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Roberta Montemorra Marvin, The Politics of Verdi's Cantica.

Roberta Montemorra Marvin, The Politics of Verdi's Cantica, RMA Monographs no. 24, Ashgate: Williston, VT, 2014; 183 pp.: 9781409417859, US$104.95.

This volume traces the instances of political appropriation of Giuseppe Verdi's Cantica, also known as Inno delle Nazioni, from its inception in 1861 to its use in an American propaganda film in the 1940s. Marvin is an authoritative musicologist, renowned in particular in the field of opera studies for her studies on Verdi's music. However, the value of her contribution extends well beyond opera and music to address political, aesthetic and cultural questions that are relevant to Italian studies as well. The book, in fact, not only provides a detailed analysis of Verdi's work, but also offers valuable insights into the intercultural relations between Italy and Europe at the time of the Italian Unification and the cultural milieu of Italian expatriates in the United States during fascism. The book consists of five chapters and can be divided in two main parts: one dedicated to Cantica composition and its reception in Verdi's time, and one dedicated to later appropriations of the work by Italian conductor Arturo Toscanini.

Chapter 1 serves as an introduction that places the book within the theme of the politics of music and the debates around the political relevance of Giuseppe Verdi during and after the Risorgimento. Marvin provides a brief yet very effective overview of the highly debated and controversial political role of Verdi and his music, which is fundamental to understanding the arguments developed later in the book. She does so by carefully distinguishing between contemporary perceptions and later interpretations of Verdi's work. From her account of the scholarly debates around Verdi, Marvin smoothly broadens the picture to address--though perhaps too briefly--the underlying theoretical question of the political relevance of music and art. This chapter also includes the original text of the Cantica, written by Arrigo Boito, as well as a brief musical analysis and an overview of Arturo Toscanini's cultural iconic role and political relevance as an anti-fascist.

Chapters 2 and 3 reconstruct the history of the origin, premiere and reception of Verdi's Cantica. The Society of Arts in London commissioned the work for the Inaugural Concert of the London International Exhibition of 1862. After some hesitation and negotiations regarding the genre, Verdi set Boito's strongly patriotic verses to a music that included national anthems or political songs from the countries involved in the Exhibition (hence the alternative title Inno delle Nazioni). The Royal Commissioners, however, decided to reject the work from the Inaugural Concert. This first part of the book reconstructs these events with extreme accuracy and tremendous detail; Marvin then demonstrates, through a close reading of the press, that the rejection of the piece happened for political reasons and because of the political nature of the piece. Since the events took place at the time of Italy's independence and unification, the work's patriotism and its rejection from an international event were particularly charged of political and nationalistic meaning.

Chapters 4 and 5 address later 'contextualized political reinterpretations' (p. 72) of the Cantica, coincidentally all by Arturo Toscanini, a cultural and political icon himself, although with much more explicit political views than Verdi. Toscanini included the piece in an all-Verdi program with the BBC orchestra in 1943 'deliberately designed to comment through music about Italy's situation in the war' (p. 73). Marvin convincingly argues that Verdi's piece was reinterpreted as written to fight political oppression, and therefore used as a symbol of freedom and opposition to fascism. She also demonstrates that the occasion created an ideological connection between the two artists. In the same year the United States Office of War Information began to shoot a propaganda film involving Toscanini and featuring Verdi's Cantica. The film, which had originally been envisioned as a way for Americans to speak to Italians through music about freedom, became a more complex and controversial political project once the United States began to support Badoglio and Toscanini insisted on having many Italian anti-fascist expatriates, including Gaetano Salvemini and Luigi Sturzo, participate in the film. Through a detailed reconstruction of the negotiations around the political content of the film and a close analysis of the political elements of the film script (included in its entirety in one of the appendixes to the book) and music Marvin shows how Verdi's Cantica was instrumental in conveying broader political messages.

The Politics of Verdi's Cantica is a rich, detailed and fascinating case study of the politics of music. It provides an excellent, accurate, and comprehensive account of the events and intriguing and compelling readings of the texts (both Cantica and Toscanini's film), solidly grounded in previously untapped archival evidence. The book's wealth of material makes it an invaluable source of new information about little-known works that, as the book shows, are in fact relevant pieces of Italian political and cultural history. The last two chapters are particularly fascinating in that they offer a novel perspective on anti-fascism and Italian-American relations. Although more narrowly focused on Verdi, the first part of the book also offers precious insights into European culture in the nineteenth century, addressing the phenomenon of international exhibitions and post-unification international relations. Being written within the parameters of a discipline other than Italian studies--opera studies--the book understandably does not make use of the theoretical framework and references to Italy-related scholarship that would be necessary to explore more in depth the historical and political context. This is more evident in the second part of the book. Perhaps because of this disciplinary discrepancy, the book leaves the reader somewhat wanting a broader analysis and interpretation of the material while perfectly satisfied with the outstanding accounts and close analysis of the primary material. Broader and interpretative conclusions are drawn from the materials, but they are oftentimes cursory, relegated to the very end of each chapter, and not integrated with the description of the evidence. As a result, Marvin's claims come across as understated or less convincing than the wealth of evidence and resources that she accumulates would indicate. The value of the book for Italian scholars lies, in fact, in the abundance of historical facts and material about two intriguing and important works of art that Marvin makes available, thus greatly enriching our perspective both on the cultural relations of post-unification Europe and on the situation of Italian expatriates during the Second World War, and especially on the role that music played in them.

Reviewed by: Michela Ronzani, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, USA
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Author:Ronzani, Michela
Publication:Forum Italicum
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 1, 2016
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