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Nicolò Palazzetti, Béla Bartók in Italy. The Politics of Myth-Making

Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2021
Maria Grazia Aurora Campisi
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Nicolò Palazzetti, Béla Bartók in Italy. The Politics of Myth-Making, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press, 2021, 320 p.

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  • 1 See, for instance, Gillies Malcolm, Bartók in Britain: a guided tour, Oxford, Clarendon, 1989; Gill (...)

1The “Return of the Dead” is the somewhat ominous title which Nicolò Palazzetti gives to the final section of his book: the pompous reburial of Béla Bartók in Budapest in 1988 was a fitting end for such a great artist and man, a hero of the people, a model of incorruptible morality, a victim of both fascisms and Stalinism, as many commentators lauded. Taking a revisionist attitude, Béla Bartók in Italy. The Politics of Myth-Making goes back to the origins of this myth, before the watershed of 1945, when the musician’s premature death in exile paved the way for his rapid canonisation, ahead of both Stravinsky and Schoenberg. In conversation with the most recent literature on the topic, such as the works of Malcolm Gillies,1 Palazzetti focusses on the fortune of the man and his music in Italy, as a typical case of Bartók’s convoluted reception throughout the history of the twentieth century, and yet also an idiosyncratic one. In newly republican Italy, emerging from the rubble of fascism and war, Bartók stood as a Teutonic myth, halfway between Beethoven’s universalism and Verdi as the icon of patriotism. The 8th volume of the series Music in Society and Culture, Palazzetti’s book adopts a cross-disciplinary approach to deal with the thorny relationships between aesthetics and ethics, culture and politics, which underlie the mythmaking of Bartók in Italy – a process which began well before 1945 with his first visits to the peninsula in the 1910s.

  • 2 See, for instance, Ben-Ghiat Ruth, Fascist modernities. Italy, 1922-45, London, University of Calif (...)

2In search of the reasons for this precocious success and consecration in the Italian context, Palazzetti’s book tells the other side of the myth: the “first Bartók”, the historical man before the hero, and his advantageous relations with Italy based on material convenience rather than moral coherence. As Palazzetti argues, the musician’s youthful chauvinism, his revaluation of folklore and Italian baroque music, and his ambiguous self-positioning – first, between private aversion to dictatorship and public silence, and then, between his overt anti-Nazism and the promotion of his music in fascist Italy –, all this fitted the multifaced and equally ambiguous scenario of fascist culture, where totalitarianism could strategically meet pluralism. If the long-standing thesis of a culturicidal regime has been debunked for some time now, there are still few studies on the relationship between fascism and modernism, with which Palazzetti engages and to which he contributes.2 However, what makes Palazzetti’s book all the more original and significant is the author’s bold addressing of the inconvenient elements of continuity between the “two Bartóks”, as well as between the dictatorship and republican Italy, despite the post-war work of collective transformism and removal. Palazzetti gives particular attention to the wartime period, a moment usually overlooked in cultural terms, where he locates the main juncture between history and myth.

3As explained in the introduction, the book is chronologically structured in six chapters, which narrate the evolving reception of Bartók in Italy, hand in hand with the historical development of the country from the liberal state to fascism and the post-war republic. The twofold story starts in 1911, with Bartók attending the International Music Congress held in Rome and the concomitant celebrations for the 15th anniversary of Italian unification, thus marking cosmopolitism and nationalism as crucial coordinates of Bartók’s presence and appreciation in Italy ever since. As Palazzetti stresses in the first chapter (“Bartók in Liberal Italy”), thanks also to the promotion of Alfredo Casella (a leading figure of Italian music in the first half of the century), Bartók’s music spread to Italy – mainly in Rome and Turin – earlier than elsewhere and preceded that of both Stravinsky and Schoenberg. Italian musicians and critics found a counterpart in the “New Hungarian School”, sharing the emergence of folklore as a means for the regeneration of both art and the nation. Tradition and modernity, folk and art music, constitute the second axis in which Palazzetti roots the favourable reception of Bartók in Italy, and especially during fascism. The second chapter (“Heroism and Silence”) delves into the complex relationship between Bartók’s growing success and the rise and establishment of the regime from 1925 (the date of Bartók’s first Italian tour) to 1938 (the year of the promulgation of racial laws and of the Italian premiere of Bluebeard’s Castle). During this time, Bartók’s Italophilia and political elusiveness, as well as the modernist tendencies of fascism and its diplomatic relationship with Horthy’s Hungary, come into play, going some way to explain how the musician and his music could be smoothly assimilated into fascist Italy, welcomed even by the most reactionary listeners. Bartók was depicted as a fascist “new man” by the music critic Guido M. Gatti in the Enciclopedia Italiana (1930), while his music was included in music festivals, syllabuses, and radio broadcasting.

  • 3 In this regard, I would suggest reading La guerra perpetua, an allegorical tale from the time by th (...)

4The third chapter (“Resistance and Dictatorship”) is the keystone of the book, with the emergence of Bartók’s myth in late fascist Italy. While Bartók’s anti-Nazi political stance was made public and was definitively sealed by his voluntary exile in 1940, fascism in Italy started to unravel, with military failures and hardships at home debunking the regime’s propaganda and dismantling its popular consensus. In this chapter, Palazzetti focusses on the striking staging of The Miraculous Mandarin at the 1942 Stagione di opere contemporanee, wherein he finds the peak of modernism and liberality in the regime’s cultural policy, as well as the seeds of a covert cultural resistance. As the author suggests, performing works and authors banned by the Nazi ally was a way for the fascist regime to assert its independence and to compensate for military and political decline with art and culture.3 At the same time, for some leftwing Italian intellectuals, the initiative also afforded the chance to read artistic freedom as political commitment in an anti-fascist key. Here, Bartók came to stand as an example of both aesthetic and moral coherence, increasingly influencing Italian musicians, while his myth gradually stemmed from the words of relevant figures of the contemporary musical scene, such as the conductor Gianandrea Gavazzeni and the critic Luigi Rognoni. With Bartók’s death in exile coinciding with the end of the war in 1945, the definitive consecration of the composer as a fully-fledged hero and a political martyr coincided with Italy’s troubled transition to the Republic, from 1943 to 1947, as Palazzetti recounts in the fourth chapter (“Resistance and Democracy”). Amid the cultural debate of post-war reconstruction, the myth of Bartók merged with that of Resistenza: he was the “musician of freedom”, as the critic and partisan Massimo Mila baptised him, matching stylistic and human freedom.

  • 4 Danchenka Gary, “Diatonic Pitch-Class Sets in Bartok’s Night Music”, Indiana Theory Review, vol. 8, (...)

5The last two chapters of Palazzetti’s book address the multifaceted and disputed legacy of Bartók in the early years of the Cold War, with a specific focus on the Italian Bartókian wave (1948-1956), distinguishing the fierce ideological debate (“Bartók’s Legacy in a Divided World”) from Bartók’s musical impact in Italy (“Bartók’s Influence on Italian Composers”). Starting from some of the main musicological contributions on Bartók’s post-war reception by Danielle Fosler-Lussier and Michéle Alten, Palazzetti stresses the specificity of the Italian case. While, in a general process of canonisation and politicisation, Bartók was the subject of both ideological appropriation and controversy on both sides – accused of formalism by the communist hardliners of socialist realism and charged with populist compromise by the hardliners of the Western avant-garde –, he mainly remained a unifying myth in Italy. In fact, against such factionalised interpretations, Bartók emerged as an appeasing reference point in the high-stakes Italian cultural debate of the time, such as in the dispute about the artist’s role in history and society, or the controversial relationship between high and popular culture. Zhdanov doctrine, Italian idealism, and the ideas of the Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci, all intertwined in the concept of musical realism as discussed by Italian musicologists and identified by many in Bartók’s oeuvre. Palazzetti shows here how the composer’s work influenced the birth of Italian ethnomusicology and also how his music continued to be disseminated in Italy through festivals, radio and discs, strongly influencing different generations of Italian composers (from Petrassi to Donatoni), as a compositional “third way” between Stravinsky and Schoenberg – something that emerged in Italy long before the Adornian dichotomy. Parallel to the rise of the myth is the story of musical influence, with references to Bartók’s stylistic features – such as his use of octatonicism, “germinal counterpoint”, idiosyncratic groupings of instruments and symmetrical structures – echoing across a wide range of Italian works as early as World War II. Palazzetti especially focusses on the recurrence of the Night Music archetypes – after Danchenka’s study – and providing an in-depth formal and pitch analysis of Bruno Maderna’s String Quartet no. 1 (1943).4

  • 5 Büky Virág and Sità Maria Grazia, “Bartók e l’Italia. Viaggi, contatti, concerti”, Fonti Musicali I (...)
  • 6 The appendix further specifies date, place or radio station, performers, and remarks for additional (...)
  • 7 Palazzetti mentions the case of Donatoni and Bartók’s influence on his music.

6The book is thus a complex weave of themes, where history and biography, reception study and music analysis go hand in hand, with a background contribution of anthropology and sociology. Palazzetti does not simply set the musical texts in context, but instead shows how the two were fundamentally intertwined, successfully integrating a reconstruction of the historical period with a deep engagement with the contours of Bartók’s music – an uneasy balance to achieve in musicology. Each chapter is conceived as potentially independent with premises and conclusions, resulting in a greater clarity albeit also with the risk of repetitions and overlaps. The author unravels the different strands of the book, firmly supported by an extensive bibliography, ranging from the latest research on Bartók to a wealth of primary sources, some even unpublished. In continuation with Sità and Büky’s data collections,5 the book is enriched by an appendix, listing the performances of Bartok’s works in Italy between 1911 and 1950 – although this could have been extended to 1956, so as to cover the main time frame of the book.6 Other lists of data and references, thematically organised, are provided in tables and footnotes throughout the main chapters, making the book a useful consultation tool for further research. Palazzetti himself acknowledges the work still to be done, for instance, continuing the story of Bartók’s reception in Italy in the last part of the twentieth century or making a parallel with the case of Schoenberg and Stravinsky, whose Italian reception has yet to be thoroughly investigated. A systematic study of the relationship of the Italian musical avant-gardes of the 1960s and 1970s with Bartók’s legacy also remains to be written.7

7Readers specifically interested in Bartók and his music might be somewhat disappointed by a book more concerned with Bartók’s musical influence on Italian composers and his resonance in that particular context, a book which perhaps reveals more about Italy than about Bartók and addresses the delicate interweaving of culture and politics through the story of his myth in Italy. Dealing with the complexities of culture head-on, Palazzetti’s revisionist account seemingly does not aim to overturn the myth and replace it with historical truth, but rather provides a complementary narrative and finds in history the roots and the reasons for the myth’s very being. In Palazzetti’s book, Bartók emerges as a conciliatory model between several opposing forces of culture: the universal and local, tradition and progress, nature and history, folklore and avant-garde, neoclassicism and serialism, engagement and popular appeal. This in-between position – be it considered a synthesis or a compromise – underlies the uninterrupted cross-party appreciation of the musician and his music in Italy from 1911 to 1956 (and beyond), in a continuous process of appropriation and adaptation. By the 1950s, Bartók, once the fascist new man, had become a martyr of the Resistenza, and his music went on to be considered both cerebral and populist during the Cold War. These blurring boundaries and ever-changing meanings unearth inconvenient continuities and serve as a warning about the importance of questioning myths, now more than ever – as Palazzetti’s final hint at the resurgence of neo-fascism suggests. As a collective open-ended process, mythmaking does not end with the “return of dead”.

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1 See, for instance, Gillies Malcolm, Bartók in Britain: a guided tour, Oxford, Clarendon, 1989; Gillies Malcolm, “The Canonization of Béla Bartók”, Antokoletz Elliott, Fischer Victoria e Suchoff Benjamin (eds.), Bartók perspectives: man, composer, and ethnomusicologist, Oxford, University Press, 2000, p. 289-302; Gillies Malcolm, “Bartók in America”, Bayley Amanda (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Bartók, Cambridge University Press, 2001, p. 190-201.

2 See, for instance, Ben-Ghiat Ruth, Fascist modernities. Italy, 1922-45, London, University of California Press, 2001; Antliff Mark, «Fascism, Modernism, and Modernity», The Art Bulletin, vol. 84, fasc. 1, 2002, pp. 148–169; Gentile Emilio, The Struggle for Modernity: Nationalism, Futurism, and Fascism, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003; Griffin Roger, “Modernity, modernism, and fascism. A ‘mazeway resynthesis’”, Modernism/modernity, vol. 15, fasc. 1, 2008, p. 9-24; Earle Ben, Luigi Dallapiccola and Musical Modernism in Fascist Italy, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

3 In this regard, I would suggest reading La guerra perpetua, an allegorical tale from the time by the Italian writer Alberto Moravia, which illustrates well the controversial relationship between fascist Italy and Nazi Germany, allies in “perpetual war”: establishing an agreement on the exchange of human and material resources to be destroyed, one claims the artistic quality of the goods and men supplied, the other the quantity and punctuality in destroying them. Moravia Alberto, Racconti surrealisti e satirici, Milano, Gruppo editoriale Fabbri-Bompiani-Sonzogno-ETAS, 1982, p. 265-270.

4 Danchenka Gary, “Diatonic Pitch-Class Sets in Bartok’s Night Music”, Indiana Theory Review, vol. 8, no. 1, 1987, p. 15-55.

5 Büky Virág and Sità Maria Grazia, “Bartók e l’Italia. Viaggi, contatti, concerti”, Fonti Musicali Italiane, no. 18, 2013, p. 119-175.

6 The appendix further specifies date, place or radio station, performers, and remarks for additional information.

7 Palazzetti mentions the case of Donatoni and Bartók’s influence on his music.

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Maria Grazia Aurora Campisi, « Nicolò Palazzetti, Béla Bartók in Italy. The Politics of Myth-Making »Transposition [En ligne], 11 | 2023, mis en ligne le 07 novembre 2023, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Maria Grazia Aurora Campisi

Maria Grazia Aurora Campisi is a M4C-funded doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham. She holds a degree in piano and clarinet and has combined this hands-on experience with musicological studies, research, teaching. She was awarded a distinguished master’s degree in Musicology by the Milan Conservatoire (2018) and has collaborated with various musical institutions, including La Scala theatre. She is also a secondary school teacher in Italy since 2016. Her research interests have increasingly focused on the mid-twentieth century, with a multidisciplinary focus. She is currently nearing completion of her doctoral project examining the developments of Italian opera after Puccini.

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