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Italian Music 1: Before WW1

Italian popular music till the First World War
Italian popular music till the First World War
Early libretto for Puccini's La Turandot


When approaching the history of Italian modern music, it is important to remember that, for almost two centuries, the first and strongest musical tradition of the country was opera.



Opera had romantic and adventurous plots and, above all, melodic and catchy arie, musical pieces sang and whistled all over the Italian peninsula. So it is no surprise that at the beginning of the 20th century Italian people, from the humble craftsman to the rich and noble, still attended opera houses, bought the first records of the great virtuoso singers, and played and sang opera arie during family or social gatherings.


Giacomo Puccini, one of the best opera composers of all times, had his first success in 1893 with Manon Lescaut, but found his real voice and inspiration in the first years of the following century. ToscaMadame ButterflyLa Fanciulla del West, and Turandot were all written and performed in the 20th century and they bear unmistakable traces of a changing world, both in the plots and settings (more contemporary and realistic) and, above all, in the melodies and arrangements.


Puccini's music is extremely modern and clearly influenced by other musical genres such as folk music and the new rhythms and harmonies coming from the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Its most distinctive quality is that it is catchy, more so than many modern pop songs, as witnessed by the millions of people who still adore and listen to these operas today. Stretching the notion a bit, we can say that Puccini is the father of modern Italian popular music, though we can find other sources of influence in the various regional folk musical traditions, especially the Neapolitan, and in musical styles imported from other countries such as the French Café Chantant in the 1890s and then the arrival of American rhythm in the 1910s.


The Neapolitan Song


A view of Naples at the turn of the past century (Vladimir Tkalcic/Flickr)


La  canzone Napoletana, or Neapolitan song, is a distinct musical tradition that became an important part of Italian popular music in the 19th century, influencing what can be seen as Italian pop music until the end of the 1960s. It kept representing a sort of iconic image of Italian music abroad throughout the 20th century. Neapolitan music is not folk music because it is not the result of countless improvisations passed from generation to generation, but it is indeed "popular" music in that it reflects the melancholy, fatalism, joy, and myriad emotions of the Neapolitan character.


Some fragments of such popular motifs can be traced back several centuries, but what we nowadays refer to as canzone Napoletana dates back to the first musical Festival of Piedigrotta in 1835. It became a beloved musical contest and many musicians (even classical composers) were proud to take part in it. Its first winning song was "Te voglio bene assaje" a tune still enormously popular all over the world. The Golden Age of Neapolitan music had been between the 19th and the 20th centuries and many of its best-loved songs such as "'O sole mio" (1898), "Torna a Surriento" (1904), and "Funiculì Funiculà" (1880) found their way abroad thanks to the millions of emigrants forced to leave their homes in that very period. 


Te voglio bene assaje (written 1835) performed by Mia Martini e Roberto Murolo


Another important factor which contributed to the spread of the Canzone Napoletana in the US was the great Italian tenor Enrico Caruso.

Caruso was from Naples and, while in America, he recorded for RCA many of these songs, along with his normal opera repertoire. He even used them, very often, as encores at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This genre brought together the most brilliant personalities of the period, such as poets Salvatore Di Giacomo and Libero Bovio, musicians Di Capua and Mario, and great singers like Elvira Donnarumma and Pasquariello.


Neapolitan song, as you may imagine, is all about love, but its strongest passion is generally committed to celebrating the city, the sun and the sea, or complaining about life's greatest tragedy of being forced to live far from home. These tunes present the classic two sections structure, narrative verses/refrain, and they are normally characterized by simple harmonies, often contrasting relative or parallel major and minor keys. Simply, many of these songs can sound joyful one minute and melancholy the next.


 Mario Lanza sings Funiculì Funiculà


Imported styles

At the beginning of the 20th century, foreign musical styles began to have a strong influence on Italian popular music, until the Fascist regime closed the doors to any foreign cultural influence in the late 1930s. Young Italian people danced and sang to the American rhythms of the Shimmy and, later, the Charleston. At the turn of the 20th century in the middle of the Belle Époque, Italian musicians were influenced by the French Café Chantant, a musical style born in Parisian cafés that was generally lighthearted and sometimes risqué. Too risqué at times for Italy. The Italian version of Café Chantant was what is often known as "salon music", a far more reassuring and less bold interpretation of the original. The major performer of this style was Fancesco Tosti, remembered for his light and expressive songs, such as "La Serenata" and "Addio".


Nellie Melba's first original recordings London 1904. La Serenata by Francesco Tosti


At the turn of the century popular music in Italy was taking its first steps and while it still showed clear signs of naïveté and provincialism, great upheavals were waiting ahead, namely the First World War and the difficult period of political and social confusion which followed, and from which Fascist regime originated. Popular music reflected this turmoil and arrived at a more mature stage abruptly, skipping several intermediate passages.



You can keep on traveling with us along the Italian popular music history and have a closer look at this controversial period in Italian history by checking our page on Italian music between the wars.

Italian music II, Italian music III, Italian music IV, Italian music V. 

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