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8.110768 - Italian Popular Songs, Vol. 1 (1930-1950)

Italian Popular Songs • 1

Italian Popular Songs • 1


While to some it may mean only ice-cream or overweight tenors strutting their rather hackneyed stuff, as a genre ‘Italian Song’ boasts a healthy tradition extending back at least two centuries. In the global market it has always proved a steady seller and here, by definition, we mean Italian song in the broadest populist sense, with all its commercial overtones of sunshine and romance (the canzone popolare or napoletana which, however clichéd, continued to flourish until the arrival of Claudio Villa and the San Remo Festivals), as distinct from the aria antica of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which, while also still favoured, has retained more serious, scholarly connotations (Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi later all wrote fine songs but these too are generic descendants of that earlier category).


The selections in the present CD programme are all survivors of bygone eras. They are good tunes and, having been variously recorded since the advent of the gramophone by famous singers (and more often than not, by tenors), all have acquired a certain permanence. And all are linked in tradition insofar as they presuppose reserves of the sustaining lyric tenor spirit and a certain italianità in performance. Some of the songs were already established favourites when recording first started and, among the oldest, Vieni sul mar (Come to the Sea) and La danza have remained to this day staples of the Italian tenor song repertoire. The first, dubbed an ‘old Italian folk-song’ and famously recorded by Caruso, has more far-flung global connections than may be realised. Ostensibly a late-eighteenth-century Venetian street-ballad, its tune was sung and whistled in pre-Revolutionary Russia as ‘Poy, Lastotchka, Poy’ (Sing, Swallow, Sing), while through the English music halls it was made even more famous in a famous Charles Coborn parody of 1886, entitled ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’. The second, the rafter-raiser of the Rossini song-cycle Soirées musicales (again notably recorded by Caruso) is a Neapolitan-style tarantella never outmoded since its first appearance in the early 1830s.


Chronologically next-in-line is Santa Lucia. Justly one of the most famous of Italian tunes, this hauntingly beautiful and simple ditty is generally – and incorrectly – regarded as a folk-song. Actually the work of one Teodoro Cottrau (1827-79) and published by its composer in 1849, in Naples, it appeared not long afterwards in an English translation in Baltimore and was thus among the first commercial Italian productions to reach a transatlantic audience. In fact, if not strictly speaking a blueprint, it was a foretaste of the melodia or canzone da camera soon afterwards in vogue in English-speaking countries, a salon-style miniaturising of the Italian operatic aria, the work of a number of Italian composers who by the mid-nineteenth century had settled in London, the earliest including the Neapolitan Michael (Michele) Costa (1806-1884) and the Tuscan Ciro Pinsuti (1829-1888). The latter, a one-time pupil of Rossini and a noted vocal coach, taught from 1856 at the London Royal Academy. His vast output included almost 250 songs akin to those of which Francesco Paolo Tosti (1946-1916) was to become the acknowledged master.


Born at Ortona on the Adriatic, Tosti studied violin at San Pietro in Naples but being a fine pianist and tenor singer in his own right was appointed a maestrino (pupil-teacher) at the college by his tutor Mercadante. He was soon playing and singing in Neapolitan salons and in 1870, through his pianist-composer friend Sgambati, he secured his introduction to Roman artistic circles. An instant success he became singing-master to the Queen of Italy. He first visited London in 1875, settling there in 1880 on his appointment as singing-teacher to the English Royal Family. Naturalised British in 1906, he was knighted by Edward VII in 1908. A celebrity in his own lifetime, as a composer and stylish and influential performer and promoter of his own songs Tosti enjoyed a réclame paralleled in history perhaps only by Thomas Moore (in the United States) and Reynaldo Hahn (in Paris). While he composed prolifically to Italian (or Neapolitan –’A vucchella is a prime example), French and English texts the quality of his output is unequal, his drawing-room settings of ‘Barry Cornwall’, Clifton Bingham and Fred E. Weatherly paling somewhat beside the pompous versifying of the Gabriele D’Annunzio (1863-1938) of L’alba sèpara dalla luce l’ombra.


Like his contemporary Tosti, the Naples-born Luigi Denza (1846-1922) was a pupil of Mercadante at the Naples Conservatory, and like Tosti he settled in London (in 1879) where he taught singing and was appointed (in 1898) professor of singing at the Royal Academy. The inaugurator of a noted singing competition, whereas he apparently penned 500-600 songs (including several English drawing-room ballads in the style of Pinsuti) he is today effectively remembered by only two: Occhi di fata (Fairy Eyes) from 1902 and the more ubiquitous Funiculì, funiculà, a rousing tarantella with parallel texts in Neapolitan and Italian, composed in 1880 to mark the opening of the funicular to Vesuvius. It was mistaken for a folk-song by Richard Strauss and incorporated in Aus Italien. To some extent a kindred song, and more genuinely Neapolitan, ’O sole mio is surely the most enduring of all Italian popular songs, although its author Edoardo Di Capua (1859-1920), who died in extreme poverty after selling it outright, never reaped any reward from it. Rehashed and regurgitated down the decades in every conceivable style and tongue, in its original form, with music drawn presumably from a traditional source and words by the Neapolitan vernacular poet Giovanni Capurro (1859-1920), it is now hallowed in all but name as a folk-song. It was first aired at a Naples Round Table exhibition in 1894 and published in 1898.


By the turn of the twentieth century the scope of Italian Song was already expanding alongside new technologies and more than previously songs were tailored for the various media, and often with specific tenors in mind. Although a prime mover in verismo opera, the fame of Ruggero Leoncavallo (1857-1919) now rests solely with his opera I pagliacci. Commercially-minded, he was, however, among the first composers to become involved with the gramophone and in 1904 he accompanied Caruso in the first recording of Mattinata, with a dedication ‘to the Gramophone & Typewriter Company’. The first great commercial exponent of Neapolitan song on records, Caruso was the dedicatee of other songs of which he cut the first versions, among them Core ’ngrato (1911) and in the Americas Gigli and Schipa, among others, capitalised on the sentiments of the immigrant Italian contingent and the susceptibility of non-Italians elsewhere to a rattling good tune, a populist trend continued by Tagliavini and Di Stefano and more recently still, by Pavarotti, Domingo and others.


By the 1930s new boom industries of radio and the film-musical had similarly created a seemingly inexhaustible production-line for the canzone popolare. In Italy, via the air-waves, Carlo Buti christened dozens of new – and mostly ephemeral – titles each month, while in the cinema, starting with Jan Kiepura’s Napoli, Città Canora (also known as City Of Song) in 1931, a new transatlantic market was opened which by 1936 had reached its zenith with such internationally-distributed vehicles as Forget Me Not (1936) and Ave, Maria (among several chances to shine for Gigli, this last offered musical director Alois Melichar’s spirited ‘afterthought’ Anima mia).


Peter Dempsey



Ward Marston


In 1997 Ward Marston was nominated for the Best Historical Album Grammy Award for his production work on BMG’s Fritz Kreisler collection. According to the Chicago Tribune, Marston’s name is ‘synonymous with tender loving care to collectors of historical CDs’. Opera News calls his work ‘revelatory’, and Fanfare deems him ‘miraculous’. In 1996 Ward Marston received the Gramophone award for Historical Vocal Recording of the Year, honouring his production and engineering work on Romophone’s complete recordings of Lucrezia Bori. He also served as re-recording engineer for the Franklin Mint’s Arturo Toscanini issue and BMG’s Sergey Rachmaninov recordings, both winners of the Best Historical Album Grammy.


Born blind in 1952, Ward Marston has amassed tens of thousands of opera classical records over the past four decades. Following a stint in radio while a student at Williams College, he became well-known as a reissue producer in 1979, when he restored the earliest known stereo recording made by the Bell Telephone Laboratories in 1932.


In the past, Ward Marston has produced records for a number of major and specialist record companies. Now he is bringing his distinctive sonic vision to bear on works released on the Naxos Historical label. Ultimately his goal is to make the music he remasters sound as natural as possible and true to life by ‘lifting the voices’ off his old 78 rpm recordings. His aim is to promote the importance of preserving old recordings and make available the works of great musicians who need to be heard.

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