Naples:life,death & Miraclecontact: Jeff Matthews

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Caro Mio Ben
—for Cara mia Laura
This is from the Digital collection of the
New York Public Library. It is presumed
to be of Giuseppe Giordani, who was
presumed to be the composer of the...
Just read the story. Presumably.
I hope this bit of irrelevancy serves to distract you from the atonal worries of the world for a few moments. It did me. The Italian air, Caro Mio Ben, is very well-known and has been recorded by more opera singers than you can shake a baton at. Just YouTube the title. You'll see. Interesting, though—not a lot is known about it, except that the beginning sounds exactly like the “Deep in my heart/I do believe” part of We Shall Overcome. And we do know that the title does not translate as "Benny, I Really Like You."

We don't even know who wrote it. I asked around among local friends whom I knew to be opera freaks fans. They all knew it, but no one remembered the composer. It would be fine if the tune were just generally conceded to be anonymous—that happens sometimes, but Caro Mio Ben has traditionally been attributed to one Giuseppe Giordani (1751-1798), nicknamed “Giordanello”. That's what it says on almost all sheet music and what it will say if you look at film or video credits from even a few years ago. Giuseppe Giordani was born in Naples, studied with the great Domenico Cimarosa and became during his lifetime a widely respected composer throughout Italy. Besides Caro Mio Ben, he is remembered for his sacred drama La distruzione di Gerusalemme, which was a great success at the San Carlo theater in 1787. (Goethe was at opening night and said something incomprehensible about it.) Giordani became maestro di cappella/musical director at the Cathedral of Fermo in 1791. (Fermo is in central Italy on the Adriatic. It is now in the Marche region of Italy, but in Giordani's time it was part of the Papal States.)

The attribution seemed solid enough for a couple of centuries. Recent scholarship, however, has claimed that the real composer is Giordani's older brother, Tommaso Giordani (c.1730-c.1805). He, too, was trained in Naples, but unlike brother Giuseppe, he spent most of his professional life abroad, eventually winding up in Ireland, where he had a long and active career. His works range from opera, comic opera and incidental music for theater to sonatas, concertos, and chamber music.

So, you have two choices? No, it gets worse. The “G.B. Pergolesi” music conservatory in the town of Fermo has, naturally, a biography of Giuseppe Giordani on its website. The biography has this: “There was another Giuseppe Giordani in the first half of the 1700s and he—not our “Giordanello”—was the composer of Caro Mio Ben.” The conservatory claims to be able to document that claim and invites visitors to come and see for themselves. At least as strange is the portrait of Giuseppe Giordani that they use in their biography [and I use at the top of this page]—yes, it is Giuseppe Giordani, but it may be the wrong, wait...he would be the right one if he is, in fact, the real composer of "Benny, I Really like you" but then apparently not the Giordani who wrote that thing about Jerusalem getting destroyed.

You can finesse the whole thing by doing what some sneaky attributions do—just write “anonymous” or even better, “by Giordani, pick one.” Does anyone ever get confused and call him (or them) “Giordano.” All the time. Oh, the parents were really helpful in all this. Giuseppe's second name was Tommaso, the same as his older brother's first name. I have not made any of this up.

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