“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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The Charlotte Cushman Club records: A Window on Philadelphia Theater History

Perhaps even more than their male colleagues, actresses are often treated like cultural icons dangerously running on the sharp edge between scandal and sanctity, supported and haunted at the same time by an endless flow of more or less authorized anecdotes, interviews, photographs, Instagram posts, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers. But a century ago, in an age in which theater districts still served as meeting places between prostitutes and their clients, the reputation of actresses, especially in the earlier stages of their careers, was often considered dubious unless otherwise proven. In Philadelphia, a group of wealthy theater-lovers thought that young actresses should at least have the right to escape “the brothel-like atmosphere of cheap hotels and the rude stares of corset drummers;” and in 1907, they opened a new organization, the Charlotte Cushman Club, to provide them respectable lodging while performing in the city.

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The Charlotte Cushman Club house at 239 South Camac Street, Philadelphia

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This seventh day of February

335 years ago today, William Penn sold 500 acres of land in Pennsylvania to John Kirton.

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The date was recorded as 1681, but as the new year in England at that time began on March 25, this is actually February 1682 according to the present calendar system.  The deed recording this transaction is one of seven documents gathered in a volume some time after 1916 as examples of the signatures of four generations of the family of William Penn, founder and proprietor of Pennsylvania.  The deed has William Penn’s own signature and seal.

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The volume, a recent gift from Caroline F. Schimmel, is now Ms. Codex 1809 at the Kislak Center for Rare Books, Manuscripts and Special Collections.  The signers of the other documents range from William Penn’s father in 1667 to one of his grandsons in 1787.  Along with six men of the Penn family appears Hannah Callowhill Penn, William Penn’s second wife.  At the end of William’s life, Hannah conducted his business from England and continued to manage his estate and their affairs between his death in 1718 and hers in 1726.  Her manuscript in the collection is a business letter, entirely in her hand, written to James Logan in Philadelphia in May 1718, a few months before William’s death.

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To conclude this post with her closing words, “Which is the present needfull from Thy Loving Friend H. Penn.”

Text Me Back! The Cunnington and Lee Family Papers

Have you ever texted someone and then waited … waited … waited for a response? Navigating relationships in the age of texting can cause a lot of uncertainty, impatience, and disappointment. How dare your romantic interest like that photo on Instagram or comment on that Facebook post without having responded to that meme you just sent?! I was reminded that the frustration of communication between romantic partners is not new when I recently processed the Cunnington and Lee family papers, 1813-1866.

William P. Cunnington (1804-1871) led the orchestra at the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia and traveled with orchestras in Baltimore and New York. While on an extended business trip to Baltimore, he wrote to his wife, Jane Cook Cunnington (1808-1872), and very freely described his displeasure at the infrequency of her letters (and of the topics on which she wrote).

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Ms. Coll. 1258, Box 1, Folder 3

Baltimore
Nov 25, 1846

My dear Jane—

I scarcely know whether to feel more distressed or incensed at your conduct. I have been here nearly two weeks & not one word from you. I wrote to you last Friday night & sent the letter by Rink on Saturday morning. I wrote as much as it was possible for me to do situated as I was. I begged of you to sit down on Sunday & write to me & I felt as certain of having a letter on Monday as I did of seeing the daylight. I counted the hours for the office to open but I only experienced the bitter disappointment. I have been to the office every day…. I could scarcely believe my own senses when told again this morning & again this afternoon that there was no letter.

Wow—tell us how you really feel, Willy! William and Jane did have three children—William H., Oldine, and Francis—so it’s possible that Jane’s infrequent missives were a result of taking care of the children and not because she was trying to “distress” or “incense” her rather impatient husband.

Another highlight of this collection is an example of a crossed letter. A crossed, or cross-hatched, letter contains two sets of writing on top of each other at right angles. This practice was done in the nineteenth century to save paper, as well as postal charges. (Even after paper became more readily available, some people practiced crossed writing as a show of thrift.) As you can see from the example, it’s a challenge to read such crossed letters!

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Ms. Coll. 1258, Drawer 55

The Cunnington and Lee family papers also contain the papers of antiquarian William H. Cunnington (1754-1810) of Heytesbury, Wiltshire, England. In addition to the family letters—which are concerned with issues such issues of daily life as health, the settling of estates, and travel—the collection contains poems written by, and apparently copied by, the families. The poems are primarily concerned with love and death (is there anything else?).

This collection is now open for researchers. After perusing the collection, perhaps you will be moved to show more patience toward your paramours than William showed poor Jane.

Philadelphia connections in the Oliver Daniel research collection on Dimitri Mitropoulos

Dimitri Mitropoulos in Philadelphia (c. 1945). Photo by Adrian Siegel. Courtesy James Dixon. Oliver Daniel research collection on Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Dimitri Mitropoulos in Philadelphia (c. 1945). Photo by Adrian Siegel. Courtesy James Dixon. Oliver Daniel research collection on Dimitri Mitropoulos.

The Oliver Daniel research collection on Dimitri Mitropoulos is now processed and open for research. Oliver Daniel was a composer, music producer, and musicologist, who wrote a biography of conductor Leopold Stokowski in 1982 and was working on a biography of conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos at the time of Daniel’s death in 1990. Daniel had conducted more than 180 interviews with over 120 individuals from 1982 to 1989 while researching the biography. Daniel’s longtime partner and executor of his estate Donald Ott sought an author to complete the biography and made Daniel’s oral history transcripts and notes available to author William R. Trotter, who completed the book, Priest of Music: The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos, published by Amadeus Press in 1995. Ott donated the collection to Penn in 2006.

The oral history interviews and research materials cover all aspects of Mitropoulos’s life and career, including his early life in Greece and his conducting positions in America as principal conductor of the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, music director of the New York Philharmonic, and principal conductor of the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Daniel interviewed musicians who played and sang for Mitropoulos, conductors who were mentored by him, and composers whose works Mitropoulos premiered and championed domestically and abroad.

Jeanette MacDonald with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Robin Hood Dell (July 20, 1945). Courtesy James Dixon. Oliver Daniel research collection on Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Jeanette MacDonald with Dimitri Mitropoulos and the Philadelphia Orchestra at Robin Hood Dell (July 20, 1945). Courtesy James Dixon. Oliver Daniel research collection on Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Additionally, from 1944-1948, Mitropoulos served as principal conductor of the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, which was the name applied to the Philadelphia Orchestra during its summer months performing at the outdoor amphitheater in Fairmount Park. For a time, Mitropoulos’s Dell concerts were wildly popular. Trotter indicates that crowds reached up to 7,000 per concert in Mitropoulos’s first season there and up to 14,000 in the 1947 season. In 1948, however, the Republican convention was held in Philadelphia, and attendance took a significant hit. Philadelphians were either at the convention or watching it at home—it was the first political convention to be broadcast on television. In the middle of that season the Dell concerts were abandoned altogether. Continue reading