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Roberto Murolo (1912-2003); Neapolitan Song (3)
large double–door entrance to via Cimarosa 25 in
the Vomero section of Naples was half–closed this
morning, as is customary when someone in the household
passes away. And—as is customary—a small white card
was affixed to the door. It was written by hand and
read, succinctly, "For the death of Roberto Murolo".
He was 92. It was, perhaps, the only non–violent thing
that could have happened in Naples yesterday to push
today's visit to the city by the ex–royal family of
Italy, the Savoys, out of the headlines. And it did.
There are three main reasons why one–thousand miles of Italians—from the Alps to Sicily—know something about the culture and language of Naples. The first reason is the great playwright Eduardo de Filippo, on many a literary critic's "short list" of Those Who Should Have Got a Nobel Prize But Didn't." The second reason—on a more popular (and more vital) level—is Italy's greatest film comic, Antonio de Curtis, known simply as "Totò". The third reason is Roberto Murolo, the gentle and erudite chronicler of Neapolitan music and the best–known singer in the twentieth century of the "Neapolitan Song."
If Murolo had simply been
content to remain a guitarist and singer, he certainly
would have done very well, but he was born to more
than that. His father was the highly–regarded dialect
poet Ernesto Murolo, part of the long tradition of dialect literature that
included his own contemporary, Salvatore di Giacomo, and
reached back through the 18th–century libretti of the
Neapolitan Comic Opera to the
by Giambattista Basile, and
beyond. Thus, Roberto Murolo was very aware of being
part of that tradition, and his great contribution to
the music of Naples is a scholarly one. He dedicated
years of his life to researching, collecting and
documenting Neapolitan music and in 1963 published
what amounted to a musical encyclopedia of the music
of Naples, a 12 LP set containing songs from 1200 to
1962, all carefully documented and explained and all
immaculately sung by Murolo, himself. He sang in the
precise pronunciation of a literary language, quite
different from the uneducated "street sound" that one
often associates with the term "dialect".
Murolo is not the reason that Neapolitan songs such as 'o sole mio and Funiculì–Funiculà are known abroad. That goes back to yet an earlier generation, the years at the turn of the century when so many Neapolitans emigrated and took their music with them. Interestingly, however, Murolo was part of the post–WW2 generation of Neapolitan singers who resisted the onslaught of American popular music and helped keep the traditional music of his native culture from becoming passé.
Although he became less
active with advanced age, Murolo never really retired.
He took part in the 1993 version of the annual
Festival of Italian Popular Music in San Remo with a
song entitled "L'Italia è bella," a song
against racism and xenophobia. And while "cross
cultural" music is run of the mill today, Murolo was
doing that as long ago as 1974, when he sought out and
sang with the great Portughese performer of Fado,
Amalia Rodriguez. Murolo was an inspiration to the
"friendly rivals" of his own generation such as Sergio Bruni and to the
younger generation of singers such as Massimo Ranieri, Pino Daniele and Mario Maglione. both of whom
published tributes to Murolo in the paper this
morning. As with the passing of Eduardo de Filippo in
1984 and Totò in 1967, there is a very real sense of
loss in Naples today.