Wednesday 21 March 2018

Naples' musical tradition makes it a rival of Paris and Vienna

George Hamilton

The city of Naples is home to one of the top football teams in Italy and that's the reason I'm heading there this week. But it could equally have been the music that took me south.

Naples is right up there with the likes of Vienna and Paris when it comes to an influence on the course of classical music. In its case, it was playing a part at a much earlier stage.

The very word 'conservatory' for a school of music goes back to Naples in the 16th Century, when Spain was the power in the area. In conjunction with the church, homes were set up to protect, or 'conserve', unmarried mothers and their children, and orphans too.

Music was an important part of the curriculum in these conservatories, and singers would be trained to take their part in the various religious ceremonies.

When music as commercial entertainment began to develop, these schools were well-placed to move into that environment, and it was only natural that they would evolve into more specific centres of excellence.

The proof of that is in the roll call of famous names who'd have gone to study – Scarlatti, Pergolesi, Cimarosa.

When the French took over Naples in the early 1800s, the various schools were made into one. By then, the city's Teatro San Carlo was well-established as one of the continent's leading houses. The oldest opera house in Europe, San Carlo predated La Scala in Milan by more than 40 years. La Fenice in Venice would be more than a decade further behind.

Naples had been pushing the boundaries. They'd hired Christoph Willibald Gluck, the man who'd go on to earn himself the nickname of father of modern opera because of his ground-breaking Orfeo ed Euridice, which blew away conventional formality and set Vienna alight.

Naples became the undisputed capital of music in Europe. Rossini based himself in the city and wrote 18 of his operas there. The young Donizetti was hired to work at San Carlo. The great violin virtuoso Paganini came to play.

Others queued to get their work on stage there. Verdi's Luisa Miller had its premiere in Naples in 1849.

With its tradition in opera, the evolution of a specifically Neapolitan song was almost inevitable. An annual competition, inaugurated in the early 19th Century, provided the springboard.

These numbers were the perfect vehicle for the tenor voice. From romantic ballads like 'Santa Lucia' and 'O Sole Mio', to the rousing 'Funiculì, Funiculà', written to commemorate the opening of a funicular railway on Mount Vesuvius, they've been sung by artists from Caruso through Mario Lanza to Pavarotti, thrilling audiences across the years.

On Wednesday, it's the Arsenal-Napoli game that will have me in town. The bill at the San Carlo Opera House some 5km around the bay isn't half bad either. Verdi's Aïda is in the middle of a fortnight's run. Given the lusty singing of Italian football fans, there's every chance Gloria all'Egitto will get an outing in both venues.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday.

Irish Independent

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