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Italy’s Gift to the World: The Neapolitan Song Sings of Immigrants’ Joys and Sorrows

Even more importantly, the Neapolitan song born in the Italian Diaspora is just as relevant today as it was in the last 100 years.

Roberto Murolo with Totò

The Neapolitan song, and especially its sub-genre that emerged out of the waves of Italian immigration to America and the world, is a quintessential expression of Italian culture and a precious global asset to defend and preserve at all costs. More importantly, for immigrants, it’s a piece of their heart with all the ache and joy of the ups and downs of life—and the sheer courage it takes to chase after a dream.


Just recently I was  watching the quirky and highly interesting Belgian television series, Professor T.  In the US this series is shown in the original language, Flemish, with English subtitles. Imagine my surprise when in the midst of a dramatic scene, suddenly and totally unexpectedly, the soundtrack regaled us with the haunting sounds of Roberto Murolo singing the classic, “Giuramento”.  Murolo’s extraordinary voice and style, simultaneously evoking nostalgia, desire, intimacy and regret, unleashed a flood of emotions and started me thinking about the Neapolitan song, and what a gift Italy has given to global culture.

When we think of “Made in Italy” what comes to mind is fashion and furniture, and that’s fine, these are hallmarks of Italian ingenuity, class and quality and they make Italians the envy of the world. But as far as I’m concerned there are intangible “products” that express the culture in ways that are far more articulate and profound than any Prada bag or Gucci shoes.  And yes, I already know that Neapolitan pizza has been declared a  UNESCO-Grade “Intangible Cultural Treasure”. Just about every pizza lover knows this, but not everyone knows about the glories of the classic Neapolitan song; “la canzone napoletana” that without exaggeration, is an icon of Italian culture all over the world.

Music and Naples are practically synonymous, and this has been the case for a long time. Already by the 18th century, Naples was nicknamed the “conservatory of Europe” and was the home and workshop of composers such as ScarlattiPergolesi, Cimarosa, RossiniBelliniDonizetti, among others.

The Neapolitan song, one of the principal expressions of music in Naples, has a long and rich history behind it.  It was formalized as an institution in the 1830s when the festival of Piedigrotta, originally part of the religious celebration for the Madonna di Piedigrotta, started in 1830. The first winner was “Te voglio bene assaie,” a song that is widely attributed to Gaetano Donizetti that is still popular today within the genre.  The festival continued until 1950, when it was replaced by the Festival della Canzone Napoletana in 1952. Of course the genre has continued to evolve, both in creation and interpretation, (see Renzo Arbore, for example) but it’s the classical canon that has been inscribed in musical and cultural history.

What is perhaps even more relevant today—and especially to those of us in the Italian Diaspora, is that the Neapolitan song gave life to a sub-genre that has expressed a historical, psychological and emotional reality of the 20th century: the immigration movement. I will also admit that it has, in some ways, created the stereotypical image of the Italian diaspora—and not always in a positive manner. But of course, this too is a testament to its reach and power.

Between 1876 and 1913, 11.1 million Italians left their native land. According to reliable estimates, out of those millions, at least 4 million of those emigrants left from Naples or near Naples. These self-exiles have acted as bees pollinating the garden, not only spreading the classic songs all over the world as they migrated, but also giving life to a whole new sub-genre of the “canzone napolitana” that focused on the themes so close to the immigrant’s heart, dwelling on the pain of leaving the old country– Naples in particular–the old life, the family, mamma e papa’, and frequently, the girl they left behind. These are the dominant themes of the Neapolitan song, articulated in many moods and styles, from the comic to the plaintive, to the tragic.

The pain and disillusionment met in the new country also featured prominently in the “immigration” sub-genre: the streets in America were not paved with gold after all and for many, life was as much of a struggle here as it had been in the old country. They faced the humiliations of being despised immigrants on the fringes of acceptable society, they missed the sun and the sea of Naples, they ached with nostalgia for their old life. These songs, frequently of a tragic bent, were similar to the sceneggiata— melodramas performed on stage in which domestic grief, the agony of leaving home, personal deceit, treachery and the betrayal in love are heavy with emotion and tears.

Lacreme napulitane” is among those classics that encapsulate these themes. This one is in the form of a letter from America, written home by a son to his “cara mamma” in Naples. It is a lament of how difficult it is to be far from home, away from the sound of the zampogna, (the Neapolitan bagpipes, traditional at Christmas), and away from the “sky of Naples”. He sings of the unbearable pain of imagining his loved ones around the Christmas table while he, alone and a humiliated immigrant, is far away in a hostile land. The refrain starts with the cry, “How many tears America has cost us” and ends with, “How bitter is this bread.” (e ‘nce ne costa lacreme st’ America/a nuje napulitane/pe’ nuie ca ‘nce chiagnimmo/o cielo e napule/comme è amaro stu’ pane.”  It’s not difficult to imagine any of today’s immigrants or refugees–from any and all countries– in a similar  agony; human emotions are universal and therefore, perpetual.

In “Vurria”  the speaker grieves  because of his distance from Naples, experiencing it like a delirium, a fever, and wishes nothing more ardently than to return there just one more time, even for just one hour.

In “Santa Lucia Luntan’” the message is that roaming the world in search of  a better life is not worth being away from the native land, especially in the dreaded night when memory assails us. “Se gira ‘o munno sano/se va a cerca furtuna/ma, quanno sponta ‘a luna/luntano ‘a Napule/nun se po’ sta!”

Religion too has played a crucial role in the Neapolitan songs of the immigrants; frequently through a confluence of mamma and Madonna. Especially the figure of the “Madonna addolorata” (the grieving Madonna), as mamma cried for her distant son at a time in history when going to America (or Australia or South America) meant permanent separation, never to be seen again by her loving eyes.

Neapolitan mandolino

What is the reason for the Neapolitan song’s tremendous success on a global level? We could say that it is the very embodiment of the quintessential “Italian” character and personality: passionate, expressive, full of “heart”, family oriented. These are the very traits that have contributed, for good or bad, to creating the stereotype of the sometimes buffoonish/overly emotional/melodramatic Southern Italian. Almost all the classic songs within this sub-genre traveled to the new world with the immigrants. Indeed, “Core ‘ngrato”, one of those that focuses on the betrayal of the girl left behind, appears to be the only Neapolitan song to have been written in America, in 1911, by Cardillo and Cordiferro, and possibly commissioned by Enrico Caruso who made it famous.

Or maybe its success can be explained by the fact that these songs touch universal feelings of home, family, loneliness, fear–but also the joys of love and life. They are unashamedly and emotionally raw.

Naples (Flickr/Michele Landi)

As for its legacy to the world, the US Library of Congress acknowledges that, “The rich musical heritage that the Italian immigrants brought with them has had a major impact on shaping United States culture as a whole; Italian Americans and Italian nationals who have spent significant amounts of time in the United States have played an important role in both classical and popular music in the United States.”

UNESCO has recognized it as a “heritage to be protected not only for Italy but for the whole world”. In short, the Neapolitan song, and especially its sub-genre that emerged out of the waves of Italian immigration to America and the world, is a quintessential expression of Italian culture and a precious global asset to defend and preserve at all costs. More importantly, for immigrants it is a piece of their heart, with all the ache and joy of the ups and downs of life—and the sheer courage it takes to chase after a dream is just as relevant today as it was in the last 100 years.


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