So much more than simple folk music, Neapolitan songs are surely acclaimed all over the world. Yet maybe not everybody knows that behind each one of them there is a story, peculiar, funny or tragic. Every song is a world apart and tells a tale about the city, its people or a moment in history.
To make a complete list would be impossible, here are five of the most famous ones.
O' Sole Mio
If there's a queen, among the Neapolitan songs, this is the one. From Elvis to Pope John Paul II everybody sung it. Its fame literally reached the sky when Yuri Gagarin intoned a few notes while floating in the Space.
How weird that the song that more than anything else represents Naples in the world wasn't actually born there. It was 1899 and Eduardo Di Capua, musician, was on tour in Ucraine. He had brought some verses scribbled on a piece of paper by his friend, the poet Giovanni Capurro. One day Eduardo sat at his piano and composed some music to match those verses, which were destined to be immortal. Not that he'd know. The song, infact, only got second place in Piedigrotta's Music Festival, a very popular contest back then, and sadly both Di Capua and Capurro died in poverty.
This one was the first Neapolitan song to travel the world. Funny how it was, basically, a sort of commercial spot. Infact it was written to celebrate the opening of the Vesuvius cable car. It took ten years to build it, but after a fancy cerimony the cable car was more or less neglected by the tourists. Maybe weary of the novelty, they stubbornly kept on going on foot and no tickets were sold. It was decided then that a song was needed to get people like that unusual piece of technlogy more.
Funiculì Funiculà, a simple and catchy song inspired by ancient folk music not served the purpose perfectly. Furthermore it won Piedigrotta's Festival and sold 1000 copies. For the time it was actually an outstanding record. In addition it became so famous that even Richard Strauss quoted it in his composition Aus Italien.
As of today, inside Galleria Umberto I, Salone Margherita still exists. It was the very first Cafe-Chantant of Naples, opened in 1890. Everything in those Cafè was made to recreate a french atmosphere, including the singers. As a result young ladies went out of their ways to dress and act like their french counterparts. They even tried to speak the language, albeit with poor results, to the point that their musical talent became secondary. To one of those chanteuse is dedicated the song Reginella, a bitter sweet waltz about a finished love story and the memories it left behind. Tissues may come in handy.
Talking about tissues... looks like Neapolitan songs can't exist without poetry, and poetry can't exist whithout love. That's why this song, where love and poetry meet so beautifully, is so heartbreaking. The author, Edoardo Nicolardi, was a poet, young and poor according to tradition and madly in love with a girl named Anna. As often happened back in the days when parents got to choose an husband for their daughters, Anna was forced to marry a rich man more than 30 years older than her. Yet Edoardo just couldn't give up on her, and every evening went outside the freshly wed couple's house hoping to see Anna through the window. One night he also went to Cafè Gambrinus, one of the most renowned in the city even now and in a moment of both desperation and inspiration wrote some heartfelt verses for his love.
The good news is that Anna and Edoardo's story actually had an happy ending. After a while, thanks to an unpredictable twist of fate, Anna's old husband got sick and died. The two lovers could finally marry and be happy together for a verly long time.
It may seem surprising that the author of such an ironic piece is the same who wrote some extremely touching songs like Voce'e notte. Yet Tammurriata Nera too was authored by Edoardo Nicolardi, the lovesick poet. He eventually became the director of an hospital where a single Neapolitan woman gave birth to a black skinned child. Nothing particulary surprising with it today, but back in the 40's it was frowned upon, to say the least. However, with the USA troops still in Naples in the last year of World War II, such occurrence couldn't even be considered rare anymore.
The subject is treated with great irony, yet this song is also an amazing portrait of Naples during the war. Famine, poverty and desire of peace, there's all of this and even more in the lyrics that made Tammurriata Nera a pacifist piece. It is no coincidence that the most famous arrangement, the one by Nuova Compagnia di Canto Popolare, contains a few verses of Lay the Pistol Down. That was one of the old pacifist american songs, imported by USA soldiers themselves.