Gesunkenes Kulturgut and Neapolitan Songs: Verdi, Donizetti, and the Folk and Popular Traditions PDF Print E-mail


An Article, a Test, and… an Exception!

What follows here is an article, inclusive of musical examples available both in staff notation and sound files. It cannot, and should not be considered a veritable publication, because it appeared many years ago as “'Gesunkenes Kulturgut' and Neapolitan Songs: Verdi, Donizetti and the Folk and Popular Traditions, in A. Pompilio (ed.) Proceedings of the International Musicological Society, III, Torino, EDT, 1990, 401- 405.
The reason it is made accessible once again in this web page, is that during the construction of this Site, a couple of sound files were needed in order to test its proper functioning. Back in 1990, it was impossible to make available in the publication of the IMS Proceedings the two crucial sound files the article refers to. For this reason I thought I would kill two pigeons with one stone (terrible expression to use for an animal lover like myself, but nonetheless effective) and so 1) make those sound files available for the first time (they are quite fascinating, I believe) and 2) test the functioning of this newly born website.
Indeed this is then an “article,” a “test,” and also an “exception,” because it is not at all the intention of this writer, and editor of MMS, to use in the future this space in order to make visible his own publications!

Marcello Sorce Keller



There is something I should make clear at the outset, in order not raise expectations that would not be fulfilled: this is not really a paper about Verdi and Donizetti. Both composers here will simply help me make a few considerations concerning the relationship among opera, folk, and popular music in 19th century Italy. Although it is a brief discussion, for the sake of clarity I am going to break it down to three parts.

Part I: Operatic Tunes as Folk Tunes

No one ignores that Opera was a very popular art-form during the 19th century. In Italy, it was disseminated to the point that tunes from famous, and not so famous, works occasionally filtered into the oral tradition. This is a case, German folklorists might say, of gesunkenes Kulturgut. This process has occurred, almost solely, in countries with a rich art-music tradition. Especially in the German-speaking nations one may encounter folk tunes which, although somewhat transformed by the oral process, can be traced to the hand of known composers. In Italy that happens much less frequently but, still, it happens. However, since here art-music mostly means Opera it is operatic tunes that one may encounter in the course of fieldwork. In Ticino, for instance (the Italian-speaking canton of  Switzerland) even liturgical texts may occasionally be sung to operatic airs (1). Among the tunes that entered the circuit of music handed down by word of mouth a few major composers are represented. In some instances such tunes diverge but little from the original. One such case is “Questa e dunque l'iniqua mercede” from Giuseppe Verdi's I due Foscari collected a few years ago in Trentino (Tesero, Val di Fiemme, may 1977) (Ex. 1a). This rendition closely follows Verdi's melody and the libretto by Francesco Maria Piave (Ex. 1b).
A handful of tunes by Donizetti have also been collected in northern Italy. The Centro Nazionale Studi di Musica Popolare (Collection no. 73 by Antonellini-Sassu) has one: “Tu che a Dio spiegasti Pale” (from Lucia di Lammermoor). It was found in the province of Bergamo (Gandino), in Lombardy. A few others are preserved in private archives. One I collected myself in 1977. It is the famous “Barcarola a due voci” between Dulcamara and Adina from the second Act of  L'elisir d'amore (Ex. 2a).
During my work in Trentino, in the town of Predazzo (Val di Fiemme), two farmers both in their seventies, Silvio and Rina de Giampietro gave me a number of songs and, among them, the barcarola in question (Ex. 2b). Here the original text by Felice Romani “lo son ricco, tu sei bella” is replaced by another “Quanto e caro quanto e bello... il pastorello”. More important: Silvio and Rina reproduced with fair accuracy the first melodic phrase, but were at a loss with the second one and altered it noticeably. The reason is that the latter implies a secondary dominant, a temporary modulation — that is. No modulations, or transpositions for that matter, exist in Italian folk music; not even among repertoires that show evident tonal features (as usually in Trentino). That is why my two singers had to do something about it. What they instinctively did is part of the process of transformation that typically takes place in oral traditions.

Part II: Brass Bands and Opera.

The fact that a few operatic tunes orally circulate in what was a peripheral area to the operatic scene suggests some considerations. Trentino is a province of north-eastern Italy, populated by a half million people. Operas were once performed there with some regularity, mostly in Trento and Rovereto, the second largest town, but still with considerable less frequency than in other Italian cities of comparable size (e.g. Bergamo, Novara, Vercelli, not to mention Parma).
It should be stressed, however, that even in peripheral areas, operas circulated in Italy to a degree that is hard to picture realistically. Small villages of Trentino which never had an operatic season saw, nonetheless, the occasional production of more than one work. Staying with Donizetti I can mention Torquato Tasso produced in Borso (in 1840),  Lucrezia Borgia and Belisario in Ala (in 1845), Don Pasquale, Linda di Chamonix and Maria di Rohan in Riva del Garda (respectively in 1865,1866, and 1868): these details I am offering just to give a sense of what musical life in Trentino was like during the 19th century (2).
Such productions must have helped reducing the geographic distance that usually exists between art-music, cultivated mostly in urban areas, and folk music, circulated predominantly in rural environments. In Italy however, unlike in other countries, operatic tunes were also disseminated through another channel, perhaps a more effective channel than opera productions themselves: brass bands. Bands have been active throughout Italy for more than a century, and traditionally performed — for the most part — an operatic repertoire. A large number of them still exists, and hardly a village does not have its banda comunale (civic band). As a rule the cornet substitutes for the female voices, and the trombone, or the flugelhorn, takes up the role of the male singers. Even though Italy is the land of the “bel canto”, a country where people tend to sing rather than play instruments, brass bands have been extremely popular all over, and for a long time. They were such a habitual vehicle for the operatic repertoire that even Wagner's music was first heard in Rome through the skilful band transcriptions of Alessandro Vessella (1860-1929)(3).
In Trentino, conceivably, tunes from I due Foscari or L'elisir d'amore were heard through brass bands often enough to initiate at some point a new career as orally circulated songs. I due Foscari, at any rate, was once produced in Riva del Garda (in 1865) and L 'Elisir d'amore in Trento (in 1842). I suspect that the impact of these productions on the oral tradition was amplified by band performances. As far as I due Foscari goes, it is perhaps not a coincidence that I collected the folk version in Tesero, whose “Societa di Banda” is one of the oldest in Trentino. I am suggesting, therefore, that the band repertoire has functioned in Italy as a link between art music and folk music. I would even venture to say that bands are also at the origin of the popular repertoire. Italian popular song, in fact, at least up until World War I is in many respects a by-product of Opera — rather than a literate adaptation of folk material as is often the case of much Anglo-Saxon pop music.

Part III: Folk and Popular

It is worth remembering that, although Donizetti deserves an important place in music history because of his operas, his popularity was not entirely confined to opera theaters. When he was in Naples he composed many songs for his good friend the publisher Teodoro Cottrau. In some of them Donizetti set to music a text in Neapolitan vernacular and, setting the verse in the minor mode and refrain in the major (or viceversa), and using sometimes a habanera type of accompaniment, and employing an occasional Neapolitan 6th, he gave the songs a charming Mediterranean flavor. So popular was he in Naples that a legend developed that he composed one of the greatest Neapolitan "hits" of all time: a song entitled “lo te voglio bene assaje”(4). Oddly enough, none of the songs he actually composed was, as far as I know, ever borrowed by folksingers — neither in Naples, where they were composed and published, nor elsewhere. Only his operatic tunes were and when they were only in Northern Italy. Why so? I suggest a possible explanation. In those days it was Opera and not popular music to be really "popular". Opera alone was big business. Opera tunes, thanks to brass bands and to the transcriptions made for any conceivable medium (mandolin included), were known by people who had never set foot in a theatre. It was those people who facilitated their absorption into the oral circuit.
Popular songs, on the other hand, were drawing room music, so-called ariette da camera, performed by middle class amateurs. They were pieces that more or less followed the blueprint epitomized a little later by Francesco Paolo Tosti’s romanze. Since they were aimed at a middle-class amateur market, it is little wonder that they did not reach the country-side.
Another consideration to be made relates to an important partition of the Italian musical geography. North of an imaginary line linking La Spezia with Pesaro (a line following approximately the chain of the Apennines) folk music is mostly choral, and has absorbed functional harmony to a considerable extent. An operatic tune, therefore, easily enters oral circulation joining other tunes that, regardless of their ultimate origin, are also conceived within the framework or functional harmony. That is not always the case in central and southern Italy (i.e. south of the line I just mentioned). There folk music is seldom choral, often melismatic, and as we go south, melodies show fewer and fewer harmonic implications. In the Neapolitan area, and even more so in Sicily, one often encounters rhythms, scales, and a type of vocal production reminiscent of Arabic music. If to this day in the folk music of those areas the sense of key is not well established one can reasonably assume that way back in the first half of the 19th century it was quite rare. In the south, therefore, the folk music of the time was not sufficiently compatible with cultivated music to establish any significant exchange with it.
The existence of such a dichotomy at the level of the oral environment makes it rather surprising that in the realm of art music the Italian peninsula had become a cultural unit. The middle class, in fact, and even the lower middle class enjoyed opera from Piedmont to Calabria. At the rural level, on the other hand, where music was mostly circulated by word of mouth Italy was by no means a unified country. Certainly not from the standpoint of folk culture. In that sense when the Austrian politician Metternich said Italy was nothing but a geographic expression, in that sense — I believe — he was not too far from the truth.


(1) See Pietro Bianchi, notes to the record: Canti liturgici popolari nel Ticino, Società Svizzera per le Tradizioni Popolari, Serie Discografica no. 1, FM 84022, 1984.[back]
(2)Information about these productions, and others mentioned later in this paper, can be found in Antonio Carlini, Danilo Curti, and Clemente Lunelli, Ottocento Musicale Trentino, Trento, Editrice Alcione, 1985.[back]
(3) See Alberto de Angelis, La musica a Roma nel secolo XIX, Roma, Bardi Editore, 1944.[back]
(4) Why this writer believes it is only a legend can be read in his: “’Io te voglio bene assaje’ a Famous Neapolitan Song Traditionally Attributed to Gaetano Donizetti”, The Music Review, XLV, 1984, pp. 251-264; the article also appeared in Italian translation in Nuova Rivista Musicale Italiana, XIX, 1985, pp. 642-653.[back]


Example 1a: Trentino version (audio)

Example 1b: Verdi's version

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Example 2a:  Donizetti's version

Text:  Perché a me sarai rubella, - Nina mia, che vuoi di più?
Quale onore! un senatore - me d'amore supplicar!
Ma, modesta gondeliera, - un par mio mi vuo’ sposar.

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Example 2b:  Trentino version (audio)

Testo: lo dò fiato al lungo corno che fa i monti risuonar e ..... abbandono la pastura con un tre .....


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