“In Labor I Find Peace”: The Works and Notes of a Mysterious Italian-American Composer Find A New Home at Penn

If you are a music historian and have never heard of F. Antonio Di Cecco (1888-1954), don’t worry: neither had the author of this post until a few months ago. After all, why should you know him? Contemporary newspapers reveal very little about his work as a composer and conductor, and when journalists did write something about his music, their opinions were not too flattering.

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A review of a concert featuring music by Antonio Di Cecco, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 15, 1924

A concert featuring Di Cecco’s ballet ”Primavera Italica (“Italian Spring”) and a few others of his works was organized in Philadelphia in October 1924 by a committee of Italians living in the city. “Mr. Di Cecco has real musical feeling,” wrote a reporter of the Philadelphia Inquirer, “but it seemed at times as if he were groping after expression rather than finding it…he is not a born melodist; his themes lack spontaneity.” Overall, the journalist concluded, “it must be said that the composer’s bent seems to be elegiac,’ at times “rather monotonously so.”

Yet, despite his apparently unimpressive record, there are very good reasons to believe that Di Cecco’s works, now part of the F. Antonio Di Cecco collection of manuscripts scores and notebooks, may be of great historical value today. Apart from a few notable exceptions – for example, Gian Carlo Menotti, along with the younger John Corigliano and David Del Tredici – the life and music of Italian-American composers remains today largely unstudied. This is especially true for the crucial period around the turn of the 19thcentury, when millions of impoverished Italians came to the United States to look for better job opportunities. Between the 1880s and the early 1920s, Italians were often viewed with suspicion by both Americans and members of other ethnic communities. These were the years in which the stereotype of the loud, uncultured, ever-gesticulating, mafia-affiliated Italian was born—a stereotype that finds more than an echo in many entertainment products, from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather to the unlikely mobsters of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.


To help each other in a foreign-speaking, hostile land, Italians began to form ethnic businesses, associations, and institutions, including hospitals and schools. Di Cecco’s concert of October 1924, for example, was organized by a special committee named after the composer — the “Di Cecco Music Committee” – to raise funds in support of an Italian hospital in South Philadelphia.

Di Cecco was a child of the great migration wave of the late 19thcentury. His parents, Vincenzo Di Cecco and Giacinta Tavani, moved to the U.S. from the little village of Fara S. Antonio, in Northern Abruzzo, in 1896, and relocated in the Philadelphia area with their sons Antonio (then barely 8 years old), Raffaele, and Nicola. Two daughters, Mary and Susie, were born in the U.S. The family was probably of humble origins, but over the years managed to consolidate their position. In 1921, Mary Di Cecco and her husband Eugene DiFilippo bought a store in Toughkenamon, in the Western suburbs of Philadelphia, and lived there until the end of their lives.

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Mary Di Cecco DiFilippo (Antonio Di Cecco’s sister) and her son Eugenio DiFilippo jr. photographed in their general store in Toughkenamon, PA. From Keith Craig, New Garden Township (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010).

As for Antonio, his life seems to have been more eventful. He served in the Italian military during World War I, and remained in his native country until 1923. He appears to have studied composition at the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna—a fact that his compatriots from overseas did not fail to remark on in their enthusiastic reviews of everything meant to symbolize Italian creative genius in the eyes of Americans.

In those years, Antonio lived in between two worlds. He was in Philadelphia from 1923 to 1924, and then back in Italy until 1930. For a historian, it is tempting to reflect onto Antonio’s works the years of hardship of his own diasporic existence as well as the reality of a whole community living away from its country of origin. For example, ”Primavera Italica” is opened by a “chorus of the exiled,” whose Italian text (to be sung “nostalgically”) laments the pain of being separated from the beloved motherland: “I long for the land of the Sun/ My heart is broken in pain.” The libretto of the ballet is inspired by the struggles that ancient Italians suffered during the early Roman Republic, when they had to resist repeated invasions of the peninsula by foreign people. Yet, it took all that suffering to make Rome thrive and triumph.

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“Lavorando trovo pace” (“In labor I find peace”), the motto that Di Cecco

The myth of imperial Rome, along with assertions from the libretto such as “Italian people do not give up: they fight back and suffer,” eerily resounds with the political rhetoric of the Fascist regime, which came into power only one year after the libretto was completed. It is easy to see, however, how this imagery also resounded with the feelings and hopes of many among those who left Italy to find new home in the United States. Di Cecco’s motto “In labor I find peace,” written in Italian or Latin on the front of many of his scores, suggests that even his own work as a composer could be seen as a way to heal from homesickness.

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Antonio Di Cecco’s notes on music instrumentation, from one of his notebook

After having completed his three-act opera “Caino” (“Cain”) at the end of the 1920s, Antonio’s work was influenced by the political climate of the New Deal. Mostly tonal and traditional in style, Di Cecco’s music perfectly fit the ideal of artistic accessibility of the time, but his hymn “Lead Us On, Oh President” (1934), including a direct mention in the lyrics of President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself, probably showed more patriotic zeal than it should have had. For another composition, the orchestral “Philarmonia Ouverture” (1939), Di Cecco had a professional copyist prepare duplicates of separate instrumental parts, probably in view of a public performance of this work—no traces of which, however, could be found in the contemporary press.

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A passage of the full score of Di Cecco’s opera “Caino”, act I

After that, silence. No more music is available for the last decades of Di Cecco’s life. Perhaps the end of the Federal Music Project in 1939, and the decline of other programs connected with the Work Progress Administration, led Antonio to gradually abandon composition? And after all, to what extent had Antonio’s music been successful up to then? Was he able to earn a living from music, or was music just something he cultivated along with other professional activities? Nothing certain is known about any of this.

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A textbook once belonged to Di Cecco, probably from his years at the Accademia Filarmonica in Bologna, Italy

Since Antonio’s death in 1954, it seems that he had been completely forgotten as a musician, until his descendants, Mary Di Cecco’s children Aida DiFilippo Stainback and Ralph Leonard DiFilippo, donated his scores to Penn in March 2018. Among these manuscripts are six orchestral works, two marches, four vocal and choral works, two piano works, one opera, and a ballet, for a total of 16 complete compositions. Music is elusive, and these works, like any other music ever composed in history, say probably much more about their creator than we will ever be able to grasp (or, perhaps, we will grasp much more than the artist originally intended to say). Both as music and as material objects, however, these scores open the door to multiple research alleys: from the history of emotions, to (Italian) immigration, to New Deal art, and to national and diasporic identity. Jut as Di Cecco struggled to find a home during all his life, the scores themselves needed to find a new home to allow, for others, new intellectual adventures.

“Save Your Waste Fats to Make Explosives!” A Day in WWII America

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“Hang this up in your kitchen!” A leaflet from WWII America asks citizens to save their waste fats

Please don’t pour your used cooking oil down the drain. Water gets contaminated and becomes very difficult to treat. Instead, put the oil in a closed, non-recyclable container, close it, and throw everything in the trash. But if, when it comes to frying your food, patriotism overcomes earth-friendliness, you can still do as the U.S. government suggested to back in the day. In that case, just take your used (cooled down!) oil to your town store: it may come in handy to make the bombs that will destroy your enemy’s villages.

 

Hopefully, no town store of today – if there is still such a thing – will ask for your used oil to make explosives. But seen through the lens of the Aspero family collection of World War II ephemera (one of Penn’s latest acquisitions), life in America during the conflict was no less terrifying that in the worst totalitarian nightmares of a Bradbury or an Orwell. The war never arrived in continental U.S. And yet, it was very much present in the minds and hearts of those who remained at home. To them, it assumed the form of an invisible presence, ever looming over their daily existences, down to the most apparently innocuous, prosaic aspects. It was not just about knowing that the lives of your beloved children and spouse were constantly in danger or that those who were serving in the Armed Forces were constantly put in danger on the front or in one of the many training camps scattered across the nation. It was also about food, clothing, traveling, and talking in the street–all activities that had to be carefully regulated and controlled.

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A few War Ration Books from 1942-1943

Because most of the processed food and gas was directed to the military, and imports were limited, food and fuel had to be rationed. Individual war ration books were issued for every member of the family by the U.S. government Office of Price Administration. The books included different types of removable stamps, each to be used for the purchase of a specific good. Once a person had reached the set quantity of a given item or food that was established by the government, no more could be bought until the next war ration book was be issued. Ration books were considered serious business by the government, and as personal documents bearing the signature of their owner, they had to be handled with extreme care. In dry prose, the Office of Price Administration issues dire warnings should violations occur and instructions should accidents happen: “This book must be returned to the War Price and Rationing Board which issued it, if the person to whom it was issued is induced into the armed services of the United States, or laves the country for more than 30 days, or dies. The address of the Board appears above.”

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Removable stamps from the inside of a War Ration Book

The government also published special brochures with the purpose of instructing citizen on the appropriate behavior to adopt, especially in public. One of them, titled “A Personal Message to the Mothers, Wives, Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and Friends of Service Men,” warned citizens to not pass on personal communications sent from dear ones at the front, or even make comments on their personal lives. Because … you know, spies are everywhere! Examples are provided. “Last Tuesday evening, on a bus, the wife of a shipping clerk in a Iowa drug house remarked to a friend: “We’re staying home tonight—Al’s tired. He shipped 80 cases of quinine to the Army today.”” But nearby, somebody is listening: “Quinine for the Army… the tropics, eh? And 80 cases means a lot of men. Interesting.”

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A brochure published by the United Service Organization (USO)

As grim as all this may have sounded, morale was to be kept up at any cost and civilians were offered suggestions to how they could help. A brochure issued by the United Service Organization (USO) featuring three smiling soldiers on the front cover, explained the need for support of their organization in highly patriotic terms. “’Sighted sub; sank same.’ ‘Send us more Japs’…..Our fighting men have this spirit. But loneliness, monotony, and boredom can destroy it.” In another leaflet – the one inviting Americans to “save waste fats to make explosives” –, a smiling housewife is nonchalantly placed next to a firing cannon. A greeting card from a military camp comically describes the daily life of training soldiers, but it is folded inside an envelope carrying the picture of a man in uniform, asking in tears to “please write more letters for me.”

 

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A greeting card from Camp Barkeley, Texas

 

 

 

The U.S. declaration of war on Italy, Germany, and Japan made the life of an Italian-American family like the Asperos (the creator of the collection, Umberto Aspero, emigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s) even more complicated. Like Japanese and German Americans, U.S. citizens of Italian origins were seen with suspicion; and for a period of time, unnaturalized immigrants from Italy were even designed as enemy aliens. In California, 10,000 Italians were removed from their homes in prohibited zones, and even naturalized citizens were forced to leave their homes or close their businesses because they were considered dangerous by the government. Seen seventy years later, then, the act of collecting material from the war looks not only like an attempt to document the harshness of those days, but perhaps also as a possible way for the Italian ethnic minority to stake a claim on such an important part of American history.