Enrico Caruso, the Father of the Neapolitan Song
La Canzone Napolitana
(The Neapolitan Song)
The Neapolitan Song
by Jeff Matthews
An amusing note from the north. A couple of years ago, the mayor of Venice, in a fit of high doge dudgeon, officially declared that the gondoliers plying the city's watery by-ways should stop serenading the tourists with Neapolitan Songs! Two questions may occur to you. One: Why should he care? Two: What are Venetian boatsmen doing singing 'O sole mio, in the first place? Well, one: He cares for reasons of authenticity. Uninformed tourists may feel that it is completely natural to go punting along the Grand Canal while their chauffeur croons about returning to Sorrento, but the mayor knows better. He knows that's as authentic as a Cockney waxing elegiac about the Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond or a Mississippi Delta blues singer belting out a New England sea chantey. Two: The gondoliers sing these songs because that's what the tourists want to hear. To them, Funiculì Funiculà, Santa Lucia and other examples of la canzone napoletana, the Neapolitan Song, are Italy. But they're not, really. They're Naples.
Strictly speaking, the Neapolitan Song is not folk-music, if by that term you mean the result of countless ancient improvisations and reworkings handed down from generation to generation of nameless troubadour. It is folk-music--in spite of being formally composed and published-- if you mean that therein reflected is the ebullience, melancholy, joy, fatalism and thousand emotions that Neapolitan character is heir to.
There are, indeed, fragments of popular motifs which can be traced back half a millenium, but the popular canzone napoletana, the sound which conjures up "Italy" in the minds of millions the world over, dates back, as a genre, to the first Festival of Piedigrotta, held in 1835 and more or less regularly until shortly after WW II. Each year, an official song of the festival was chosen and the winning song from that very first year, Te voglio bene assaje, is still enormously popular. It's about love, as you might imagine, but it is well worth noting that the real passion in the Neapolitan Song is generally reserved for celebrating the city, the sun and the sea-- or lamenting life's greatest tragedy: not death, but, rather, being far from home.
The Golden Age of la canzone napoletana was around the turn of the century and many of the best-loved songs found their way abroad on the lips of the millions of emigrants who left their home. Many of them were from Naples, which explains-- along with the infectious charm of the music, itself-- why it was this music which became synonymous with Italy all over the world. The great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, was from Naples, and in America, besides his normal operatic repetoire, he recorded many of these songs for RCA and even sang them frequently as encores after a performance at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
But, whether you're singing an exuberant tarantella or bewailing your lost homeland in the immigrant tear-jerker, Lacreme napulitane, you have to sing correctly. That is, in the Neapolitan dialect.. This means that "Napoli" becomes "Napule" and "Sorrento" "Surriento". And don't forget the retroflex "l" and reduced final vowels. Even another great Italian tenor, Luciano Pavarotti, evokes a good-natured wince or two down in these parts when he wraps his Northern vowel sounds around 'O sole mio.
There are a few bizarre sidelights to this phenomenon of the Neapolitan Song: the pseudo-Neapolitan Song generated abroad, for example. Some years ago, one Dino Crocetti (aka Dean Martin) unleashed a monstrosity called That's Amore. Don't fail to miss that immortal first line: "When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore." The second line contains perhaps the most execrable rhyme ever penned: "drool /fasule " (Neapolitan for fagioli -- beans). True to the prediction implicit in H.L. Mencken's jibe that no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public, Dino had a smash hit on his hands. Oh, well. Another "oh, well" for Elvis Presley and the lyric, "It's now or never," sung to the melody of 'O sole mio. It is not clear whether this version confused or amused the ultimate arbiters of the canzone napoletana, the Neapolitans, themselves. Who knows? One of them, Eduardo di Capua (1864-1917), the composer of 'O sole mio, might even have been delighted, just as he undoubtedly is when he looks down and sees men rowing legions of Americans, British, Japanese and Germans along the lagoon beneath the cold and grey skies of Venice and praising to them the glorious sun of Naples -- for, yes, the mayor of Venice finally had to give in. Ha!
Napoli and Its Song
The ``canzone d'autore,'' or writer's song -- is born in Naples before spreading to the rest of the world. It tells the story of Neapolitan song at a specific period in history, starting with the late 18th century and ending with World War II, when this genre brings together the most brilliant personalities of the period, such as poets Salvatore Di Giacomo and Libero Bovio, musicians Di Capua and E.A.Mario, and great singers such as Enrico Caruso, Elvira Donnarumma and Pasquariello. The narrative voice of actor and Neapolitan singer Peppe Barra acts as the guiding light to so many historical and social events. In his highly personal manner, using a style that alternates between comedy and drama, he traces the history of the songs in the film: from Funiculì
Funiculà, born of the despair at seeing Neapolitans shun the new Vesuvio funiculà inaugurated in 1880, to Simmo e' Napoli paisà, a song that marks the end of the Second World War and, by stressing the sense of belonging to a city and to a world that is breaking apart, aims to reconcile the winners and the losers.
Famous Neapolitans in Classical Music
Food and drink
Naples is by tradition the home of pizza. It is the birthplace of the Pizza Margherita, which traditionally is made with mozzarella cheese, pomodoro (tomato) and basil - each representing the red, white, and green of the Italian flag. The pizza was created as homage to Queen Margherita on a vist to the city. La vera pizza ("true pizza") should be made in a wood-burning oven similar to a Tandoori oven.
Naples is also famous for its pasta dishes, where spaghetti is often served with sugo di pomodoro, a tomato sauce which gets its full flavour from sun-ripe Campanian tomatoes. Another excellent Campanian dish found in Naples is melanzane alla parmigiana, which is fried slices of aubergine (eggplant) gratinéed with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese. Often you can get another version of melanzane alla parmigiana with an addition of mozzarella cheese.
Naples offers several kinds of unique pastry, the most famous of which is perhaps the babà, followed by choux (Neapolitans write it as sciù) and the Pastiera, a cake prepared for Easter. The babà (also known as savarin) is a mushroom-shaped piece of leavend sweet paste, soaked with an orange flavoured mixture of ron|ruhm and water. Choux is a small "bubble" of leavened paste stuffed with light cream, usually coffee or chocolate flavored. The Pastiera is a cake with a complicated recipe, varying by the county in which it is prepared. The ingrediants are typically annealed grain, eggs, and sometimes cream. It is always combined with boiled rice. Another typical Neapolitan pastry is the Sfogliatella (riccia or frolla).
Naples is also known for its gelato. Gelato is not ice cream, but rather iced milk.
Also in Naples
Naples is the site of three major military bases. Naval Support Activity Naples, located in Capodichino is a major US Navy base which is responsible for the support and control of US Naval assets in the 6th Fleet area of responsibility, and Bagnoli, known as Joint Force Command South (formerly AFSOUTH, many Sailors still call it this) is a major NATO base, which is responsible for the coordination of NATO forces in the south European Region. There is also the Support Site, which consists mostly of housing and personnel support facilities, located in Gricignano di Aversa.
Capodichino is the site of the Naples International Airport.