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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.