Centres of Polyphony


With its internationally renowned opera traditions and bel canto singing style so universally popular, Italy has long been a symbol of “beautiful singing”. Unlike some other European countries, where folk singing styles became the symbol of national musical identity, “rarely shared at the national level, folk song in Italy never became a national symbol. Instead, during the second half of the nineteenth and part of the twentieth century, opera and so-called Neapolitan popular song served such purposes” (Sorce Keller et al. 2000:604). Four main regions are distinguished in Italy: (1) North Italy, (2) central Italy, (3) the Mediterranean south and Sicily, and (4) Sardinia. The tradition of vocal polyphony is distributed in three out of the four regions: in north and central Italy and on Sardinia. Although the southern part is mostly monophonic, geographically more isolated Sicily has vocal polyphonic traditions. As a matter of fact, central Italy is more of a transitional region between the polyphonic north and monophonic south, so polyphonic singing decreases from north to south of Central Italy.
“Choral singing belongs mainly to the alpine area and the north, where a variable number of singers sing two, three, or four parts. The accompanying part sings below the leading part or, less commonly, above it. This type of polyphony, structures in thirds or sixths, is widespread from the southern German territories to the valley of the river Po, and into Slovenia, Dalmatia, and northern Croatia. In playfulness and intricacy of texture, the richest polyphonic forms include the tiir, from the town of Premana in Lombardy; the trallalero, in the area around Genoa, in which five (sometimes six) vocal parts imitate various instruments; and the bei in Tuscany. These styles are neither song forms nor song types, but polyphonic procedures applied to different kinds of songs” (Sorce Keller et al, 2000:610).

The singing style in north Italy is open and relaxed and the metre and rhythm is strict. As in many other polyphonic cultures, the performance of choral music in north Italy often involves the listeners as well. “The atmosphere of the singing event encourages active participation, and men and women, as they sit at table with a bottle of wine, join the performance” (Sorce Keller et al, 2000:611). The presence of choral societies in the Alpine region is a good indication of the widespread popularity of polyphonic singing in the Italian Alps. “Even though their members [of choral societies and choirs] are not professional musicians, and do not depend on musical activities in order to make a living, the Alpine choirs are in a way professional or, at least, semi-professional organizations. Through concerts, the release of records, the publication of songbooks, and occasional subsidies, they support themselves and survive as an institution. Their music is widely appreciated in Trentino. In the countryside, as with commercial songs in the cities, it is this type of popular music that people like to listen to. Such choral groups, therefore, are Alpine, popular, and professional at the same time” (Sorce Keller, 1986:449).
Plenty of polyphonic examples are represented in Leydi’s 1973 book “Italian Folk Songs”. According to this book, singing in parallel thirds and sixths is very widely distributed in north Italy from Venetia to Genoa.
Apart from the later style of polyphony, based on European harmonies and parallel thirds, Italy is the home of more archaic polyphonic singing styles as well. First of all, some very interesting sources are available from medieval Italy. According to them, for example, by the end of the 15th century, a specific type of dissonant polyphony, based on the use of seconds, existed in a local burial liturgy in Lombardy (see the discussion in Ferand, 1939). At the same time (the end of the 15th century) we have another very interesting piece of information about very specific two-part singing in Milan where instead of “correct” and accepted consonances of fifths and fourths, “the sharpest dissonances – major and minor seconds, ninths, and sevenths – predominate” (Ferand, 1939:314). This information is contained in the tractate Practica Musicae (1496) of the famous Italian music theorist Franchino Gafori. From this region today we have only late style part-singing, based on the use of consonant thirds and European harmonies. Even the earlier source of the 1020s and 1030s, Guido d’Arezzo (in “Micrologue”, XIX) gives musical examples of polyphonic two-part singing with drone, with fourths and seconds between the parts.

It is very important to know that a similar kind of specific dissonant polyphony has been documented in contemporary central Italy. The central-eastern Italian regions Abruzzi (east of Rome) and Marche (north of Abruzzi) feature two-part archaic polyphony with the drone, small-range melodies and dissonant seconds in the specific genre canto a vatoccu (“song in the manner of a bell clapper”).
The same style of two-part polyphony with narrow range and secondal dissonances is also known in Tuscany in western Italy. This style of polyphony here is a specific genre canto a dispetto (“song of the despised”. Sorce Keller et al., 2000:610). Roberto Leydi noted the recent tendency towards an increase of choral performance in North Italy. For example, the solo performance of ballads has been replaced by choral performances (Leydi, 1977).
Only minor elements of polyphony (unison and heterophony) have been found in the southern part of Italy, or south of Naples. Solo singing dominates in this region. Polyphony is seldom choral (in which participants join and try to blend), but instead is unison singing that borders on heterophony, or two or three parts carried by single voices (Sorce Keller et al., 2000:611). The singing style in southern Italy is very close to the Middle Eastern Arabic singing style with a nasal timbre, embellished melodic line, and rubato (free) metre and rhythm.
On the other hand, Sicily, which is considered a part of southern Italy, is very polyphonic. Written sources testify to the presence of vocal polyphony in Sicily at least from the 17th century. According to Ignazio Macchiarella’s 2005 report on Sicilian polyphony at the polyphonic conference in Vienna, vocal polyphony is known in more than 120 Sicilian villages and it is spread “…all over the island with the exception of the very western zone where it was documented in the past, before the strong earthquake that upset the social life in the area in 1968” (from the Vienna 2005 Polyphonic Conference materials).
According to Machiarella, European type parallel thirds, chordal singing, two- and four-part drone singing and polyphony with counterpoint elements are all present on the island. Most of the time polyphonic singing is connected to sacred ritual singing during the Holy week feasts. Apart from the sacred genre, polyphony is an important part of the “…heritage of an ancient peasant repertory. Today they are performed out of their traditional contexts, mainly within private festival banquets and gatherings, rarely during a few villages’ feasts in the Eastern provinces” (Macchiarella, 2005).

The fourth region of Italy, the island of Sardinia, has historically and culturally been the most isolated region of Italy. Italy annexed Sardinia only in 1861, and in 1948 it became an autonomous region. Sardinia has a very different set of cultural elements, including language (derived straight from old Latin), and a distinct polyphonic style.
Sardinia is divided into four provinces: north, central, southern and western. The centre of the island is mountainous. This region, together with the eastern region of the island, known as Baronia, was referred to by the Romans as Barbagia (from Latin “Barbaria” – “those who do not speak our language”, and this is interesting, taking into account the most obvious and direct connection of the contemporary Sardinian language to the language of the Romans throughout Italy). Barbagia is the main region of distribution of the rich traditional polyphony known as tenore. This style is still widely spread among the local shepherds. The polyphony consists of four parts: the main melodic part is boghe (“voice”), the top harmony is mesa boghe (“high voice”), and two low parts – contra and the lowest part basu. Two low voices usually sing double drone a fifth apart (this can also be a fourth). The harmonic parts usually pronounce specific syllables that make good vibrating and blending sounds (like “mbo-mbo” or “bim-mbo”). The harmony is usually based on a single chord of a tonic major triad. Melodic activity in the top parts mostly happens within a very small range (about a third). They sing with a tense and nasal voice, sometimes creating seconds with the static triadic harmony of droning parts. In more modern choirs the singers double or even triple the traditionally known parts in order to make the harmonies richer.
The northern part of the island is known for the religious polyphony performed by local brotherhoods (groups of men who serve the Roman Catholic Church) (Lortat-Jacob, 2000:627). This style of polyphony is also close to the tenore tradition, with a rich reverberating harmony of a tonic triad in four parts. Voices also have the same names, except the top part, which is called here falzittu (although it is not performed with falsetto). This singing style features unprepared modulations, relatively free metre and rhythm, and ornamented melodies.
The southern part of Sardinia is not known for its vocal polyphonic tradition, but the tradition of instrumental polyphony is central here. This region is the home of the triple clarinet launeddas, the symbol of Sardinian culture. This instrument features a drone and two melodic pipes. Small bronze statues from the eight/seventh century B.C. depict a player of a double (or triple) blown instrument, an ancestor of the launeddas.

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