Why Toscanini was beaten by Mussolini’s henchmen

Jhe concert at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna on May 14, 1931 should have been a joyful affair. Arturo Toscanini, a big 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 on the composer’s 75th birthday. The maestro was so willing to remember his late friend in this way that he even agreed to do so at no cost.

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

The men responsible for the 64-year-old conductor’s injuries were a gang of pro-fascist blackshirts, eager to dish out retaliation for an unacceptable display of unpatriotic behavior on his part. On this occasion, it is Toscanini’s refusal to include Giovinezza, the official hymn of the fascist party, in the concert which had started the brawl. It was, however, probably an incident waiting to happen – Toscanini and Italian leader Benito Mussolini had a little history.

A little over a decade earlier, the two had actually been on the same side. When, in 1919, Mussolini fielded candidates for his fledgling party in the Italian general election, he included Toscanini’s name among them – after all, a small celebrity presence couldn’t hurt. Toscanini, in turn, admired Mussolini’s republican zeal, which he hoped would lead to the end of Italian royalty. However, things quickly got worse. After the fascists failed to win any seats in the elections, Mussolini began to turn to darker means and mob rule to get what he wanted. His appointment as Prime Minister in 1922, under Victor Emmanuel III, was the last straw for Toscanini. “If I could kill a man, I would kill Mussolini,” he declared.

Several years before the Martucci party in Bologna, Toscanini reacted when asked to direct Giovinezza to Milan’s La Scala snapping his truncheon in anger and storming out. This time, the request for inclusion was made to honor two Fascist Party officials in the audience, and the maestro was equally resolute in his refusal. As he, his wife and daughter arrived at the Teatro Comunale for the show, Blackshirts surrounded his car. Bravely, albeit recklessly, as he exited and headed for the door of the opera house, he was repeatedly threatened and questioned about the interpretation of the anthem. He still refused to bend, at which point the blackshirts intervened, repeatedly punching him in the face.

Quickly pushed back into his car by his driver, Toscanini was driven back to his hotel, leaving the Teatro Communale staff to address the waiting audience. Few people believed their explanation that the conductor had simply fallen ill and the mood quickly deteriorated.

Things weren’t any easier for Toscanini either, as a crowd of fascists, aware of where he was staying, made their way to his hotel and waited for him. Fortunately, also on the way to the hotel was the composer Ottorino Respighi who, in the concert audience, realized the gravity of the situation. Respighi was held in high regard by Fascist officials and was able to negotiate Toscanini’s safe passage from the hotel, leaving at six in the morning and returning to Milan where he was kept under surveillance.

Very shaken by the incident, Toscanini later wrote a letter of complaint to Mussolini, but never received a response. ‘Il Duce’ had, of course, already been made aware of the events by a local government official. “I’m really happy,” was his purported response, according to a phone operator who was bribed by the press to reveal their conversation. “It will give a good lesson to these rude musicians.

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