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Teaching Italy through its music. the meaning of music in Italian cultural history.

A Pedagogical urgency inspires this article, which explores an innovative way to teach Italian history and culture. (1) The importance of this essay lays in its interdisciplinary approach, and in striving to fill two didactic lacunae of our academic world: the scarcity of studies on the interrelation between Italian history and music written in English, and the need for an inventive, novel way to teach Italian culture. Marco Santoro denounced this last deficiency on the Journal of Modern Italian Studies: "To judge both from school curricula and scholarly production, in other words, music would not appear such an essential component of Italian cultural identity as the international collective imagination might suggest" (276); and thus he concludes: "To paraphrase a well known bon mot, we might say that music is too important to be left only to professional musicologists" (277). (2) Indeed, if there is anything that allows us to penetrate deep inside any national culture and to recognize its essence not only intellectually but also sensorially, it is the ability to recognize and situate its music--present and past.

"Songs not only tell our past, they contain it as the lines of our hand" (Salvatori 8). (3) This article will focus mainly on an academic critical justification of a course on Italy through its music, by adding an Italian point of view to the debate on music and meaning and music and history. (4) Music and meaning is an especially rich area of research, as ethnomusicologist Timothy Rice recently asserted, because of the variety and multiplicity of the "stories people and institutions operating from vastly different social, historical and geographical positions tell about it" (36). This article proposes one more "story," that told by the Italian people in their national music. (5) It will also offer a general introduction to the Italian musical landscape for an English-speaking audience (or a class of English-speaking students). (6) Choosing several examples from the Italian repertoire, I will try to describe how music is strictly interrelated with the social description of the Italian nation. Far from being just a "bella canzone" (beautiful song) or a stereotypical national pride, music scores do reflect the face of Italy and its social plights, and are excellent teaching tools in the classroom.

The relevance of the human aspect of music--besides its artistic and structural aspects--has been noticed by Martin Clayton: "Whatever else musicking is about, we should not forget that it is experienced by people, in time, physically as well as mentally, embodied as well as imagined" (5-6). Italian critics and historians have become aware of this use of music as historical and sociological testimony, following Pier Paolo Pasolini's assertion that folk songs are "history in the making," "la storia in atto" (143). This conviction inspires several scholars to describe Italian society through popular music. (7) They rest on the basis of the ground-breaking and controversial anthropological research of Roberto Leydi, Alan Lomax, Diego Carpitella (all working near the Ernesto De Martino Institute), and Pasolini himself, all socially engaged on the side of workers and peasants.(8) Their research on the "other music" (an Italian name for ethnic music) brought to light a submerged section of Italian society, and strictly associated music with social politics in a wide sense: "both music and politics interest the social sphere ('polis') and they are nothing less than two different ways of living together" (Baldazzi 10).

More recently, Italian historians took music in their hands and considered it a legitimate source for studying the Italian past. Emilio Franzina (University of Verona) authored the very detailed essay "Inni e canzoni" (1996); Piero Brunello (University of Venice) wrote a hard-to-find book, Storia e Canzoni in Italia published by the municipality of Venice (2000), and Stefano Pivato (University of Urbino) recently completed two interrelated works: Bella Ciao: canto e politica nella storia d'italia (2005) and La storia leggera: L'uso pubblico della storia nella canzone italiana (2007). The pioneer of historical methodology is, however, Marco Peroni's II nostro concerto (2001) which attempts to fill a critical void in the use of music as a legitimate historical source. Music, Peroni writes, can be rightfully used "as an agent of history, as an instrument to tell it, and as a source to study it" (xii). (9) On these basis, a course on Italy through its music would consider popular music (popular, both in the English sense of widely known and the Italian sense of folkloric) fundamental to reconstructing the complex mechanisms of Italian society. (10) It would attempt to delve into this society by listening to the voice of its people and breaking the barrier between "low" culture and "high" culture. "Low" music, popular music, or entertainment music hide (and sometimes clearly show) important meanings, as the Italian poet Roberto Roversi states: "I smile and I am annoyed ... by those who theorize that song is only song; a sound or singing that has no other role than to be sound and singing, other than entertain and lift the spirits ... Instead the song--one of the most useful means of communication today--is inevitably a political and ideological communication" (107). A distinction between "tasteful" and "distasteful" is useless in this case, because both classifications of music contain the same amount of historical value and human passion. To quote Marcel Proust's famous defense of "la mauvaise musique" (bad music):
   Detest bad music but do not despise it. As it is played, and
   especially sung, much more passionately than good music, it has
   much more than the latter been impregnated, little by little, with
   man's tears. Hold it therefore in veneration. Its place,
   nonexistent in the history of art, is immense in the sentimental
   history of nations. (117)

The Vitality of the Italian Past

One of the most engaging aspects of Italian popular music is the active dialogue that it entertains with the past. Bruno Nettl associates this dialogue with the very survival of society in his article "Relating the Present to the Past": "world's societies survive by tying the present to their own past, and in this, music plays a significant and sometimes indispensable role" (6). More recently, Caroline Bithell invites researchers to listen to the voice of past ideas in music: "to explore the ways in which echoes and legacies from the past can still be heard in the present and to consider the extent to which musical practices in the present are shaped not only by past experience but also by ideas, feelings and beliefs about the past" (4). Today, many Italian old songs are not faded sheets of music, gone and forgotten after their appeal has vanished. They survive in the background, mindlessly whistled or wistfully recalled, and resurface in unexpected ways. They are known and, if not sung, surely recognized by different social groups: resistance songs are revived by young students on strike, and even Fascist songs are resurrected by opposition youth organizations. World War I, field work, and emigration songs are still sung by several professional and amateur choirs today. I think of the multitude of Alpine Choirs (Cori Alpini) or local choirs specialized in dialect or Italian songs all over Italy. I also recall the recent revival of songs in regional dialect by groups such as Modena City Ramblers, the Venetian Pitura Freska, the Neapolitan 99 Posse, the Sardinian Tazenda, etc. While reviving fragments of past lives, "old" music is far from dead.

An interesting phenomenon is the resurrection of old songs in order to serve different--even antithetical--purposes and ideas. A recent scandal was caused by the re-writing of oldies such as Azzurro, Gianna and Albachiara in a dangerous anti-Semitic key by the group 99 Fosse. (11) Rewritings, or what Italian critics call contrafacta (translatable as parodies), have a long history and are certainly one of the causes for the extension of a song's life. The melody survives while the text undergoes several metamorphoses which keep the song current and up-to-date. (12) Let us see two most important Italian examples of such contrafacta. A very early rewriting dates back to the end of the 18th century, when, in the South of Italy, the army of the Holy Faith opposed the Neapoleonic conquest of Naples to the fiendish rhythm of the Italian version of the French Carmagnole in Canto dei Sanfedisti ("Song of the Holy Faith Army"). Born as one of the most revolutionary pieces of music, La Carmagnole, was sung during the guillotine executions of the French revolution. The melody spread like wildfire throughout Europe, and in 1793, one year after the revolution, there were already dozens of versions in Italian dialects. However, only a few years later, it was turned inside-out, and it became the battle cry of the counter-revolution in Naples. History took a sharp turn, and a revolutionary melody that had been sung around the guillotined king ironically invited now to restore lu re burbone (the Burbon king). These are the new verses, sung in Neapolitan dialect, diametrically opposed to the original song: "To the sound of the tambourine / The poor people have risen ... To the sound of the violins / Death to the Jacobins."

A particularly "abused" song that has extended its life thanks to its indiscriminate use by one or another political side is Bandiera rossa ("Red Flag"), the revolutionary hymn of Italian communists. Born from a medley of folk songs without any political meaning, Bandiera rossa was first sung as a patriotic song in 1870's Rome (against pope Pio IX). It was used as a republican hymn in 1897 in Ravenna. In 1915, it became an anti-Austrian song in Milan. It acquired its most popular form as a Communist anthem in the 19th century, especially during the Biennio Rosso (1919-1920). It was subsequently re-used for Fascist propaganda with a new refrain: "We'll break the communists' bones." Later, it was sung in other venues: by factory workers on strike in the 1970s and even in the stadium by soccer fans ("We want the skin of Milan fans"). (13) In this way, a melody can refashion itself in different shapes and never die.

On a different level, Italian popular music has often shown interest in historical topics, treating them as warm living matter and reinterpreting them in a dialectical way. These cases lead us to discuss what it means to write and re-write history, and what power relations and ideological choices are buried within any historical reflection. For example, the neo-fascist group 270bis recently went against the mainstream and scandalized large part of the Italian population with their pop song Claretta e Ben. This song glorified Benito Mussolini and his mistress Claretta Petacci, and commented on their execution in Piazza Venezia, Milan, in April 1945 with this refrain: "They danced on their bodies / they spit on their names / they have hidden their graves / but they cannot delete them." From another angle, the storytelling song Pontelandolfo, by the group Stormy Six, gave a strong blow to the glorious rhetoric of Italian Unification. This song showed the bleeding veins of the new-born country by remembering a 1861 bloodshed in the Southern town of Pontelandolfo. Perpetrated by the Italian army, it was justified as part of the national fight against brigands: "Pontelandolfo, the bell chimes for you / and for all your people / for the living and the killed / for the women and the soldiers / for Italy and for the King." In both these songs the past is far from dead but it is used to suggest a critical questioning of the Italian present and express unhappiness with today's Italian politics. Similarly, politics gives the interpretative key to read anew a past event in Francesco Guccini's La locomotiva. In this song, the singer and songwriter ideologically reads the madness of a railroad worker who attempted a massacre by running his train at full speed on the tracks near Bologna, in 1893. He was mentally unbalanced and did not have any political affiliation. Guccini instead describes his action in a leftist light, using it as a metaphor for the diffusion of the anarchic movement in Italy: "On the street / against kings and tyrants / the proletarian bomb exploded and the air was lit / by the torch of anarchy." Other obscure historical characters have provided the occasion to re-write history "from below." Francesco De Gregori's II cuoco di Salo ("The Cook of Sal6") is a visionary description of the last Fascist Republic (1943-1945) seen through the eyes of Mussolini's cook ("On a beautiful sunny day / they are dying / on the wrong side / they are dying"). History is seen "from below" also in Modena City Ramblers's L'unica superstite ("The Only Survivor"), a painful first-person account of civilian carnage by German soldiers during the 1944 Resistance ("Sometimes / I still wake up at night / my eyes open in the darkness / and I see our hut on fire"). These songs demonstrate that the wounds of the past are still open, and music is a medium through which history is still discussed, reinterpreted and sometimes turned inside-out.

Music and Italian Social Identity

Italian music is inextricable from Italian society insofar as it is defined by and it defines particular social groups and social classes, through offering individuals "perceptible affordances" (Clayton 11). As Umberto Eco asserts, songs can draw "the map of the social unconscious that is social behavior" (9), because music does not exist outside of the context of the general beliefs, experiences, and activities that surround it. Musical notes can therefore create an invisible "home" for Italians as ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax explained many decades ago: "The primary effect of music is to give the listener a feeling of security, for it symbolizes the place where he was born, his earliest childhood satisfactions, his religious experience, his pleasure in community doings, his courtship and his work--any or all of these personalityshaping experiences" (929).

The question remains whether anyone can ever communicate these ancestral sensations found in music to someone else who does not share the same mother language. This course optimistically seeks to do just that. It attempts to re-create an Italian "space" in an American university, provided the truth of what Martin Stokes asserts, that "music informs our sense of place" (3). The more songs are played and sung, the more they may be used as sources for the study of the mentality and the imaginative repertoires of a society from the inside, and the more they can re-create that cultural environment elsewhere (think, for example, about immigrants' gatherings centered on their national or regional melodies). Students immediately relate to the evocative power of music, knowing from experience how a few notes can recreate sensations and situations: "The musical event," writes Stokes, "evokes and organizes collective memories and presents experiences of place with an intensity, power and simplicity unmatched by any other social activity" (3).

Music is also an efficient marker of the distinction or 'social differentiation' that distinguishes a nation among nations and strongly identifies different social groups within it. Borrowing from Pierre Bourdieu's critique of taste, we can read Italian social groups as defined by the cultural capital their music gives them. Let us see, for example, the way Italian critics classify and subdivide the musical field and its relation with specific social groups. Italy has a well-defined tradition of canzone d'autore (a song by a defined, recognized author, somehow belonging to higher culture) which encompasses today's singers and songwriters. Musicologist Gianni Borgna designates Santa Lucia as the first Italian "authored" canzone. This undated Neapolitan barcarole was translated into Italian by Teodoro Cottrau in 1848, before Italy was politically unified as a nation. However, the peak of canzone d'autore was reached during the Seventies' political protests, when a new generation of cantautori (singers and songwriters) officially began to be treated as a new generation of public intellectuals, singing a social and political message in addition to juggling market interests. Francesco Guccini, Fabrizio De Andre and Francesco De Gregori are the most popular of this generation of cantautori. (14)

This genre is somehow opposed to the canzonetta (light song) that after the advent of the radio in 1924 started to supplant the canti popolari (folk music, often sung in dialect). Today's musica leggera (pop music) has been filtered though the middlebrow taste of the Festival di San Remo, a celebration of popular music aired on national television every year in February since 1951. Folk music did not disappear, but was revived in the 1950s and 1960s by the Cantacronache politically minded group and by the studies of Istituto Ernesto De Martino. (15) Italy also boasts a strong tradition of canti di protesta (protest songs) or canzone sociale (social song)--fueled by leftist movements, songwriters and working class fights. They counterbalance the similarly rich repertoire of official songs, canti ufficiali--from Canto degli Italiani ("Song of the Italians," which became the national anthem) to La leggenda del Piave ("The Legend of the River Piave," a First World War song), from Bandiera Rossa (the Communist anthem) to Giovinezza (a famous Fascist song). This differentiation is often subtle. For example, social song and official song are sometimes both referred to as canzone politica. (16) Dessi and Pintor explain: "The folk song has always been an oppositional song, therefore always, somehow, a political song. In addition, the songs of work, of the saloon, of the prison, and of religion have always expressed a world vision that was different than the one of the dominant class" (11). By studying all of these different music genres, students set up a dialogue with several different social groups, all composing the mosaic of Italian society: housewives and soldiers, intellectuals and factory workers, priests and anarchists.

The Functions of Music in Italian Life

Music always refers to place-bound, specific social psychology: sociologist Andrew Gregory traces useful categories for the "functions" of music in society, all of which are culturally determined. Here I would like to offer some examples pertaining specifically to Italy. An itinerary through these songs, accompanied with an explanation of their social milieu, is enough to draw a quick description of Italian society--by seeing how music is used. Let us start from the universal category of lullabies. They find an Italian declination in songs that are not only soothing but they are often a woman's only way of expressing her feelings and fears. The ancient Tuscan Ninna nanna di Barberino ("Lullaby from Barberino'), for example, speaks of wars and poverty, hardly a comforting subject if the baby understood more than the melody: "sleep my little one, / not even a crumb of bread is left ... / big battle, small battle / Barberino [our town] was on fire."

Children's games accompany human growth. Italy has a series of simplified, children versions of revolutionary songs, such "Garibaldi's leg was wounded" (Garibaldi fu ferito). Children sometimes unknowingly sing complex human narratives, such as Volta la carta ("Turn the Card"). This singsong melody describes a metaphorical Tarot reading that foresees human dramas: "turn the card / the war comes. / For this war there are no soldiers. / They have run away / they have no shoes ... / Madamadore has lost her six daughters / among the pubs of the harbor and its wonders."

The function of work music is mainly to unite groups of workers. Italian work fields resonated with such songs until a few decades ago (and older people still remember it). At times music transformed workers into one body that performed rhythmical manual labors, such as the scariolanti who cleaned up the Maremma marshes in 1800, or the battipali who hammered wood trunks in the Venetian lagoon to build the city's foundations. Other times it bonds them with a clear political message like the female rice-pickers (mondine) and the silk workers (filandaie) in the blooming industrial triangle between Turin, Milan and Genoa. We will see a few of these songs in the second part of the article.

Dance rhythms can also hide an ideological agenda. The ballroom dance Reginella campagnola ("Peasant Queen") was a hit during Fascist times. Apart from its merry rhythm, the text glorified the prosperous, child-bearing, nature-loving, Fascist peasant woman: "At dawn / in the golden Abruzzi, / prosperous peasant women descend the flowery valleys / O beautiful peasant / you are the little Queen / in your eyes there is the sun / and the color of the violets of the valley. / If you sing, / a peaceful harmony tells: / if you want to live happy / you have to live up here."

The universal function of storytelling informs a large number of songs. It can become a way to reveal dangerous truths such as in La Canta di Matteotti ("Matteotti's song"). Written in 1924, it chronicled the assassination of Socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, the first victim of the dictatorship, and was immediately censored by the Fascist regime: "Now, if you listen to me, / I shall sing the crime / of those felons who furiously killed / Giacomo Matteotti, the deputee."

Gregory's other functions of music accompany fundamentally meaningful human events. Ceremonies are associated with fanfares or with ritual songs such as Io credo risorgero ("I believe I will resurrect / this body of mine will see the Redeemer"), which is familiar to all Italian people no matter their religious creed, because it is sung at the end of every funeral in church. Battle songs include the battalions' marching rhythms of World War I and the racist Faccetta nera ("Little Black Face") which accompanied the Italian expansion in Africa in the Thirties. Music can even take on the function of healing, as in the interesting case of the Tarantella studied in the ethnographical context of Southern Italy by Ernesto De Martino in his research on The Land of Remorse. The music accompanied the ritual public healing of seizures, mostly of women, in a repressed society. In conclusion of this paragraph, let us underline how just a simple survey of all these "functions" of music, correlated with their Italian examples, may become a powerful way to introduce students to the musical landscape of this country, exploring it to the last crevice.

Music between History and Culture

The following section wants to define the role of Italian music in articulating, moving and proposing political ideas. I am choosing three historical moments to highlight the relationship between music and ideas. First, we will give a close look to the music that accompanied the Nineteenth century: the fights for political unification and the diffusion of mass movements. Second, we will design the ideological map of Italian music between the two Wars. And third, we will provide an apparent counter-example to show the meaning of "meaningless" music in the 1960s. These large themes are here considered through the lens of the meaningful functions of music. The examples all show a clear performative role, in the rhetorical sense of moving to action. They are songs used to provoke change, to protest or to subjugate the conscience. They show how Italian popular music, not only has a definite meaning and clear affordances for particular groups, but also a strong "practical" value.

Music and the Risorgimento

Music functioned as a strong invitation to action during the Risorgimento decades, characterized by fights for the country's political union in the mid-19th century. In these years, music became the preferred vehicle for values such as freedom, patriotism and love for the motherland. Songs became the means to win the hearts and minds of Italian patriots. In Risorgimento songs we find a justification of Italian national symbols. La bandiera tricolore is an apology of the Italian flag waived in contrast to the Austrian domination and its yellow and black flag: "The tricolor flag / has always been the most beautiful / and we want only this flag. / The yellow and black flag / will reign no more here." Il canto degli Italiani ("The Song of Italians") was written by the young "martyr" Goffredo Mameli, who died at 22 on the battlefield. It became the Italian national anthem in 1946 and offered a condensed history of Italian fights against foreign invaders, while inviting Italians to unite in the fight: "Let us join in a cohort / We are ready to die. / We are ready to die, / Italy has called."

The Risorgimento's tender spirit seeps through folk songs of the common people who sang their pain and their losses from war: Addio mia bella addio ("Farewell, my beautiful, / the Army is leaving / and if I did not leave / I would be a coward"), Il povero Luisin ("Poor Luisin," sung in Northern dialect) dedicated to a young dead soldier, and La bella Gigogin ("The Beautiful Gigogin," also sung in Northern dialect) with its charming young girl, a character dancing between history and legend. The hero of the Italian Risorgimento, Giuseppe Garibaldi, enters historiography through music, and is portrayed and glorified in several choral songs. The population would spread news and hagiographical accounts of this mythical fighter, "hero of the two worlds." Camicia Rossa ("Red Shirt") focuses on the red shirts worn by his fighters (the shirt was an inspiration for the future Fascist black shirt): "Since the moment I wore you / I embroidered your sleeves in gold. / When in Milazzo / I became a sergeant. / Red shirt, passionate shirt." Two songs, Inno di Garibaldi ("Hymn to Garibaldi") and Cacciatori delle Alpi ("Hunters of the Alps"), were the battle cry of the Garibaldine forces during their expedition from Sicily upward in 1860: "Savoia Savoia! All'Armi!" One more very popular song, Garibaldi fu ferito ("Garibaldi was wounded") gave a narrative rendering of the wounding of Garibaldi's leg in Aspromonte during his fight for Rome.

The genre of Italian Opera is imperative to the Risorgimento. The identification of freedom fight with opera is clear in the Bandiera's expedition in 1844, when the two patriotic Venetian brothers started singing the aria Chi per la patria muor vissuto e assai on their way to the gallows: "Whoever dies for his country has lived long enough / Those who die for the motherland have fully lived; / the frond of the laurel tree never dies. / Rather than languish for a long time in worry, / it is better to die in the flower of the years." (17) In the midNineteenth century, music was one of the weapons used to galvanize Italian spirits and warm them to the rhetoric of the Fatherland, especially in the emotively charged choruses of Italian opera. The patriot Giuseppe Mazzini described the function of such music as "an angel of holy thoughts" to move Italian hearts in his 1836 Philosophy of Music (37). Giuseppe Verdi immediately put this theory into practice, so that in his work, "in the choruses of Italian opera ... a people found its voice" (Gossett 41). Although the plight may be transposed to a different setting in the operas, to ancient France, Spain or Babylon, the intensity of feelings is clearly recognizable and relevant to the Italian audience. Thus, several choirs indirectly glorify a people's will to freedom: the Druids' choir in Norma, the nostalgic lamentation of the crusaders and pilgrims in I Lombardi alla prima crociata ("The Lombards to the First Crusade"), and the famous Jewish exiles' cry for their homeland in Nabucco: "Fly away, thought, on golden wings / Go, stop on the hills and dales, / Where, warm and soft, the sweet / Air of our birth place perfumes! / ... O my fatherland so beautiful and lost / O memory so dear and fatal!"

The political value of music is especially clear when ideological movements appropriate music for their own propaganda and propagation. In Italy, like elsewhere, music has lent its versatility to different political credos and has become a weapon to fight ideological battles through loudspeakers. The end of the nineteenth century saw the formation of clearly delineated political factions and identities. The popular movements of Anarchism, Communism and Socialism conveyed and spread their beliefs through music and songs that passed by word of mouth and provided the soundtrack to political gatherings. Several anarchic songs were written by the intellectual leader Pietro Gori: the sad lamentation Sante Caserio was dedicated to the 21-year-old anarchist who was guillotined in Paris for the attempted murder of the French President: "O Workers, / for you is this song that tastes like tears / and that remembers the courageous strong youth / who challenged death for your love. / Caserio, in your eye shone the flint of human vengeance / And to the people who work and cry / you gave all your affection, your hope." The hymn of exiled anarchist was the melancholic Addio a Lugano ("Farewell to Lugano"). This song expressed the sorrow of political exiles in a whirl of waltz: "Farewell beautiful Lugano, / my sweet land. / Driven away guiltlessly / the anarchists are leaving. / They set off singing / with hope in their heart."

The anthems of popular mass movements such as Socialism and Communism were also written in these last years of the nineteenth century and tirelessly sung by Italian compagni. The high-sounding lyrics of L'inno dei lavoratori ("The Workers' Hymn") were written by Filippo Turati, the founder of the Italian Socialist Party: "either we live working or we die fighting." The previously-mentioned Bandiera rossa, a glorification of the Communist "red flag," builds from an interesting mix of folk motifs, perhaps reaching as far as Klezmer music. (18) It was chosen as the official song of the Communist Party at the first Communist conference, held in 1921. The verses are an invocation to the flag: "Red flag will be triumphant / Red flag will be triumphant/ Red flag will be triumphant / Long live Socialism and freedom!" The rhythm of this song, an unmistakable march, is an obvious invitation to rise and fight, or to rise and stride in protest rallies.

Music Between the Two Wars

The time period between the two World Wars is especially interesting to analyze how music may become a battlefield of ideas. In Italy, World War I favored an immense production of war songs among the troops, but such creativity was conglobated, sterilized and stifled by the Fascist Regime, the result being a very different musical behavior in World War II.

The First World War is a compelling time period to study the pervasiveness of music in Italian history. Fought with the slow strategic movements of thousands of marching men on the mountainsides, this war like no other saw a proliferation of rhythmic songs that are still chiseled in the collective memory of our country. Songs were used as a drug, under the motto "canta che ti passa" (translatable as "sing and you'll feel better"). This description in Emilio Lussu's autobiographical novel Un anno sull'Altipiano (Sardinian Brigade is the English title) testifies to the important role that songs played during the first War: Uncle Francesco, an older soldier, desperately marched on the mountains of Asiago while singing Quel mazzolin di fiori ("That Flower Bouquet"): "He marched on at a regular pace, on the choir cadence, and like the other he was singing aloud. His step was heavy under the weight of the backpack. On his face there was no expression of joy. The merry words of the song came out as foreign" (29). (19) Italian soldiers in the line of fire filled their mouths with lamentations, such as Monte Nero ("Mount Nero"), Era una notte che pioveva ("It Was a Rainy Night"), and La conquista dell'Ortigara ("The Conquest of Mount Ortigara"), a song that substitutes the ta-pum of the mines (as it was the song of the miners of the Alpine tunnel San Gottardo) with that of bombs. Soldiers also sung a very popular love song, Surdato 'nnamurato ("Soldier in Love"), in Neapolitan dialect. Contrary to common thought, the two official war songs were written at the end of the war, and far from the trenches. The songs that Fascism chose as the official symbols of the Great War, La leggenda del Piave ("The Legend of River Piave") and La canzone del Monte Grappa ("The Song of Mount Grappa'), were written by a general and a musician in 1918. The two most famous war songs were never sung in the trenches. That is how far public rhetoric can go in choosing a voice for history, a voice that is instead historically false.

Italian Fascism prospered on war songs and made them an instrument of its own propaganda. "Fascism won because it had better songs" A. Grevelli wrote in 1934. (20) Indeed Fascism did fight its way through society with wooden clubs and manly choirs. The early Twenties saw the appearance of the first "Squadracce" (black squads), groups of men in black shirt who sang popular Fascist hymns and hammered them in people's heads, quite literally. Two songs would become the soundtrack of the next twenty years: the violent All'armi ("Fascists, pick up your weapons / death to Communists .... / The Bolsheviks whom we fight / we will make soon disappear / and to our cry that rogue / should tremble, should tremble") and the youthful Giovinezza ("Youth, youth / spring of all beauty. / In the hardship of life / your song rings and goes! / And for Benito Mussolini / hip hip hooray / And for our beautiful Fatherland, / hip hip hooray").

In 1924 Fascism gave a sharp turn toward dictatorship through the assassination of the socialist deputy Giacomo Matteotti, an enemy of the Fascist Party. The event was immediately transformed into an antifascist ballad (the already mentioned La canta di Matteotti). After that event, Fascist ideas began infiltrating through songs of propaganda carefully managed by the "showman" Mussolini to encompass even young children: Fischia il sasso ("The Stone Flies") was written to educate and rally the squads of Balilla children by reminding them of the heroic boy from Genoa: "The boy was like steel, / and his mother he freed. /Refrain : |: Proud his eye, quick his pace, / clear the cry of valor, / a stone for the enemies' forehead, / his heart for his friends."

Fascism praised a small-minded philosophy of contentedness that found an expression in Mille lire al mese ("One Thousand Lira a Month"): "If I could have / 1,000 lira a month, / I would certainly find all happiness." At the same time, Fascist censors kept a tight fist around the music industry. They condemned some silly melodies such as Pippo non lo sa ("Pippo Does Not Know It") because it may have hinted to the vanity of Achille Starace, the elegant secretary of the National Fascist Party. They contrasted Maramao perche sei morto ("Maramao, Why Did You Die?"), a funny song coincidentally written upon the death of the Fascist leader, Costanzo Ciano. However, their presence and the presence of other antifascist music attest the truth of Timothy Rice's statement: "Even though the state created the musical signs and controlled many of the events at which meanings were made evident through association, the meaning of music is too elusive for even totalitarian states to control" (35).

Italy revealed a striking absence of popular war music during World War II. Unlike the first War, there was not a sprouting of songs that were spontaneous creations or adaptations sung by our soldiers. The social historian Gian Franco Vene sees this phenomenon as a sign of the un-preparedness of the country for a war neither wanted nor felt by its population. Fascist imperialistic appetites suggested songs such as Faccetta nera ("Little black face") dedicated to the "little black- faced African slave" to promote the Ethiopian war in 1935. Mussolini dragged Italy into what he thought would be a short and painless war, with the motto "Vincere Vincere" ("To win, to win"). If a song remained in the hearts of our soldiers, and those of all soldiers, it was Lili Marleen (the Italian version was sung by Nina Termini). The story of this song, whose lyrics are universal in their longing for a distant woman, is quite fascinating: played every night, at 9:55, by the Nazi Radio Belgrade, it was diffused by the radios of all fronts. Even the Allies embarrassingly adopted it, the song of the enemy, as their own.

The second War ended with the rejuvenating season of an anti-Fascist and anti-German resistance, and culminated in Liberation Day on April 25, 1945. Many songs accompanied this time of diffuse popular participation by different social groups: Catholics, Leftists and women. The years of the Resistance produced a large number of songs, such as the sarcastic waltz Badoglieide ("Song of Badoglio"), a bitter anti-Fascist outburst against the Fascist general Pietro Badoglio. The intense Fischia il vento ("The Wind Blows") was borrowed by an Italian prisoner in Russia from a Russian melody, and was extremely popular: "The wind whistles, the storm rages, / our shoes are broken but we must go on, / to conquer our red spring / where the sun of our future rises." Bella ciao ("Bye Beautiful") whose origin is still uncertain, accompanied with its rhythmic refrain the fighters marches: "Oh goodbye beautiful, / Goodbye beautiful, / Goodbye beautiful! Bye! Bye! / Oh partisan, carry me away / Because I feel death is approaching." The words of Pieta 1'e morta ("Piety is Dead") were penned down in the forest by the partisan Nuto Revelli who later became a famous writer: "There on the mountain, black flag / a partisan has died fighting. / Another partisan has died fighting / another Italian is buried." Siamo i ribelli della montagna ("We Are the Mountain Rebels") is a song written by a group of fighters on the North-Eastern mountains. The words were written on a big rock used by peasants to smash chestnuts, according to an unpublished memoire by a "rebel," Carlo De Menech. (21) The music was composed while on duty on the Mount Pracaban by a 20-year-old music student on these words: "We have left our houses, schools and factories / we have changed our farms into barracks / we are armed with bombs and rifles / in the battle we strengthened our muscles and hearts."

The Meaning of Mindless Music

As a counterexample of this politically "loaded" music, I would like now to shortly take into consideration a particular trend of Italian music that has been defined as meaningless. Italian musicologists and social critics are quite unanimous in criticizing the decadence and "meaninglessness" of Italian popular music since Fascism. (22) The frivolous music from the radio started to accompany Italian lives in 1924-25, an event that the leftist critic Michele Straniero sees as the beginning of the decadence of Italian songs, which he saw as ambiguous, moaning and wishful songs that advocated no social change. Such decadence continued, according to Jona and Straniero, after the Second War: the masses preferred to sing mindless songs as the Italian American Angelina, brought by the allies in the South, or the nonsensical Dove sta Zaza ("Where is Zaza") in "a kind of collective folly, in the general climate of popular hyper-excitement" (Straniero 79). (23) The Fifties were characterized by the predominance of American taste: Renato Carosone sung the danceable "You want to be an American" (Tu vuo' far l'americano); Fred Buscaglione molded his gangster image by singing his jazzy Che bambola ("What a Doll"), and Adriano Celentano sang Italian rock and roll with II tuo bacio e come un rock ("Your Kiss is Like Rock and Roll"). The Italian "economic miracle" created a new consuming bourgeoisie and music experienced its final commodification. The successful Festival of San Remo opened in 1951 and started spreading its industrial mass music, that Umberto Eco calls "gastronomic music" (6). (24) Its songs celebrated mainly melodrama and unsatisfied desires: Nilla Pizzi's Grazie dei fiori ("Thanks for the Flowers") won the first edition of the Festival singing about red thorny roses, the trite symbol of love. There was still, however, a shadow of committed overtones in a few songs: Nilla Pizzi's 1952, prize-winning Vola colomba (Fly Dove), for example, indirectly refers to the still torn city of Trieste, the hinge between East-West (the Free Territory became Italian only in 1954), and Vecchio scarpone (Old Boot, 1953) revamps the war's rhetoric: "Old boot, how much time has gone, how many illusions you bring to mind, how many songs I sang on your rhythm that I cannot forget."

A spirited critique of the dominant "proper" bourgeois taste is given by the grotesque and farcical songs of Riz Samaritano: from spousal betrayal in I cornuti (Cuckolds) to double-sense pantyhose in Ma che calze vuoi da me ("Which stockings do you want from me?"), from lavish dinners in Cadavere spaziale (Space Cadaver) to the power of money in buying love La grana (Cash). Cesare Borgna individuates the strongest break with the musical tradition in an unexpected song: Domenico Modugno's Volare (1958): "To fly, to sing in the blue, painted blue, happy to be up here." Borgna points to the stylistic novelty (the liberating gesture of opening the arms, perceived as an exhilarating break in a very controlled musical and social environment), while Emilio Jona maliciously applies a Freudian reading to the bourgeois malaise denounced by this song, and underlines its sexual and dreamlike references, its kind of "regressed love" that displays infantile tendencies, exhibitionism, fear of castration, and sexual frustration (198). (25) The same bourgeois stiffness is revealed by the style of the Sixties' "urlatori" (the "shouters"), such as Modugno, Adriano Celentano, and Tony Dallara, whose use of a primitive and painful style is seen as a sincere denunciation of the unspontaneity of Italian society. Giorgio De Maria uses Alan Lomax's anthropological research on the relationship between emotion and singing style, in particularly the emotion of pain, and he affirms that shouting (urlo) is the "musical symbol of pain" (295), a pain that derives from a "repressed, unexpressed sexuality" (298).


Bruno Nettl called for an advanced analytical effort in order to go beyond the study of music in culture: he promotes the study of music as culture by discovering the general nature of a people contained in its song, "show[ing] how music accommodates its [a nation's] structure and general character" (218). This is a most difficult critical endeavor. Martin Gannon daringly answered this call and proposed to see the Italian opera as a cultural metaphor that synthesizes several aspects of the Italian character: "The opera is a metaphor for Italy itself: it encompasses music, dramatic action, public spectacle and pageantry, and a sense of fate" (43).

I would add that if the music of Italy stands as a metaphor for this country, it may define it through its deeply communal character. (26) The tight sense of collectivity still experienced in Italy can explain the centrality that church bells, music bands, canzonieri scout, amateur and professional chorals, work songs and sagre (country fairs) had, and still have, in this country. Historian Emilio Franzina notices the capillary diffusion and the pervasiveness that singing has in Italian gatherings of a different nature: "the 'song that everyone knows' is often the tip of the iceberg of memories revived by harmony ... a spiritual dimension inclined to a collective self-recognition of a group" (117). Church bells, in particular, could provide a metaphor for Italian self-identity. The campanile (bell tower) has a physical and symbolic function in tracing the Italian space as historian Glauco Sanga wrote: "If, as we have seen, the bell tower limits the space, or better creates the space, the bell measures time, it creates time: together, they define that spatial and temporal aggregation that is our historical world" (40). (27) Emilio Jona also notices the number of bells in Italian songs but proposes a more severe reading: "The light songs of this type, dedicated to bells, little churches, crosses and loves that bloom in their shadow, always provoke a tearful and easy emotion, perhaps because a two-thousand-year-old social order resonates in those notes, recalling the principle of authority, the duty of obedience and all those values that protect these symbols" (222). Positively or negatively, there is an undeniable importance in the particular sound of church bells. Even Italian immigrants, who have not gone back to their homeland, often confess that they miss and long for those chimes, symbol of an ancient, community-oriented society. (28)

A course on Italy through its music aims to give an Italian outlook on the meaningful dialogue that music sets up with history and culture. Italian identity is richly interwoven with musical threads. If Rice asserted that "music always means something to someone" (36), the Italian singer Lucio Dalla illustrated the concept in a romanticized fashion: "The story of song is the story of the places where it was sung, of the people who sang it, of the ears that listened to it, of the wars that inspired it, of the kings that whispered it to their children to make them sleep, of the ragamuffins and their dogs that whistled it in the sunny and dusty streets of the world's villages" (7). On a final note, I would conclude that, even when tackling important themes, this course would still be extremely enjoyable because, using Roversi's words, "a song is a feast, even when, as we say, it is committed" (109).


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Florida Atlantic University


(1) The course "Italy Through its Music" was taught for the first time in the Fall 2008, at .... See Brown, Tevis, "New Course Serves Up a Taste of Italy Through Music," The Owl Observer (April 6, 2009).

(2) In his recent volume New Approaches to Teaching Italian Language and Culture (2008), Emanuele Occhipinti confirms that we have "a major gap in existing scholarship and textbooks devoted to the teaching of Italian language and culture" (1), and includes two innovative essays on how to use music in an Italian classroom: Paola Vettorel addresses a course on Italian cultural themes through music, while Silvia Boero imagines a syllabus designed to teach the Italy of the years 1950-2005 through protest songs. This article supplements Vettorel's and Boero's compelling ideas and proposes a journey through modern Italy on a musical wave.

(3) "Le canzoni non soltanto raccontano il nostro passato, lo contengono come le linee di una mano." All translations from Italian editions are mine. I would like to thank Dr. Richard Cunningham of Florida Atlantic University for his precious insights on this article.

(4) See the recent issues of Ethnomusicology Forum: "Music and Meaning" (Vol. 10, No. 1, 2001) and "The Past in Music" (Vol. 15, No. 1, 2006).

(5) I would like to invite my readers to trail along with me by taking advantage of today's technological revolution to aurally follow the musical milestones I lay on the path. and contain the majority of the music to which I will refer.

(6) Giovanni Giuriati's article "Italian Ethnomusicology" (1995) draws a history of the discipline of Ethnomusicology in Italy but does not describe the musical material. He asserts that "the peculiar history of ethnomusicological studies in Italy as well as the extremely rich and diverse repertories of Italian folk music are little known outside Italy" (104). The reasons are the obstacle of the language and the local focus of Italian scholars. A journal that tries to create a bridge between English and Italian speaking scholars is Music and Anthropology, now based in Venice.

(7) Such books include Giuseppe De Grassi's study on political music, Mille papaveri rossi; Giuseppe Vettori's two anthologies on protest song and folk song: Canzoni italiane di protesta and Canti popolari italiani; Gianni Bosio's L'intellettuale rovesciato with an important section on the songs of the Italian Prima Internazionale; Emilio Jona and Sergio Liberovici's Canti degli operai torinesi (with recordings of factory workers' songs) and Le canzoni della cattiva coscienza (an engaging book for its daring ideological and critical views).

(8) See Alan Lomax and Diego Carpitella's recordings from the 1950s (Italian Music and Song of Italy (Cambridge: Rounder, 1999), Roberto Leydi's numerous publications among which the music and texts of I canti popolari italiani: 120 testi e musiche, and Pier Paolo Pasolini's two volume anthology Canzoniere italiano.

(9) Italics in the text. Peroni's assumption is that music is not a mirror of society, but a representation.

(10) On the same line, see two essays written in English: Marcella Filippa's "Popular Song and Musical Cultures," and Alessandro Carrera's "Folk Music and Popular Song from the Nineteenth Century to 1990s."

(11) See Marco Pasqua's "Vergogna nazista su YouTube. Online le canzoni antisemite" (Repubblica, November 20, 2008: 21, sezione Cronaca), and "Canzoni antisemite su YouTube. Aperta un'inchiesta sui 99 Fosse," Repubblica (November 22, 2008: 11, sezione Roma). These songs briefly appeared on YouTube, before being removed from the Web.

(12) A discussion of these contrafacta is in Stefano Pivato's chapter "Falsi Storici," in La storia leggera.

(13) See Cesare Bermani, <<Bandiera rossa>>, Liberazione, 15 Maggio 2003.

(14) Marco Santoro's article on "'The Tenco Effect" gives an interesting sociological interpretation of the birth of the canzone d'autore. Such new aesthetic category would be the product of the traumatic suicide of the young singer, Luigi Tenco, in 1967.

(15) For an English account of the Cantacronache's role in post-war Italy, see Sebastiano Ferrari's essay "The Advent of 'Committed Song' in Italy. The Role of the Cantacronache in the Renewal of Italian Popular Music."

(16) Political hymns can serve as sources of information and counter information, as Claudio Bernieri writes: "The political hymn was an example of propaganda and information--and often counter-information--for an illiterate audience" (17).

(17) The aria is in the opera Caritea, Regina di Spagna by Saverio Mercadante. The opera opened in Venice, the hometown of the two freedom fighters, in February 1826.

(18) See also Silvia Boero's "Italian freaks and Punks: History of Italian Culture from 1950s to 2005 Retold by Protest Songs."

(19) "Egli marciava al passo, sulla cadenza del coro, e, come gli altri, cantava a voce alta. Il passo era pesante sotto il peso dello zaino. Sul suo volto non v'era alcuna espressione di gioia. Le parole allegre del canto uscivano dalla sua bocca, estranee."

(20) "Il fascismo ha vinto perche aveva le canzoni piu belle degli altri," quoted in Di Capua, Faccetta Nera, 3.

(21) The manuscript (1975) is deposited in the Institute for the History of the Resistance and Contemporary History in Alessandria.

(22) The critical anthology by Paolo Gatto is full of such negative judgments. For example: "Italian song is so desperate because it is uniquely an instrument of escapism. It has no grip on reality, it does not bite ... It conjugates his useless exhibition of weak desires on an eternal conditional mode (I would like this, I would like that! Dream, heart and happiness!)" M. Mila, quoted in Gatto 36).

(23) Jona and Straniero's Le canzoni della cattiva coscienza is an extremely negative but interesting Marxist interpretation of Italian popular songs as products of mass consumption, and therefore despicable in their homologation and vilification of the population. For a more ironic description of mindless mass music, see Umberto Eco's "Frammenti" in Diario minimo, where the author imagines a scholarly interpretation of fragments of XXth century poetry (songs), relics of a culture destroyed by nuclear explosions.

(24) Umberto Eco explains: "gastronomic music is an industrial product that does not have any artistic intention, but rather satisfies market needs. The question remains if the industrial production of sounds follows the free fluctuation of such market, or if, on the contrary, it operates as a specific pedagogic plan to orient the market and determine its demands" (6).

(25) See Emilio Jona's "I temi del disimpegno."

(26) I am however wary of producing a generalization of this type without a comparative study of other countries.

(27) Italics in the text.

(28) See the interviews with Italian immigrants in Ilaria Serra's The Imagined Immigrant (2009).
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