“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: Acadia 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.

Ghosts on the Shelf: Or, the Long-Awaited Return of Charles Durang’s “History of The Philadelphia Stage Between the Years 1749 and 1855” (But, Wait, Wasn’t that Thompson Westcott’s?)

Historians of American drama know it well: there is hardly a more precious source on 19th-century Philadelphia theater than Charles Durang’s work dedicated to the history of the city stage in the years between 1749 and 1855. A painstakingly detailed account of the theatrical activities that took place in Philadelphia over a century, Durang’s work appeared in weekly installments on a Philadelphia newspaper, the Sunday Dispatch, and was thus widely available at the time it was published. Today, it can be found in dozens of libraries across the U.S., either in its original form – that is, as clippings from the original newspapers from the 1850s and 1860s, often pasted onto more or less inclusive scrapbooks – or, much more frequently, as a microfilm.

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The title page of volume I of Thompson Westcott’s scrapbooks of Charles Durang’s history of theater in Philadelphia. Westcott’s signature and the date can be seen on the bottom left corner of the image. To the left is an engraving of actor, playwright, and theater manager David Garrick

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Humor at Marlboro

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One example of Marlboro’s silliness is the “Marlboro Variety Award Letters” in which humorous honors were awarded to participants. Here, Serkin’s napkin-throwing skills are praised: “The Marksmanship Award goes to Rudolf Serkin for his unerring aim, his superlative pitching style, and his superior formation of paper napkin wads for use in Dining Hall recreational activities.”

Pianist Rudolf Serkin, co-founder and longtime artistic director of the Marlboro Music School and Festival, was known for his love of practical jokes, crude humor, and other forms of childish fun, as Marissa has pointed out in her blog post on the Marlboro Music School and Festival records. According to some, he initiated the now famous Marlboro tradition of napkin-throwing wars in the dining hall, and whether or not he did in fact throw the very first napkin ball, he certainly participated with enthusiasm (as proven by his winning the “Marksmanship Award” in Marlboro’s Variety Award Letters – see image). Serkin’s antics went well beyond this, however, including long-lasting runs of back-and-forth practical jokes with certain Marlboro participants, some of which are documented in Rudolf Serkin: a life by Stephen Lehmann and Marion Faber. But while Serkin is the most famous Marlboro jokester, and no doubt deserves credit for promoting a light-hearted atmosphere at the festival, the true comic maestro of Marlboro was their music librarian, Shirley Ann Weekley (who is responsible for the “Baacarole” in Marissa’s post).

The Rudolf Serkin papers, 1908-2003 contains folder after folder of Shirley’s hilarious puns, parodies, and inside jokes, which sneak their way into Marlboro’s official documents. In my opinion, the extensive run of Welcome To Marlboro packets are in themselves worth a trip to see the collection. For many years before Shirley came to Marlboro, these documents were exactly what you would expect given the title: a necessary but uninteresting collection of all the relevant information that a Marlboro participant might need–telephone numbers, hours of the dining hall, etc. Shirley, however, kicked it up quite a few notches and brought these once unremarkable packets to a level that one might dare say rivals the artistry of the Marlboro participants themselves. (OK, maybe not quite, but her commitment to the humor is definitely impressive.) Here is the cover page for the 1977 edition of the Welcome To Marlboro packet, with Shirley’s hilarious description of the packet, including intentionally terrible line breaks:

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The cover page of the 1977 edition of Welcome To Marlboro

a compilation of concise factual info/rmation, titillating gossip, scandalo/us lies, trivia, and sheer fabricatio/n, with absolutely no indication as t/o what falls into which category, thu/s leaving this distinction solely to the judgment of the reader. edited b/y shirley weekley, mimeographed by d/avid white, map by david o. decker, /vertical alignment by the marlboro m/onster, musical examples drawn by a /team of presser building mice. conde/mned by the daughters of the america n revolution, approved by idi amin, /indexed by a chimpanzee, and collate/d by the peoples’ marlboro festival /chorus of the green mountain-white r/iver sanitation district.

The “Marlboro Monster” was one of many fictional characters created by Shirley to appear year after year in the Welcome To Marlboro packets. In the same 1977 edition, The Monster is introduced via footnotes running along the bottom of every page of the packet. The complete story (which is too much fun not to post) runs as follows:

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The first of a series of footnotes introducing the “Marlboro Monster” in the 1977 edition of the Welcome To Marlboro packet

It would be very surprising indeed if you have not read or heard at least something about the possible existence of such half-mythological monsters as the abominable snowman. Serious scientists are even now looking for the Loch Ness monster. They have even given the monster a scientific name: Nessiteras rhombopteryx. In the midst of all this hullabaloo about such famous beasts as Nessie and Big Foot, the sightings of a mysterious creature in the vicinity of Potash Hill, Vermont have been all but ignored. Each night, as the mists rise behind the Presser Building, a hulking form emerges from the Music Library. It is the Marlboro Monster! Part human, part vaporous emanation of the combined thoughts of all past Marlboro participants, it materializes at the stroke of midnight from the seepage in the Presser basement hallway. Though it has never been photographed or even observed in action, ample evidence of its existence can be extrapolated from signs of its activities. Even in this issue of WTM you can see that the Monster has tampered with the vertical spacing on our IBM Selectric. There have been many unexplained instances of cards being removed from the schedule board, entire buildings being shrouded in sheets, cars being lifted bodily and replaced in a distant location, missing stands and parts. Since no human hand could have done these things, you may be sure that whenever such mysterious happenings take place, it is the work of…THE MARLBORO MONSTER.

NOTE: WTM is not responsible for, or necessarily in agreement with, the above irresponsible assertion or any of the opinions expressed herein.

Other recurring characters include “Euphemistica Glossovia” and “Casper Fenwick” a fictional musicologist and composer, respectively. The 1984 edition of WTM provides some biographical details on them, as well as the Marlboro Monster, who was still going strong 7 years later. Apparently all three characters knew each other. Here the Monster is affectionately referred to as “Em-Em” and I’ll omit its portion in the transcription below since we have already heard so much about it in the 1977 edition.

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Biographical introduction of “Euphemistica Glossovia,” the “Marlboro Monster,” and “Casper Fenwick” from the 1984 edition of the Welcome To Marlboro packet

Ms. Glossovia is a frequent contributor to WTM. A musicologist who has covered rock festivals on the moon and discovered little known facts about the sex life of Fidelio Friedrich Finke (which were subsequently deleted from the biographical material in Volume 6, p. 584 of NEW GROVE by some timid editors), she is best known for her definitive biography of Casper Fenwick, of whom we shall hear more later. Her interests are not limited to music, however, and she has toured the country offering lecture-demonstrations on such topics as “The Many Uses of Dental Floss,” “Training Your African Violets To Do Useful Household Tasks,” and “The Nose-Flute: Musical Instrument of the Future.”

[…]

Both Euphemistica and Em-Em were close friends of the late Casper Fenwick, creator of monotonal music and composer of such classic masterworks as the NBC chimes, “Avon Calling,” for chime and sprechstimme (these were composed before he realized that music could reach its most expressive heights only when the composer limited himself to a single pitch), and the work [that] is perhaps best known to us, the “Marlboro Fire Alarm,” a dramatic work which is the only Fenwick composition ever to be performed at the Marlboro Festival.

The above humor comes in the form of marginalia and appendices to the main body of the text, but Shirley could be quite funny even in the informational sections. When warning participants to keep quiet in the dorms after 10pm, for example, she concedes that if “in a moment of intellectual excitement you may continue to recite Shakespear’s sonnets in an exceedingly loud voice until 10:01 P. M.,” that such persons will be pardoned.

The Welcome To Marlboro packets may have been Shirley’s masterpieces, but her entire oeuvre includes all manner of one-off documents, such as a Marlboro-themed parody of the Declaration of Independence, in which participants declare their independence from music conservatories and proclaim their unalienable right to the “Pursuit of Happy Hours.” Her work is so numerous and well represented in the Serkin papers that selecting examples is quite a task, and though I wish I could post all of it, I’ll keep this post to a reasonable length and stop here. Those interested in the full Shirley Weekley experience should look under the “Marlboro Music School and Festival” series heading in the Rudolf Serkin papers’ finding aid. The Welcome To Marlboro packets, which date from B.S.W. (Before Shirley Weekley) in 1967 to 1987, where her jokes were surely more than weekly (I think she would appreciate the pun) can be found in Folders 34-47 of Box 141. Additional material can also be found in the Marlboro Music School and Festival records. But beware the Marlboro Monster!

Rudolf Serkin papers, 1908-2003

serkin-faceRudolf Serkin (1903-1991) was a classical pianist who is widely regarded as one of the 20th century’s greatest musicians. His personal papers, with a few minor additions from his wife and biographers, have now joined the Kislak Center’s archives, preserving the life and work of this incredible musical force, as well as the many musicians he knew and worked with. Represented in 182 boxes are his personal correspondence, performance records, papers relating to the Curtis Institute of Music, the Marlboro Music School and Festival, and the Institute for Young Performing Musicians, as well as a range of personal items, photographs, and a few videos and recordings. A complete listing of the collection and a fuller biography of Serkin can be found in the finding aid.

Despite his high stature, Serkin is remembered for his humble nature, both as a person and as a performer. Though he performed frequently as a solo artist, he was not above more egalitarian collaboration in the form of chamber music, and in fact actively promoted a democratic spirit of music making as the artistic director for the Marlboro Music School and Festival. (For more information about Marlboro, please see Marissa’s blog post on the Marlboro Music School and Festival records, also housed at Penn.) The origins of this can be traced to the very beginning of Serkin’s career. Serkin was born in Eger, Bohemia (today Cheb, Czech Republic) to a Russian-Jewish family, and began playing piano at the age of four under the tutelage of Camilla Taussig. When he was nine years old his family sent him to Vienna to get a more rigorous musical training with Richard Robert, Joseph Marx, and Arnold Schoenberg. Serkin become an exceptionally accomplished pianist as a child, but (thanks to his father) avoided the typical trajectory of the “child prodigy” who endlessly tours the most impressive showpieces of the solo repertoire. Instead, he travelled to Berlin, where he formed a close relationship with the violinist Adolf Busch, launching his career as Busch’s accompanist and playing as a member of the Busch Chamber players. Continue reading

Curtis W. Davis collection on Leopold Stokowski

The University of Pennsylvania already houses a wealth of material related to the orchestral conductor Leopold Stokowski. His papers are preserved in Ms. Coll. 381, his musical scores, transcriptions, and arrangements in Ms. Coll. 350 and Ms. Coll. 351, and the research materials of his biographer Oliver Daniel in Ms. Coll. 382. With the Curtis W. Davis collection on Leopold Stokowski, 1936-1992, the library can now boast five collections on this towering musical figure.

Stokowski is a name that will no doubt still be familiar to many. He is remembered by lovers of orchestral music as the man responsible for bringing the Philadelphia Orchestra to fame, and who left behind numerous recordings that continue to attract listeners to this day. Many others may also remember him from their childhood, as the silhouetted figure who shakes Mickey Mouse’s hand in Disney’s Fantasia, for which he conducted the orchestra. Information about him and his life is also not difficult to find. For this reason, I’ll give only the briefest of biographical sketches here (those who are curious for more might take a look at Oliver Daniel’s biography, available in the library at ML422.S76 D3 1982).

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Leonard B. Meyer papers, 1935-2008

Musicologist and composer Leonard Meyer may have retired from the University of Pennsylvania in 1988, but his personality lives on in the Leonard B. Meyer papers, 1935-2008, which is now completed and ready for researchers at Penn’s Special Collections Center. “Lenny,” as he was known to friends and colleagues, has in a sense never left the Van Pelt-Dietrich library, where his many published works continue to draw students and scholars to the fourth floor’s “ML” section. This collection supplements the books in the stacks with a sizable body of important related material.

All of the materials that one might expect to find in a scholar’s archival collection are present, such as drafts and notes for his writings and his correspondence, where his ideas evolved and strengthened as they were tested out on his colleagues. Especially noteworthy are the extensive notes for the abandoned book project Music as a Model for History, where Meyer had planned to use his theories of how the mind processes music as a metaphor for how we understand history. But just as exciting (and even more fun!) are the types of documents that might not be found in every scholar’s papers and which reveal Meyer’s distinct personality. These include a range of items, from the more serious (such as Meyer’s original musical compositions, personal letters, etc.) to the utterly silly (joke poems).

A few of the letters reveal the serious musician already present in Meyer as a teenager. Meyer was born in New York City and grew up in nearby Scarsdale, where he studied music from an early age. Like many parents, Meyer’s father did not wish his son to continue music professionally and preferred that he focus on subjects considered better suited to building a respectable career. Undergraduate Lenny reluctantly gave over his major area of study to philosophy, but refused to relinquish his musical life entirely. In one letter from the collection, he writes to his parents, “I know father does not wish me to continue my music seriously during my first few years at college. He would rather have me concentrate on my college work alone. This I cannot and will not do.

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