tensions and the affinities between the two governments in terms of artistic policy, a necessary condition of later persecutions. But as Levi convincingly demonstrates, the rancorous relations between traditionalist and modernist Italian composers under Fascist rule maps onto the Nazis’ attacks on modernism as an inherently and perniciously Jewish phenomenon.   

It is crucial to understand the specifically intellectual aspects of Fascist propaganda in Italian music criticism of this period. Luca Lévi Sala’s survey of the official musical criticism of a limited period within the ventennio (“Cultural Cleansing in Italian Music Criticism in the Early 1930s: Autarchy, Eugenics and Anti-Semitism”) provides perhaps the strongest confirmation that the persecution of Italian Jews after 1938 was at least as much a homegrown product as a foreign import, growing directly out of antisemitic currents in Italy, as shown in in writings from before Hitler’s rise to power. Although Sala is yet another contributor with relatively little to say about Italian Jewish musicians, he, more than any other contributor to the volume, highlights the development of fascistic currents of thought destined to have significant impact on antisemitic policies as they played out in the musical realm.  

The remaining case studies consider themes that illuminate the larger field of antisemitic persecution in music. Two of these are by the editors themselves. Capristo’s “La Scala, the Jews, and Erich Kleiber: an Anti-Semitic Episode of December 1938” rescues from oblivion an incident involving a righteous Gentile musician who deserves to stand alongside the far more famous Arturo Toscanini in principled opposition to the firing of Jewish musicians. The Austrian conductor Erich Kleiber was concerned by the persecution of Jews in Italy, and the proximate cause of his cancellation of scheduled appearances at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan — from which Jewish artists had already been fired in line with recent government directives — to conduct Beethoven’s Fidelio at the end of 1938 was a press report on the prohibition of attendance by Jewish members of the public. His courageous stand received considerable coverage in the international press, amounting to a significant embarrassment for the Italian authorities.    

Alessandro Carrieri’s “case study” is actually two, since it is largely taken up with a compare-and-contrast biographical analysis of the Florentine pianist Gualtiero Volterra and the Mantuan composer Renzo Massarani as an entry point into another important area of research: Italian Jewish musicians who were constrained to leave Italy as the only means of continuing their artistic careers in the aftermath of the Racial Laws of 1938. Heartbreaking as exile undoubtedly was for these two musicians (Massarani in Brazil and Volterra in Australia and later the US), it may well have played a role in their surviving the war years; it is enough to note that Volterra’s brothers Umberto Angelo and Gastone were both murdered in Auschwitz. Yet their experiences in exile were marked by the complexities of their host countries, with the Italian community of Brazil largely supportive of the Fascist regime (and therefore reluctant to acknowledge the reason for Massarani’s emigration) and the mistrust of Australian authorities for a potential enemy alien in the person of Volterra. Carrieri’s archival digging has uncovered a wealth of new information about these experiences of exile, especially with regard to Volterra, while his discussion of Massarani’s Brazilian career nicely complements the most sustained study of Massarani hitherto published. [1] The ironies of Massarani’s fate are almost overpowering, given his own steady adherence to the Fascist cause as demonstrated in his published critical writings and several of his musical compositions. These naturally complicate the far-too-simple theme of his victimhood.  

An odd mirror-image of Italian Jews forced to leave Italy is the widespread phenomenon of Jewish refugees from Germany and later Austria who found a hospitable home in Italy before the adaption of antisemitic legislation in 1938. Raffaele Deluca’s contribution to the volume presents original research on one particularly ill-timed arrival in Italy: that of the Viennese musician Kurt Sonnenfeld in 1939, then in his late teens, within a year of the Anschluss. In less than two years Sonnenfeld found himself confined to the internment camp of Ferramonti, in Calabria, a camp occupied by foreign nationals. But Ferramonti was also a meeting place for a number of Jewish musicians with whom Sonnenfeld worked in the organization of musical life in the camp, obviously under extremely limiting conditions. Deluca thus extends his previous study of Jewish musicians interned in Fascist Italy [2] to an especially interesting case whose tragic echoes reverberated after the war: in 1947 his application for admission to the Milan conservatory was rejected on the grounds of his advanced age (he was 26) despite the eight years of his life dislocated by the Anschluss and his confinement in Italy. Among the conservatory officials who rejected his application was a musician (Ettore Desderi) who had enjoyed close ties to the Fascist government. Sonnenfeld remained in Italy for the rest of his life. Deluca’s chapter also presents the lone musical example of the entire volume: the first page of Sonnenfeld’s autograph manuscript of a the “Ferramonti-Waltzer,” a modest vocal piece he wrote for performance in in the camp. The German text, also by Sonnenfeld, includes a refrain: “It is well known that the most beautiful land / is none other than Ferramonti / And those who have seen much of it / can hardly express how lovely Ferramonti is.” The ironic lyric is matched by the banal jollity of the waltz-tune, a chilling musical monument to a nightmare.   

Mention has been made of the presence of certain chapters that do not fit comfortably under the title of the book as a whole, as they center on matters other than the persecution of Italian Jewish musicians. Similarly, the successful careers of Leone Sinigaglia and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, to cite only two of the best known, are impossible to reconcile with the subtitle “let our music be played” until 1938, as neither would have had the slightest reason to make such a plea during the first fifteen years of Fascist power. Indeed, the first half of the ventennio is largely disregarded by the contributors to the book, with Luca Lévi Sala as the sole exception, although it laid the political and ideological groundwork for so much that followed.  

It is regrettable that none of the authors or the editors define the word “Jewish” in the overall title of the book or in individual contributions. The Jewishness of the musicians under consideration is simply taken for granted as a self-evident category, or at most an accident of birth. While perhaps there is some historical justification for this (the Nazis’ conception of Jewishness was similarly unconcerned with Jewish belief, observance, or even the most basic sense of belonging to a given community), the unfortunate result is that readers are left to wonder what being Jewish actually meant to figures like Sonnenfeld or Volterra apart from the persecutions they suffered because of it.  

By now the position of English as the lingua franca of scholarly publication is firmly established, whether or not the writers or editors are native speakers. While this does not affect an Anglophone contributor like Erik Levi or those authors whose command of English as a second language yields fluent results, other writers could have benefitted from either a firmer editorial hand or farming out the copy-editing duties to individuals capable of spotting and correcting various infelicities of vocabulary, punctuation, and style. The text of this print-on-demand book is clearly readable and, in the case of the essays by Carrieri and Deluca, enriched by photographic illustrations drawn from their impressive archival discoveries. The copy of the book utilized by the present reviewer is sturdily bound like others in the same “Italian and Italian American Studies” series published by Palgrave Macmillan under the overall direction of the well-known scholar Stanislao G. Pugliese.   

Jesse Rosenberg, Northwestern University

[1] Carlo Piccardi, “La Parabola di Renzo Massarani, compositore ebreo all’ombra del Fascismo,” in Music and Dictatorship in Europe and Latin America, edited by Roberto Illiano and Massimiliano Sala (Turnout: Brepols, 2010).

[2] Raffaelle Deluca, Tradotti agli estremi confini: musicisti ebrei internati nell’Italia fascista (Milan: Mimesis Edizioni, 2019).