During my sojourn at the American Academy in Rome in June — reminiscent sigh — I stayed in a little building called the Villino, on the grounds of the Villa Aurelia, the back of which is visible in the photo above. The top-floor apartment is equipped with a somewhat aged but still noble Bösendorfer, and often houses the Academy's visiting composers. John Corigliano and Mark Adamo lived there, as did Olly Wilson and Yehudi Wyner. The three composers who were in residence during my term — Robert Beaser and Rome Prize winners Paul Rudy and Huck Hodge — stayed on or around the main grounds of the Academy, a few minutes' walk from the Villa Aurelia. (Here's a story about Rudy's Rome-inspired pieces.)
The composer and scholar Martin Brody, a past Arts Director at the Academy, told me a bit more about the history of the Villino, and shared some fascinating excerpts from the unpublished diaries of Isabel Roberts, the wife of Laurance Page Roberts, first director of the Academy in the postwar era. Having read The Rest Is Noise, Marty knew that I would be particularly interested in Roberts's comments on Nicolas Nabokov, the émigré composer turned American government operative, who occupied the downstairs Villino apartment in 1953-54. During that period, Nabokov was organizing La Musica nel XX Secolo, the second of his lavishly funded cultural festivals. The first had taken place in Paris in 1952; both were sponsored by the Congress for Cultural Freedom, for which Nabokov served as Secretary General, and thus had secret support from the CIA. The 1954 festival featured, among others, Stravinsky, Henze, Nono, Petrassi, Dallapiccola, Maderna, Barber, Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Elliott Carter, whose First String Quartet had considerable impact. In two forthcoming essays on Carter's time in Rome — one in the University of Rochester Press anthology Music and Music Composition at the American Academy in Rome — Brody will sort through the political complexities and ambiguities underlying Nabokov's Rome festival.
What caught my eye in the Roberts diaries, though, was a more personal scene, which took place in the Villino on Nov. 14, 1953. It was a lunch for Wilhelm Furtwängler, who had come to Rome to conduct the Ring at the RAI. (The famous recording that resulted has recently been remastered by Pristine Classical.) Also present were Jacques Ibert, then the director of the French Academy in Rome, and the composer, critic, and Italian cultural functionary Mario Labroca, who was at that time the RAI's music director. I reprint this passage with the permission of the Biblioteca Berenson at Villa I Tatti, the Harvard University Center for Italian Renaissance Studies, courtesy of the President and Fellows of Harvard College.
Lunch at the Nabokovs for the Furtwänglers — Nicky cooked it himself … The Iberts and the Labrocas made up the party and I couldn’t have enjoyed it more even though I did sit between Nicky and Furtwängler, who talked in German across me for 1 ½ hours! The gestures made me feel I understood most of it although I can’t speak one word. He is very simple and easy and so little the accepted picture of the “conductor” that one is immensely charmed.
There was some tense history here; immediately after the end of the war, Nabokov had been working for Information Control, the American cultural-reorientation unit, and had therefore been involved with the early stages of the protracted American investigation of Furtwängler's Nazi-era activities — although he does not seem to have been among the more enthusiastic of Furtwängler's prosecutors. By 1953, the two men had evidently put that past behind them. In any case, the picture of Furtwängler as a "simple and easy" man is striking; not too many people described him in those terms.