Chances are you have heard many of them without realising what they were. Luciano Pavarotti’s outstanding rendition of ‘O sole mio’ or Andrea Bocelli’s intense ‘Funiculì funiculà’ have entered the mainstream, but did you know they both belong to the distinct genre of the Neapolitan song? Behind the catchy melodies and the high emotional charge lies a long tradition grounded in local folklore that is inextricably connected to the rich cultural heritage of Naples, one of Italy’s fairest, most charming cities.
The Neapolitan song has been around for about two centuries and still goes strong. Regular events like Napulitanata keep the tradition alive and showcase the rich catalogue of the genre with ever-changing programmes and a large roster of classics and deep cuts. Let us revisit the history of ‘canzone napoletana’ together and get to know some of its most famous representatives a little more closely!
The History of Neapolitan Song
In line with Naples’ temper and spirit, the Neapolitan song was established with a competition. The Festival of Piedigrotta, held in the district of Mergellina, pushed countless songwriters to produce songs in the distinct Neapolitan dialect and embed them within the area’s rich folklore tradition. From the 1830s all the way to the festival’s last edition in 1950, all of the genre’s greatest hits were presented there. Some of the winners would fade away quickly while some runners-up would prove more popular over time, but one thing is certain: Every classic Neapolitan song was christened in Piedigrotta.
So what is the connection to opera and classical music, you ask? Many of opera’s greatest voices celebrated Neapolitan songs as a unique element of Naples’ cultural heritage and performed them around the world. Enrico Caruso, himself a proud ‘Napoletano’, was happy to carry his hometown’s musical tradition across many international stages, most famously at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. Many others star singers followed his example over the years. The Three Tenors made Neapolitan songs a staple of their wildly successful concerts. Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti each recorded complete albums of canzoni napoletani, and so did Andrea Bocelli.
Some of the Most Famous Neapolitan Songs
‘Funiculì, Funiculà’ was the first canzone napoletana to reach global fame. The year was 1880, Luigi Denza wrote the music, and Peppino Turco provided the lyrics about the first cable car (funicular) to Mount Vesuvius. Legend has it the song was meant to be a promotional gimmick to push sceptical tourists to use the funicular, which was not making enough money. Regardless of the motivations behind, ‘Funiculì, Funiculà’ became an instant hit, and its sheet music sold over a million copies within its first year. The chorus’ incendiary crescendo and the song’s dramatic flair are evergreen.
There is probably no Neapolitan song more famous than ‘O sole mio’, indelibly etched into our modern collective mind by the unforgettable Luciano Pavarotti. Funnily enough, its composer Eduardo Di Capua penned it while he was touring the Ukraine in 1899, making it the most famous Neapolitan song, written the farthest away from Naples. The story goes, Di Capua fished out of his pocket a piece of paper with his poet friend Giovanni Capurro’s verses scribbled on it and quickly composed a song around them. The song only got second place in the Piedigrotta festival, but it’s been number one in audiences’ hearts for many decades.
One of the oldest known Neapolitan songs is ‘Santa Lucia’, a love letter to Naples’ waterfront neighbourhood of Borgo Santa Lucia. Its slowly unfolding melody lines seem to invite you to take life easy, sit back, and enjoy the view. It was first published by the Cottrau family firm in 1849; the family’s father Guillaume Louis Cottrau transcribed and likely composed it, while the son Teodoro Cottrau provided the Italian translation. Music and lyrics together invite the listener on a serene evening boat ride where the summer breeze and the view of Naples from the water combine into a sweet lullaby.
Neapolitan songs form a major part of the cultural heritage and local pride of Naples – and rightfully so! What other musical tradition can sing about the sun, the sea, or an erupting volcano with so much character and emotion? The canzone napoletana has been around for nearly two centuries, and its unique blend of folklore and pop sensibilities continues to inspire today as it will tomorrow and the day after.