Italian Cultural Institute
Italian Cultural Institute, 686 Park Avenue, New York, NY 10065
Events at this location
This series presented by the
This series presented by the Italian Cultural Institute in collaboration with Centro Primo Levi highlights the stories of those Italian artists, scientists, and intellectuals who were forced to leave Fascist Italy for political reasons or racial persecution, and fled to the United States. Panels of scholars and writers will explore how their exile not only influenced their professional pathway and personal lives but also changed the intellectual scene in Italy and America.
Free and open to the public. Make your reservations.
The first of the events is dedicated to Enrico Fermi and is a conversation with David N. Schwartz, author of the book: The Last Man Who Knew Everything, Enrico Fermi’s compelling biography, and William Allen Zajc (Professor of Physics at Columbia University). Moderator: Mario Calvo Platero, journalist.
The series is held in collaboration with Renato Camurri, Professor of Contemporary History at Università di Verona and director of a series of studies entitled “Italiani dall’esilio”, published by Donzelli, and the Primo Levi Center (CPL Editions).
A Remarkable Man Among Remarkable Men and Women
Albert Einstein once remarked that he had sold himself body and soul to science, “being in flight from the I and the we to the it.” Einstein’s transformation followed from and repudiated an early-adolescent phase of intense religiosity. Enrico Fermi, the Italian-American physicist whose long list of achievements includes co-inventing the nuclear reactor, escaped into science as well, but in his case the impetus was traumatic: the sudden death of his beloved older brother, Giulio, during throat surgery when Fermi was 13.
That loss precipitated an intense lifelong privacy and a personal and scientific strategy of quantifying the world. Fermi wielded a six-inch slide rule as we today wield our iPhones, to plumb the essence of events. He ranks high in the second tier of 20th-century physicists, behind figures like Einstein and the Danish theoretician Niels Bohr. There have been other accounts of his life, yet David N. Schwartz’s new portrait, “The Last Man Who Knew Everything,” is the first thorough biography to be published since Fermi’s death 64 years ago in 1954.
Schwartz, the author of “NATO’s Nuclear Dilemmas,” cautions that the record of Fermi’s life is thin: no personal journals, few letters, little more than the testimony of colleagues, family and friends. The biographer was forced to devote most of his effort to Fermi’s work life.
With a subject like Fermi, that restriction is a limit but hardly a loss. When Fermi died of stomach cancer at 53, Hans Bethe, the theorist who taught us how the sun shines, wrote his colleague’s widow, Laura, “There is no one like Enrico, and there will not be another for a hundred years.” Schwartz calls Fermi “the greatest Italian scientist since Galileo.” Add to these tributes that Fermi was a natural leader — charming, gregarious, bursting with energy, easy in command — and one is left wondering why a full biography has been so long delayed.
The American part of Fermi’s life began in 1938. When the Swedish Academy decided to award him that year’s Nobel Prize in Physics for his work with radioactive elements and nuclear reactions, it took the unusual step of having Bohr ask Fermi privately if he could accept it. Adolf Hitler had banned the Nobels in Germany after a German peace activist was awarded the 1935 Peace Prize. In 1938, the academy feared Italy’s Fascist dictator, Benito Mussolini, might follow suit. Fermi knew Mussolini was hungry for national honors and told Bohr so.
The advance notice gave the Fermis time to prepare their escape, urgent because Laura was Jewish and Mussolini was promulgating increasingly harsh anti-Semitic laws. The Nobel, worth more than $500,000 today, set up the family in its new country, where a professorship at Columbia University awaited the new laureate. Fatefully, the Fermis sailed from Italy the same week that two Berlin radiochemists discovered nuclear fission.
That discovery was totally unexpected. In spring 1939, working at Columbia with the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard, Fermi set out to answer a crucial question about it. Uranium atoms release a burst of energy when they fission, enough per atom to make a grain of sand visibly jump. But what then? Was there a way to combine those individual fissions, to turn a small burst into a mighty roar?
Szilard, ever-resourceful, acquired hundreds of pounds of black, greasy uranium-oxide powder from a Canadian mining corporation. Fermi and his students packed the powder into pipe-like tin cans and arranged them equally spaced in a circle within a large tank of water mixed with powdered manganese. At the center of the arrangement they placed a neutron source.
Neutrons from the source, slowed down by the water, would penetrate the uranium atoms in the cans and induce fissions. If the fissioning atoms released more neutrons, those “secondary” neutrons would irradiate the manganese. Measuring the radioactivity induced in the manganese would tell Fermi if the fissions were multiplying. If so, then a chain reaction might be possible, one bombarding neutron splitting a uranium atom and releasing two neutrons, those two splitting two other uranium atoms and releasing four, the four releasing eight, and so on in a geometric progression that could potentially produce vast amounts of energy for power — or for an atomic bomb. The experiment worked.
In 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized a program to build atomic bombs, hoping to defeat a Germany that was potentially a year or more ahead in the deadly race. Fermi, working now at the University of Chicago, undertook the building of a full-scale reactor to demonstrate that a chain reaction could be achieved and controlled. By then it was known as well that a nuclear reactor would breed a newly discovered element, plutonium, an alternative nuclear explosive. Fermi’s reactor would also demonstrate the breeding of plutonium.
Instead of water, which absorbed too many neutrons, the demonstration reactor would use graphite, the form of carbon found in pencil lead, to slow the neutrons. Graphite blocks the size of planter boxes, drilled with blind holes to house slugs of uranium metal, would be stacked layer by layer to form a spherical matrix. Fermi, who loved American idioms, called his creation a “pile.”
Across the month of November 1942, Fermi supervised the building of Chicago Pile No. 1 on a doubles squash court under the west stands of the university football stadium. It was ready on the frigid morning of Dec. 2, 1942. Through the morning and early afternoon, wielding his slide rule, Fermi slowly took the pile critical, with a characteristically Fermian break for lunch. It worked, which meant a bomb would almost certainly work as well.
Historically, no other development in Fermi’s life ranks as high as the nuclear reactor, mighty versions of which produce more than 11 percent of the world’s electricity today. Fermi continued to contribute original scientific work throughout the war and postwar at the University of Chicago. He advised the United States government on atomic energy and worked on weapons problems during summer stints at Los Alamos. He opposed the development of the hydrogen bomb more vehemently than J. Robert Oppenheimer but escaped the ruination visited upon Oppenheimer by the vindictive chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, Lewis L. Strauss. He went on to help build the first hydrogen bomb.
I kept wishing this biography were livelier, lit with more surprises, but Schwartz, working with limited sources, tells the story well. A few infelicities are distracting. “Disinterested” doesn’t mean “uninterested.” “Fulsome” still means “offensively flattering,” not “generous,” though the meaning is changing. Brig. Gen. Leslie R. Groves of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, not Oppenheimer, held “authority over the entire Manhattan Project.” Oppenheimer was the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory, one part of the project, where the first bombs were designed and built.
Still, these are minor mistakes. All in all, Schwartz’s biography adds importantly to the literature of the utterly remarkable men and women who opened up nuclear physics to the world.
The second session of the
The second session of the series Creativity and Exile features the legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini who left fascist Italy in protest of Mussolini’s Racial Laws and settled in America where he left a profound mark on the way in which symphonic music is performed and understood.
Music director of the Los Angeles Opera, James Conlon will discuss Toscanini’s experience with his biographer, the renowned musicologist, Harvey Sachs.
Free and open to the public. Make a reservation.
Born in 1867 in Parma, Italy, Toscanini debuted very young on the international scene and, already in 1898, received important appointments at La Scala first and, in 1908 at the Metropolitan Opera in New York where he remained as musical director until 1915. He conducted the New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra from 1928 to 1936 and appeared with orchestras all over the world, except those of Italy and Germany during the Fascist regimes. In 1939, after the promulgation of the racial laws and the outbreak of the war, he left Italy for good. He settled in the US where directed the NBC Symphony Orchestra until 1954.
Toscanini was staunchly opposed to the growth of fascism in Europe. In Italy in 1931, he was attacked for refusing to play the fascist anthem. Toscanini had been the first non-German to conduct at the Wagner festival in Bayreuth, Germany, but he opted not to attend the festival in 1933 due to the Nazi regime. In 1936, Toscanini traveled to Palestine to conduct a group of Jewish musicians who had fled Europe.
The Toscanini’s Wars
David Denby, The New Yorker, July 10, 2017
What comes through in Harvey Sachs’s long chronicle is the extent of Toscanini’s role, witting and unwitting, in transforming the way that classical music was produced and consumed in the twentieth century. In his seventy years as a performer, he moved opera, as Sachs says, from entertainment to culture. The nineteenth-century conductor—a necessary time beater, presiding over a mixed lot of players—by degrees metamorphosed, in the most talented examples, into a spiritual mentor and charismatic culture god. The mechanical reproduction of music, which became popular with such novelties as a foggy four-minute recording of Caruso singing “Celeste Aida,” from 1902, gave way to complete recordings of symphonies and operas transmitted through every available medium. We are now immersed: the entire recorded history of music lies open, much of it free, to any listener who has the curiosity to discover it. But if Adorno and Horowitz are descriptively correct in asserting that Toscanini became part of advanced consumer patterns in the monopoly phase of late capitalism, and the rest of that Marxist bad news, Toscanini never saw himself in world-historical terms. As a nineteenth-century man charging through the twentieth century, he certainly welcomed stardom and wanted his concerts broadcast in America and Europe. The quintessential performer, he seized on every opportunity to make music under the best conditions.
For years, he was known principally as a man of the theatre, but in 1926 he began conducting the New York Philharmonic, and became its music director in 1929. He was over sixty; he had trained the La Scala musicians in the nineteen-twenties and taken the company on tour as a concert orchestra, but this was the first time that he had an orchestra of his own. Those who heard his work with the Philharmonic speak of a mastery beyond anything they had ever encountered. The “Essential Recordings” collection has a few examples of extreme refinement without any loss of vitality. There is the extraordinary Beethoven’s Seventh, recorded in 1936, a performance that the conductor James Levine considers to be the most perfect orchestral recording he knew of. (It’s certainly more relaxed, with sweeter string tone, than the driving, almost angry Seventh that the NBC Symphony recorded in 1951.) The collection also includes two Rossini overtures with the Philharmonic, “L’Italiana in Algeri” and “Semiramide,” that are breathtakingly nuanced in their shading of color and emphasis. Sachs reports that, when Toscanini took the Philharmonic on tour in 1930, European audiences and critics were astonished by the virtuoso playing in every section, the evenness of stroke, the dynamics seamlessly matched from one phrase to the next.
By 1936, Toscanini had grown tired of presenting every program four times for the Philharmonic’s subscription concerts, and he resigned, returning to Milan and vowing never to be the music director of an orchestra again. That’s when the capitalist miracle occurred. The following year, the head of RCA, David Sarnoff, sent an emissary asking Toscanini to come back and conduct a handpicked ensemble. Like the Hollywood studio bosses, Sarnoff, born in Eastern Europe and with little formal education, became a hard-driving entrepreneur in America. A businessman and an inventor, he was eager to be recognized as a patron of culture. In the event, Toscanini demanded, and got, complete control over repertory and soloists, and the right to approve or veto any recordings that came out of the broadcasts.
Live music was all over the radio in the thirties. NBC had a large staff ensemble that played light classics and dance music and appeared in various shows. In September, 1937, the network turned over auditions for the new orchestra to no less an eminence than Artur Rodzinski, the music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, who selected the best players from the staff orchestra and added young string and woodwind players from around the country, raiding other orchestras, including his own. He rehearsed the musicians for weeks. Toscanini finally showed up in December, 1937 (…).
The NBC Symphony Orchestra, with its ninety-two players, never had the weight of the New York Philharmonic or the rounded, dark, burnished sound of, say, the Berlin Philharmonic. What it had was phenomenal accuracy, drive, and brilliance. It was the ideal instrument for Toscanini’s temperament. (…)
The creation of the NBC Symphony was celebrated at the time as a victory for American culture—the New World coming into its own musically—but Sachs also sees it as a product of Europe’s disintegration in the authoritarian nineteen-thirties. A good portion of the book is devoted to the social and what might be called the geographic structure of musical high life—Toscanini’s restlessness, the endless ocean voyages, the meetings with celebrities, the shuffling of family and mistresses, the frequent retreats to Lago Maggiore for a peace that was beyond his reach. But, throughout the hard work and the periods of respite, the atmosphere in Europe grows menacing.
The Divan of Moses-Ibn-Ezra op.
The Divan of Moses-Ibn-Ezra op. 207 (1966), voice and guitar. Luigi Attademo, guitar
Free and open to the public. Make a reservation.
Musing his own life and exile in the last years of life, the Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo Tedesco decided to dedicate a cycle of song to the Spanish poet Moses Ibn Ezra whose exile from his native Granada disrupted his early life and became a source of inspiration. Castelnuovo Tedesco came himself from a family of Spanish origin that traced its arrival in Italy to the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
Born in Florence in 1895, as a young composer he distinguished himself in the cultural milieu of Ildebrando Pezzetti and Alfredo Casella. In 1926 he premiered his first opera, La Mandragola, based on Nicolò Machiavelli’s play, inaugurating a long interest in literature that would lead him to put to music writers such as Aeschylus, Virgil, John Keats, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Miguel de Cervantes, Federico García Lorca.
The racial laws of 1938 banned his music from the public cultural scene and put an end to its work in Italy. In 1939 he managed to flee to the US with the help of his friend and admirer Jascha Heifetz who obtained from him a contract with the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Castelnuovo Tedesco remained in America working for the film industry as well as a teacher. He composed new works inspired by American literature and by his renewed interest in the Jewish liturgical tradition.
His passion for the guitar was sparked by his encounter with André Segovia in 1932 and the magnificent song cycle The Divan of Moses Ibn Ezra is his last homage to the instrument and the tradition it represents.
Luigi Attademo has performed at many festivals and concert halls the music of contemporary composers. He has appeared on the Italian public Radio3 RAI and Rete Toscana Classica. Working in the archive of the Andrés Segovia’s Foundation he discovered unknown manuscripts of important composers, such as Jaume Pahissa, Alexandre Tansman, and Gaspar Cassadò which he published in the Spanish musicological review La Roseta.
Attademo recorded a CD dedicated to Scarlatti’s Sonatas and one of Bach transcriptions. Other recording include Variations on Folia and Boccherini’s quintets. He received a doctorate in philosophy and composed music for the theatre piece Il canto della Tenebra (Berlin 2004) dedicated to the esoteric Italian poet Dino Campana.