Articles written for AUFBAU by Leonard J. Lehrman

AUFBAU 66:19 September 21, 2000 p.14

Sacco and Vanzetti
Recalled In Situ

[original title: In Search of [the Roots of] Sacco and Vanzetti]

The great American composer Marc Blitzstein (1905-1964), whose work Aaron Copland (1900-1990) and Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) valued [so] highly [as to sign a three-way agreement with him to become musical co-executors of each others' estates], was working on several unfinished projects when he died. [Many of them have been completed by this writer over the past three decades, with the blessing of Leonard Bernstein, who called Lehrman "Marc Blitzstein's dybbuk."]

The largest, most ambitious of these projects was a three-act grand opera, commissioned by the Ford Foundation for the Metropolitan Opera, titled Sacco and Vanzetti. It was based on the story of the Italian anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, whose execution in Massachusetts August 23, 1927--for crimes they almost certainly did not commit--sparked worldwide outrage. This writer is working on its completion.

The two are considered national heroes in Italy today--half a dozen cities have streets named after them. Here in the U.S., events recalling them will be part of the National Italian Heritage Month in October. [One can expect a flurry of activity recalling them over the next two years, leading up to the 75th anniversary of the execution, and the 25th anniversary of the July 19, 1977 proclamation by then-Governor Michael Dukakis confirming the unfairness of their trial.]

A Boston historian [Boston's leading anarchist historian], Robert d'Attilio, has put together a presentation he calls Fantasia: Sacco-Vanzetti: Voices from the Past. It is a combination of music, words and images for six actors plus musicians, and will be presented Saturday, October 21 at 8pm at Medfield High School in Medfield, Massachusetts. [He hopes to find the funding, eventually, to bring the work to Ellis Island.]

The Community Church of Boston, which spearheaded the two Italians' defense, will be conferring its annual Sacco-Vanzetti Award for contributions to the struggle for social justice to historian Howard Zinn on October 1, 2000. Among Professor Zinn's many accomplishments [and writings] was his keynote speech on "Why Sacco and Vanzetti Are Still Important" at a [December 1,] 1995 [National Opera Association convention] symposium in Boston on Marc Blitzstein's opera, which helped persuade the Blitzstein Estate to go ahead with supporting its completion. [The symposium may be found at

Researching the roots and families] Planning a journey in search of the backgrounds of Sacco and Vanzetti, this writer was lucky to make contact with [we called on historians Paul Avrich, Neil Thomas Proto, and Frank d'Alessandro, who put us in touch with] Nicola Sacco's niece, [Fernanda. She had in fact been named after her uncle: he had been born Ferdinando Sacco, but changed his name to that of his recently-deceased elder brother Nicola when fleeing Massachusetts for Mexico, under the mistaken impression that he was subject to the draft in World War I--a question of loyalty that would figure heavily against him in the prejudiced trial to come.]

Fernanda, a retired schoolteacher [born five years after her uncle's death,] [who] lives in the southern Italian city of his [(and her)] birth, Torremaggiore[, 45 minutes north of the Adriatic port city of Foggia]. She was also [and put us] in touch with the municipal offices of both Torremaggiore and Villafalletto, the northwestern Italian city just north of Cuneo (south of Turin) where Vanzetti was born.

Vanzetti rhapsodized about the tiny town of Villafalletto[, not accessible by train,] in his writing[s--along with the river Maira, now nearly dried up. But] the majestic yellow schoolhouse [and the church where he was baptized,] portrayed in one of Ben Shahn's collage paintings in his Sacco-Vanzetti series, still stand[s].

[A retired municipal worker, Giovanni Caldera, whose family lived next to the Vanzettis for generations, was happy to show us around. Only at the cemetery did we come to the realization that he was actually Vanzetti's closest living relative in the town: his grandfather had married Vanzetti's first cousin.]

At the house where Vanzetti was born, there is a plaque [over the door in Italian,] set up by the Sacco and Vanzetti Committee which reads, in English translationas follows: "In this house was born Bartolomeo Vanzetti, apostle of faith, at peace with his life [dedicated to] love of the humble 1888-1927 --The Sacco and Vanzetti Committee."

[No such plaque adorns the house where Sacco was born--yet. But Fernanda is working on it. (Our photo shows Fernanda, her back to the camera, chatting with the house's current inhabitants.)

First, though, she managed, three years ago, to get the city to do something else:] In Torregmaggiore there is an imposing black stone monument to Sacco. Governor Dukakis's declaration that the Sacco and Vanzetti trial had been conducted unfairly is engraved there in Italian. On the [white] base [displaying Sacco's photo (just as Vanzetti's gravestone displays his)] the Torremaggiore ducal castle ["De Sangro"] and the Statue of Liberty are carved in relief.

[Mayor Matteo Marolla of Torremaggiore came to see us at Fernanda's apartment less than an hour after our arrival. Our letters to her, we learned, had been translated into Italian and were now part of the town chronicles. Our arrival had been announced at the town fair. "What has become of Michael Dukakis? Is he still alive?" he wanted to know.
When told that the former Massachusetts governor was alive and well physically, though not so much politically, following his defeat in the 1988 presidential race against George Bush, the mayor wanted to know, "Why was he defeated?" The reaction to the natural reply, "Because he was accused of pardoning too many people," resounded like a thunderclap.

Not far from Nicola's grave is that of his elder brother Sabino, who served as mayor of Torremaggiore for two decades, and died at the age of 92 in 1976, one year before his brother's vindication. Of the eleven children in that family, eight lived to adulthood. Their children and grandchildren are spread out all over Italy; the only American relative ever to visit Torremaggiore, Nicola's grandson Spencer Sacco, is an organist in Rhode Island.

Fernanda wanted to know why he has not returned since 1977. She would love to see him. Perhaps she will get her chance to come and do so in America for the dedication--next year?-- of the monument she has been working on getting Charlestown, Massachusetts to put up.

Meanwhile the cultural artifacts accumulate.] The two Italians continue to be a subject of interest to composers. Anton Coppola's opera SACCO AND VANZETTI [(based on music originally written for a film his nephew Francis Ford intended to direct, but which was never produced)] premier[e]s in Tampa in March.

The Flemish musical with the same name by Dirk Brossé and Frank van Laecke may have a U.S. premiere as early as next year. [The team, with whom we met in Brussels, also plans a command performance in Torremaggiore-- though producing large works there could be problematic, as the theater only seats 200.]

And the Blitzstein opera continues to be fleshed out, most recently with a trio for Sacco, his wife, and Vanzetti, recalling the beauties of Villafalletto and Torremaggiore. [Having now experienced them ourselves, we can, too, vouch for their unforgettability, solidified forever by a plaque engraved and presented to us the day we gave a concert (receiving not one but two standing ovations) at the Scuola Musicale Luigi Rossi:

Provinica di Foggia
a Leonard J. Lehrman e Helene Williams
per l'Opera Lirica 'Sacco e Vanzetti'
dalla Città natale di Nicola Sacco
Il Sindaco
Matteo Marolla
Torremaggiore, 7 agosto 2000"]

Leonard J. Lehrman

© 1998 Back to List of Articles | last updated on: 8/1/02