Why Toscanini was beaten up by Mussolini’s henchmen

Arturo Toscanini's refusal to bow down to fascist Blackshirts In 1931 had brutal consequences

Arturo Toscanini
Published: May 5, 2022 at 3:50 pm
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The concert at Bologna’s Teatro Comunale on 14 May 1931 should have been a joyful affair. Arturo Toscanini, a major name on both sides of the Atlantic, had been invited to the recently restored opera house to give a concert of music by Giuseppe Martucci in celebration of the 75th anniversary of the composer’s birth. So willing was the maestro to remember his late friend in this way that he even agreed to do it without a fee.

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As things turned out, however, Toscanini would leave the venue (and, soon after, the city itself) with cuts and bruises, without a note being played.

The men responsible for the 64-year-old conductor’s wounds were a gang of pro-fascist Blackshirts, keen to dole out retribution for an unacceptable display of unpatriotic behaviour on his part. On this occasion, it was Toscanini’s refusal to include Giovinezza, the fascist party’s official hymn, in the concert that had sparked the affray. It was, however, probably an incident that had been waiting to happen – Toscanini and the Italian leader Benito Mussolini had a bit of a history.

Just over a decade earlier, the two had actually been on the same side. When, in 1919, Mussolini was putting forward candidates for his fledgling party in the Italian general election, he included Toscanini’s name among them – after all, a little celebrity presence couldn’t hurt. Toscanini, in turn, admired Mussolini’s republican zeal, which, he hoped, would lead to the end of the Italian royalty. Things soon took a turn for the worse, though. After the fascists won no seats in the election, Mussolini started to turn to darker means, and mob rule, to get his way. His appointment as prime minister in 1922, serving under Victor Emmanuel III, was the final straw for Toscanini. ‘If I were capable of killing a man, I would kill Mussolini,’ he declared.

Several years before the Martucci celebration in Bologna, Toscanini had reacted to being asked to conduct Giovinezza at Milan’s La Scala by snapping his baton in anger and storming out. This time round, the demand to have it included was made to honour two fascist party officials in the audience, and the maestro was every bit as resolute in his refusal. As he and his wife and daughter arrived at the Teatro Comunale for the performance, Blackshirts surrounded his car. Bravely, if rashly, getting out and making his way to the opera house door, he was threateningly and repeatedly asked about performing the hymn. Still he refused to bend, at which point the Blackshirts moved in, hitting him repeatedly in the face.

Pushed rapidly back into his car by his chauffeur, Toscanini was raced back to his hotel, leaving the Teatro Communale staff to address the expectant audience. Few believed their explanation that the conductor had simply been taken ill, and the mood rapidly turned ugly.

Nor did things get easier for Toscanini, as a crowd of fascists, aware of where he was staying, headed for his hotel and lay in wait. Thankfully, also on his way to the hotel was composer Ottorino Respighi who, in the audience for the concert, realised the seriousness of the situation. Respighi was held in high regard by fascist officials and was able to negotiate Toscanini’s safe passage from the hotel, by leaving at six in the morning and haring back to Milan where he was kept under surveillance.

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Badly shaken up by the incident, Toscanini later wrote a letter of complaint to Mussolini, but never received a reply. ‘Il Duce’ had, of course, already been made aware of events by a local government official. ‘I am really happy,’ was his alleged reply, according to a telephone operator who was bribed by the press to reveal their conversation. ‘It will teach a good lesson to these boorish musicians.’

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