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main index © Jeff Matthews entry Nov. 2002
contains audioThe Neapolitan Song
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 millennium, 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 melody to Te voglio bene assaje is
usually attributed to Gaetano
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 that became synonymous with Italy all over the world. The great Italian tenor, Enrico Caruso, was from Naples, and in America, besides his normal operatic repertoire, 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
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." Another 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!
(Also this link for another note on "That's Amore". In spite of my utterly snobbish disdain for the song, I have to admit that Neapolitans love it. Since there are no Italian or Neapolitan lyrics, they get a kick out of singing it in the English version and trying to reproduce a typical American accent. It's fun, or so they tell me.)
more on That's Amore and