Franco Fantini’s life at La Scala

Franco Fantini’s life at La Scala

The legendary first violin of the La Scala Orchestra, Franco Fantini, passed last month at 99, leaving behind a legacy of memories of the greatest conductors of the last century, from Toscanini and De Sabata to Karajan and Abbado

Franco Fantini nel 1981 prove Messa di Requiem con Claudio Abbado 33186LMNph Lelli e Masotti © Teatro alla Scala

"Franco Fantini embodied the spirit of La Scala, which once united the CEO and the least senior of the stagehands in a sense of pride, that of belonging to our theatre," recalls Ernesto Schiavi, who was a first violin in the Orchestra under Fantini for many years. "I auditioned to join La Scala in 1971, and it was Fantini who admitted me after the trial period. He was a simple man, despite his role and great violin talents. He helped me and offered valuable advice, the kind that prevents inexperienced people like me in the early days from falling into trivial mistakes. My first opera at La Scala was none other than Alban Berg's Wozzeck, conducted by Claudio Abbado. I was in rehearsals and was sent to the first music stand next to Fantini. At one point, I made a loud sound off tempo, and I could already see myself being kicked out of the orchestra. Instead, Fantini turned to me, smiling, and complimented me on the beautiful sound! It was a way to calm me down and to make me realize that what matters is not mistakes but how one reacts to mistakes. Over time, we became close, and he has always been an invaluable mentor to me and to so many of us."

One could not draw a more truthful portrait of Franco Fantini. A man of the people, he was born in 1925 in a typical block of flats in Sesto San Giovanni, in Milan, then a large working-class neighbourhood near Milan's 20th-century factories. Inheriting the talent from his father, an amateur but gifted musician, the young Fantini endured the long streetcar ride every day, in the chill of winter and the scorching heat of summer, from the traffic circle in Sesto to the centre of Milan, where in the 1930s he became a student at the Conservatory.

There he studied under the famous Enrico Polo, who was like a second father to the shy prodigy from the outskirts, and later Michelangelo Abbado, actual father of Claudio Abbado, who had started a career as a pianist before becoming a conductor and formed a trio of a certain level with Fantini and the cellist Mario Gusella. A decade later, in 1968, Fantini would reunite with his friend Claudio as music director of "his" La Scala Orchestra. His, because Fantini climbed every step to the top, from a violinist in the ranks at just 17 to first violin in 1954, not even in his 30s, during the golden age of Victor de Sabata.

Fantini, who sadly passed away just a few months short of his 100th birthday, remained one of the few who had seen La Scala before the bombings that reduced the Piermarini theatre to a pile of rubble on August 16, 1943. In the face of a devastating war, the 18-year-old did not lose faith or the will to fight and improve himself, like so many young people of his generation, despite the destroyed theatre and the hunger, misery and fear of those days. Physically, with his slim body, bony hands and a face that looked drawn by the comic artist Altan, Fantini seemed to come from another Italy, that of the black-and-white neorealist cinema, the Italy of Miracle in Milan.

He was one of those men of good will who rolled up their sleeves and rebuilt Milan and La Scala, which rose from its ashes on May 11, 1946, with a momentous concert conducted by Arturo Toscanini. That evening, La Scala was embraced by the entire city, crowded around this symbol of its history to hear the music of the great antifascist who had returned from America to conduct the reopening, playing from loudspeakers outside the theatre, which had been rebuilt in record time and was packed to capacity.

Fantini was there, in the violin row, with the strength and enthusiasm of his 20s. He was also there when another great old man, Wilhelm Furtwängler, although compromised by Nazism, introduced the Orchestra to the secret ways of Wagner's musical drama with the mysteriousness of his indecipherable gestures. And he was there when another young German conductor, Herbert von Karajan, eager to oust Furtwängler from the throne of the Berliner Philharmoniker, taught the Orchestra how to bathe the music of Mozart and Beethoven in light. He was there when Dimitri Mitropoulos, high priest of modern music, collapsed on the music stand due to a heart attack during the rehearsal of Mahler's Third, before a stunned orchestra. He was there when a handsome, smiling, big American man, Leonard Bernstein, wearing a tracksuit and a white towel around his neck, as if he were going to a tennis match instead of a Bohème rehearsal, strode into the pit of La Scala.

"If you gave him a little pinch, he would burst into symphony," Fantini told his daughter Silvana in his memoir Una vita in Scala (A Life at La Scala). There are so many legendary figures, from Igor Stravinsky to Antonio Guarnieri, Antonino Votto, Carlo Maria Giulini, and Hermann Scherchen, who have attested to the esteem and affection for this humble and attentive artist, hard worker, a true shoulder for a conductor to lean on. Carlos Kleiber sent “friendly greetings" and complained that the orchestra had changed its distribution of the solos in Tristan and Isolde, relying on Fantini to put everything back in order; Karajan wanted to bring him into the Bayreuth Orchestra for the revival of the Festival, indignant of La Scala's refusal to grant permission; the "row of first violins" gave Fantini a silver plaque with the first bars of the violin solo from Strauss's Ein Heldenleben: these are some of the countless snapshots that make up a life dedicated to music and the La Scala Orchestra.

"Fantini was an example of love and dedication to La Scala that I never encountered again after him," says Francesco De Angelis, now his successor in the role of leader violinist. "He was a great gentleman, loved and respected by the whole orchestra. I learned much of the art from him and Giulio Franzetti, the other ‘leader' in those years, sitting next to them as sub-leader. Fantini was generous enough to help me prepare for the audition to become first violin, a very tricky career leap to make within the Orchestra. I particularly remember him teaching me a challenging violin solo such as Strauss' Der Bürger als Edelmann; he was a musician of extraordinary experience and great humanity. I regret that I was only able to know him for a short time, but I hope that his example of passion and devotion to La Scala and the job will be useful for today's musicians as well." 

There is one story that more than any other perhaps tells of Fantini's love for "his" Orchestra. When, in 1981, Abbado asked for the support of the senators to launch the La Scala Philharmonic project, a true revolution in the style and practice of the Orchestra, Fantini threw himself enthusiastically into the new challenge, even though he was now on the tail end of his career. He could have remained sceptical and detached toward a project that inevitably reshuffled the habits and hierarchies of the world in which he had lived and grown, but he understood that the creation of the Philharmonic was a necessary and healthy transition, a way of envisioning a future for the Orchestra. After all, Fantini had always been willing to take part in novel projects, such as when he played the devil's violin in Stravinsky's Histoire du soldat with Giorgio Strehler as director and narrator in 1957 at La Piccola Scala, the time when Piccolo brought Bertolt Brecht's epic theatre to Milan, or found cabaret accents for Gino Negri's Diario dell'assassinata starring Milva, also at La Piccola Scala in 1979, combined with Schoenberg's Pierrot lunaire.

But the "absolute star" of Fantini's musical universe was Victor de Sabata. Toscanini was a distant legend, spoken of by the senior members of the Orchestra and experienced only in the historic concert of 1946, an idol whose tailcoat given to him by Maestro Polo should be preserved. De Sabata, on the other hand, was a living presence, a lesson that one does not forget, not only because he was the conductor of the unforgettable Falstaff in his first season at La Scala in 1942, but mostly because he gave off that Dionysian spirit that the young violinist from Sesto had always felt as a burst of liberation, a flight to something beyond everyday experience.

"I can say that when I joined the orchestra and started playing," recounted Fantini a few years ago in an interview with Famiglia Cristiana, "I felt that every piece was a journey. I remember how much I enjoyed immersing myself in Wagner: five hours of enjoyment. It went on like that all my life.” It seems possible to recognize Fantini's violin in the whirlwinds stirred by De Sabata in Tristan and Isolde, when Tristan bursts into the castle garden intoxicated with love, or in the ominous tremors of the Ride of the Valkyries. After all, flying was Fantini’s other passion, as he was an accomplished glider pilot and had been in love with the airplanes he spied from the fences at the Bresso airport since childhood. Music, after all, is vibrating air, and up there, amid the waves produced by sound, Fantini twirled lightly and blissfully on the wings of a violin bow. 

Oreste Bossini
Journalist, writer, and host of Rai Radio 3, Bossini collaborates with major Italian musical institutions such as Teatro alla Scala, Teatro La Fenice in Venice, the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Foundation, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and the Società del Quartetto in Milan
Translation by Alexa Ahern