Prize winner influenced by great-grandfather’s legacy

Luca Buratto (left) and his great-grandfather Renzo Massarani (right)

Like anyone else, a musician’s genealogy can hold some surprises.

Last September, first prize of the Honens Piano Competition in Calgary, was awarded to a 22-year-old Italian pianist, Luca Buratto, the youngest of 10 semifinalists. This was reportedly the world’s largest piano prize: $100,000, plus a comprehensive artistic and career development program valued at half a million dollars.

It turns out that the Prize Laureate has a partially Jewish background.

Buratto had first caught the public’s attention in 2003, at the age of nine, when, at the Milan Conservatory’s Sala Verdi, he performed music composed by his great-grandfather, Renzo Massarani, at an International Holocaust Remembrance Day event.

Massarani (1898-1975), a student of composer Ottorino Respighi, was a promising young composer whose career was interrupted by the imposition of racial laws in 1938.

“My great-grandfather had to stop writing music because he was Jewish,” says Buratto. “And in Italy before World War II, his music was banned. Though he survived the war and the persecution, he decided to stop writing music because he was disgusted with mankind.” Massarani ended up in Rio de Janeiro as a music reviewer.

During earlier and better times in Italy, Massarani was the music director of a famous puppet theatre, the Teatro dei Piccoli, and travelled widely with them during the 1920s.
Buratto’s grandfather (on his mother’s side) is Jewish, however this grandfather was the only one of his siblings to marry a Catholic. (Luca’s mother grew up Catholic and so did Luca.) However they always celebrate the major Jewish holidays even though his grandfather was not observant. (Luca has close relatives who are Jewish: a cousin of his mother is Orthodox, and one of his cousins lives in Israel where he is studying to become a rabbi.)

Renzo Massarani pictured in 1943 with his family  PHOTO COURTESY
Renzo Massarani pictured in 1943 with his family  PHOTO COURTESY


Massarani decided not to publish more music after immigrating to Brazil, and in fact wanted to destroy his music. Luca has played some of his chamber works, usually in performances tied to the January 27 International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Massarani’s story mirrors the vexed plight of Jews in Fascist Italy. Benito Mussolini, the founder of modern fascism, wrote in the newspaper Il Popolo d’Italia in 1920: “In Italy there is absolutely no differentiation between Jews and non-Jews, in all fields, from religion to politics to the military to the economy…Italian Jews have their new Zion here, in this adorable land of ours.” But one year earlier, Mussolini had inveighed in the same newspaper against the powers of “International Judaism.”

A more recent article by Gregorio Nardi, “The ‘Aryanization’ of Italian Musical Life”, suggests that for musicians, the ominous signal came at the end of 1933 in the form of a ban on radio broadcasts of pieces by Jewish composers. Until then, new prospects seemed to be appearing for younger Jewish composers such as Massarani. Ironically, the Mantua-born Massarani was at one time considered a representative of fascist officialdom; he had participated in the March on Rome, and despite Nazi policies his “Danza Atletica” was entered in the international music competition at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.


But that same year, specific racist policies were implemented, then consolidated in 1938 with the promulgation of the so-called Racial Laws. Individuals “belonging to the Hebrew race” were expelled from public positions, Jewish performers were banned from concert halls, as were works by Jewish composers. When his music was proscribed, Massarani departed for Brazil, where he did all he could to ensure that his works would never be played. He left just in time: as of June 1940, Jews were being interned in Italian concentration camps.

This painful legacy of his great-grandfather has affected Luca Buratto, who says “this has been a big influence on me.” Meanwhile, his debut CD recording has just been released on the Honens’ own label. Another solo recording, on the prestigious Hyperion label, is due to be released next year, when Buratto will also make his debuts in Carnegie Hall and London’s Wigmore Hall.