Italian Music 2: Between the Wars
Italian popular music at the turn of the 20th century was ready to absorb all possible input coming from the outside world. It was strongly influenced by the Opera, the so called Neapolitan Song, and by foreign musical styles such as the French Café Chantant, and the American Charleston. The First World War literally swept away the world as people knew it bringing new fears, new concerns, and new anxieties. After the war Italy, like many other European countries, was in a precarious economic as well as social state, with old 19th century values abruptly upset by the meaningless cruelty of the war. When people are poor and feel lost and impotent, a dictatorship is bound to arise and that's exactly what happened in Italy.
The Fascist movement seized power after the notorious March on Rome on the 30th of October, 1922. From that moment until the end of the regime, twenty years later, Italian culture suffered from an ever-increasing isolation from worldwide trends and influences, and within ten years the only art and culture left in Italy was either plain rhetoric propaganda, mere escapism, or a cunning mix of both. Music was no exception to this phenomenon. The rise of the so called autarchia, a nationalistic policy of preserving the country from every possible kind of foreign influence, led to a retreat from international popular music. On top of everything, this isolation happened in the middle of an incredibly fertile musical moment, when the U.S. was roaring with swing, ragtime, and dixieland and taking its first steps toward rock and roll. It's not difficult to understand how Fascism and its oppression slowed the development of Italian popular music, and led to an inevitable strengthening of the same old, traditional patterns in both lyrics and melody.
Il Piave mormorò: non passa lo straniero
Original version of the song Faccetta Nera by Carlo Buti
But as progress is a force impossible to defeat, foreign influences succeeded in seeping into Italian popular music, mainly because popular Italian musicians traveled extensively abroad during this period and learned elements of jazz, Latin American music, and other styles. The first real jazz orchestras in Italy were born in the 1920s, formed by band-leaders such as Arturo Agazzi, and enjoyed instant success. In spite of isolation policies, American jazz remained popular during the 1930s and was an important influence on singers such as Alberto Rabagliati, who became well-known for his take on jazz's swinging style. Italian youths of the time also danced to Latin rhythms such as tango, rumba and beguine.
As for the lyrics, they featured lovey-dovey rhymes, stories of sad and beloved mothers, as well as nonsensical tales of dead cats or penguins in love (a surreal tradition which was in some way a legacy of the avant-gardes of the beginning of the century). Other lyrics were plainly nationalistic, militaristic, and openly racist. Let's have a closer look at two of the better known, meaningful, and peculiar musical phenomenons of the times: the Trio Lescano and Alberto Rabagliati.
Italian Music between the wars: Above Trio Lescano
The story of this vocal female trio, known as the Trio Lescano is a real music fairy tale.
Italian TV channel RAI 1 has recently produced a miniseries about their lives. The Trio, an Italian version of the Andrews Sisters, was extremely popular in Italy in the 1930s and '40s and it was composed of three Dutch sisters: Alexandra, Judith, and Kitty Leschan. Their father was a Hungarian contortionist and their mother a Jewish-Dutch operetta singer. They grew up in the Netherlands, where they worked as acrobats and dancers, performing in Europe and in the Middle East; they later formed a vocal trio and moved to Italy in the mid 1930s. Carlo Prato, artistic director of the Turinese see of the Italian state radio station EIAR, took them under his wing and made them change their names to Alessandra, Giuditta, and Caterina Lescano. Thanks to the radio and to the wise guidance of Carlo Prato they became overnight sensations, so famous that even Benito Mussolini recognized them one day and greeted them.
They were adored and revered by Italian people of all ages and, in 1941 they became Italian citizens.
But times were changing. The Nazi army was storming through Europe, and Italy signed and proclaimed its Racial Laws, one of the lowest points in Italian history. In 1942 the Trio Lescano's golden period tragically came to an end: due to their Jewish origins, they were first banished from all radio programs, then arrested and preposterously charged with espionage. They were accused of filling their songs with encoded messages for the enemy. Luckily they weren't deported to Germany and were released at the end of the War. After a last concert for thanking the Italian audience in 1947, the three sisters moved to South America where they kept on singing and performing until the 1960s.
The Trio Lescano had a sophisticated style based on vocal virtuosity and swing and jazz harmonization. As for the lyrics, in general they were an almost nonsensical flow of words (possibly the origin of the accusation of hiding encoded messages), childish stories of dead cats (Maramao perché sei morto), penguins in love (Il pinguino innamorato), and strange and goofy people (Pippo non lo sa). Most of their hits sounded more like nursery rhymes than real songs, but they delighted Italian audiences of the time, who were desperately looking for a way to escape the increasingly heavy atmosphere of the period.
Alberto Rabagliati mix
Alberto Rabagliati's story is also fascinating, in a way another pop culture fairy tale. Rabagliati was born in Milan in 1906, but in 1927 he abruptly moved to Hollywood after winning a Rudolph Valentino look-alike contest. He stayed four years in the U.S. though his acting career never took off. During his time in America, he had the opportunity to get to know new musical genres such as swing and scat, and he realized his future was in music rather than cinema. He came back to Italy to become a singer and joined the Lecuona Cuban Boys where he performed with his face blackened like in a minstrel show, and had some success with the song "Maria la O."
After a very important audition with the Italian state radio station EIAR, Rabagliati quickly became a radio star, and in 1941 every Monday night he had his own radio show, Canta Rabagliati ("Rabagliati sings"). During this show the singer performed all his memorable hits, such as "Ma l'amore no," "Mattinata fiorentina," "Ba-Ba-Baciami Piccina," "Silenzioso slow," and "Bambina innamorata."
His repertoire was mainly made of "silly love songs," as Paul McCartney would say, but his music was a remarkable breakthrough for the Italian musical scene in a period when all foreign influences were banned. It is remarkable that Rabagliati was allowed to keep his swinging style and what is more, the Fascist government decided to exploit his popularity using his song "Sposi" (Weds) as their demographic campaign anthem. He enjoyed so much fame that his name was later mentioned in the lyrics of three songs, "La famiglia canterina," "Quando canta Rabagliati," and "Quando la radio."
On an international scale, World War II had been a far more traumatizing event than World War I, but this time Italy, though in a disastrous financial situation and needing reconstruction due to the severe bombing, faced the post-war period with a completely different spirit. The fall of the fascist regime spread across the country and a new wave of energy and optimism emerged even if families had to do some belt-tightening, Italy was starting from scratch with a new political regime, a new economic system and new artistic perspectives. The country was peacefully invaded by boogie, chewing-gum, and Hollywood movies (one of the long missed foreign things of the 1930's) and started to move at a very fast pace towards the years of the so called "Economic boom".
Edited by Francesca Bezzone, 02/20/2014