VILLANESCA The Sixteenth Century in Naples Mocking, carnivalesque, funny, in a city of gardens, sea, streets and court
Between 1529 and 1530 the city of Naples suffered two plagues, the first outbreak alone claiming sixty thousand victims. Under the harsh regime of Viceroy Don Pedro of Toledo, the population was exhausted by continuous deprivations, famines and epidemics, and so the city failed to thrive. In 1533 the Viceroy of Naples began the construction of an imposing palace to provide dignified lodgings for Charles V during his visits to Naples, and ordered the city walls to be expanded. Following the traces of the ancient Aragonese trench, a new road was laid out, which was called Via Toledo; monasteries, palaces and barracks for the troops were built alongside. The area became known, and is still known today, as the ‘Quartieri Spagnoli’ or Spanish Quarters. In the midst of this reconstruction frenzy, in the year 1537, the printer Johannes De Colonia, of whom little more than his name and German descent is known, published in Naples a small volume in oblong octavo which was entitled Canzone Villanesche alla Napoletana.
This very title contains the essence of a fresh and vibrant musical practice that has created a constant dialogue between the music of high culture and that of popular origins in sixteenth-century Naples. The captivating and seemingly simple melodic line, the varied rhythms, the presence of three voices instead of four, as was common in the polyphony of that period, and especially the choice for the most scurrilous texts next to the most elevated ones, have decided the immediate success of this repertoire, that soon spread to northern Italy and from there to the whole of Europe.
Fundamental to the research of this music has been the essay ‘The debut of the Canzone villanesca napolitana’, published in 1975 by an American musicologist who bears a fully Italian name, Donna Gina Cardamone:
"On October 24, 1537 fifteen anonymous «rustic songs» in Neapolitan dialect were published in a pocket-sized anthology entitled Canzone villanesche alla napolitana. This generic designation was probably coined especially for the publication, since there is no previous evidence of its having been applied to a musical form. The qualifying phrase, alla napolitana, means that the style of the poetry and music is Neapolitan. The adjective villanesca (from villano or peasant) in the strict sense of the word means rustic or crude, but in this new context it also intimates that Neapolitan poet-musicians had been affected by the instinctive lyrical traditions of everyday people." (pag. 66)
This essay, along with the rediscovery at the same time of the popular music of Southern Italy by ethnomusicologists and researchers of such fame as Roberto de Simone, for us musicians has been a point of departure in our search for a dialogue that in ancient music can be discerned between the cultured and the popular, between what medievalists call ars musica and musica simplex. Five centuries have passed since that little book of villanesche came out, those fifteen songs that still captivate us with their liveliness, still fascinate us with their words of love and wisdom, and their ever authentic sentiments.
"Vincenzo Galilei, in a general essay on the problems of melodic composition, recommended that composers of his time imitate traditional arie and the genres of polyphonic music that were inspired by them. He revealed his admiration for the mannerisms of the self-accompanying singer whose rendition of a simple melody was first of all the way of nature: "When shepherds and workers in the fields were finished with their labors, they turned for solace to popular airs which they sang to the strumming of some instrument." (pp. 91-92)
The voice is accompanied by lute and guitar, but also by the principal instrument of Neapolitan tradition, the colascione, and joined in our interpretation of the genre by wind instruments and inevitably also percussion – a fundamental element in the music of a city that was born between the Vesuvius and the Flegrean fields. A city and a people that happily survive immersed in a restless and inconstant nature: an indelible sign of a vitality that has made Naples a city that is not just extraordinary, but unique.