Italy is most likely on the top of every art lover’s travel bucket list. The peninsula gave birth to some of the greatest artists and brilliant minds. Painters, innovators, and writers like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Dante, and Raphael left breathtaking treasures to our world. Yet, we often forget that music also plays a big role in Italian heritage. In this post, we will explore through 8 different Italian cities, attractions, as well as musical events that have deep connections with significant Italian musicians.

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Gregorian Chant & the Church of Sant’Anselmo

Castel Sant’Angelo, Roma, Italy (Photo by Willian West on Unsplash)

Before the Renaissance, modern tonality had not been developed yet. The idea of “melody” was just a single line drifting between a few tones in which became what we know today as the Gregorian chant. This style of singing emerged in liturgical services in western and central Europe during the 9th and 10th centuries, and it’s known as the foundation for western classical music.

Here’s a short live performance of the monks performing at Church of Sant’ Anselmo. The video doesn’t have the best quality, but the performance itself is moving.

Trip Advisor users have vouched for Sant’Anselmo all’Aventino as the best place to experience a Gregorian Chant performance. It is a Roman Catholic church, monastery and college located on Cavalieri di Malta Square on the Aventine Hill in Rome, Italy.

That’s fun, but the deep spiritual experience awaits in Sant’ Anselmo itself. The church with its high wooden ceiling and mosaic floors has fantastic acoustics for chant, and the monks do not disappoint. I found this service as moving as the one I heard years ago. Beautiful call and responses from monks seated across each other behind the altar. The ensemble is not perfect and there are slight intonation issues, but they sing chant very musically with care.

Russell S. on Trip Advisor (2017)

The Reinaissance, Polyphony & Palestrina

St. Peter’s Basilica (Photo by Julius Silver)

In contrast to Gregorian chant in which only has one voice (monophony), a polyphony consists of two or more simultaneous lines of independent melody. The development of polyphony culminates during the Renaissance period.

Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina (1525~1594) is an Italian composer and an influential figure in the development of western classical music. He composed hundreds of polyphonic sacred music and spent most of his career in Rome as an organist, composer, and music director to the Catholic churches. He was appointed by Pope Julius III to serve at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican City of Rome as the musical director of Cappella Guilia, which is the choir of the chapter of canons at St. Peter’s Basilica.

Good Friday Celebration at St. Peter’s Basilica, 30 March 2018,
with the Pope’s Choir performing Palestrina’s Popule meus.

When in Rome, visit the Vatican. This sovereign state with a population of 1,000 plays a significant role in the contribution of arts and music in western history. 

Organ Music & Frescobaldi 

Ferrara, Italy.

Invented between 285~222 BC, the organ was used throughout the Ancient Greek, Roman times and the Byzantine Empire. The organ eventually took a prominent place in the Catholic Church. Girolamo Frescobaldi (1583~1643), a musician from Ferrara (northern Italy) was one of the most important organ music composers in the late Renaissance and early Baroque periods. He was a long-term organist at St. Peter’s Basilica and was in service until his passing.

Organist Luca Raggi performing Toccata per l’Elevazione by Girolamo Frescobaldi on the Serassi organ (1850) in the Basilica of St. Andrea, Mantua.

The city of Ferrara holds an important position in Italy’s political and art history. The famous Este family was the patron of multiple artists including Giovanni Bellini. A large collection of paintings is displayed in the National Gallery of Palazzo dei Diamanti.

The Baroque Period & Scarlatti 

During the Baroque period, the harpsichord became the dominant keyboard instrument in Europe. The size is great for home (much smaller than the organ!) A large amount of harpsichord music in various styles including dance suites, Fantasia, and fugues were published during this period. Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757), an Italian composer who was born in Naples, is known for his 555 keyboard sonatas. Born in a family of musicians in Naples, the city actually named a commercial street (Via Alessandro Scarlatti) after Domenico’s renown musician father, Alessandro Scarlatti.

French harpsichordist Jean Rondeau performs Domenico Scarlatti’s mercurial Sonata K. 175 A Minor: Allegro.

As an Italian coastal city, Naples has already acquired its fame from the Neapolitan cuisines and sea food. A simple pasta with tomato and basil, the buffalo mozzarella, or the pizza are the most popular in Naples. Needless to say, those are the most traditional Italian food when one thinks of Italy!

Rossini and the Opera Festival

Photo by Walter Gregori on Flickr

How can we forget about operas when we talk about music in Italy? Gioachino Rossini (1792 ~ 1868), who was born into a musical family in Pesaro, is an Italian composer during the early development of operas. He created some of the most legendary operatic productions including “Barber of Seville.”

Music in Italy
A vocal performance by students of the Accademia Rossiniana “Alberto Zedda” at the balcony of Rossini’s birthplace in Pesaro, Italy during the Festival.
Photo Credit: Studio Amati Bacciardi 

Every summer, the city of Pesaro hosts the Rossini Opera Festival. The festival aims to revive, to perform on stage and to study the musical heritage connected with the composer. Since 1980, the festival has been hosting opera performances at various places in Pesaro, including the Rossini Theatre (Teatro Rossini). This Italian style theatre was built in 1637 and was re-built in 1818 in its present form and inaugurated by Rossini himself.

Rossini – “Un voco poco fa” from Barber of Seville, performed by Anna Moffo, Soprano

As a beautiful Italian coastal city, Pesaro is not very well-known to foreign travellers. The town offers a gorgeous stretch of beaches and landscapes, historical architecture, many restaurants and beach bars – A perfect little hideaway.

Guiseppe Verdi

The Emilia-Romagna region by Valter Cirillo on Pixabay

Another famous Italian opera composer would be Guiseppe Verdi (1813~1901), who had dominated the Italian opera scene by his 30s. Born in Le Roncole of the Emilia-Romagna region, Verdi spent his childhood and early teenage in Busseto before he moved to Milan. Today, Busseto is known as “The Land of Verdi” (terra di Verdi) and hosts annual Verdi Festival. His operas including La Traviata, Rigoletto, and Aida remain popular today.

The Cathedral of Parma by Valter Cirillo on Pixabay

In addition, Busseto is also close to Parma, a city that’s been considered as Italy’s gastronomic capital since Ancient Roman times. UNESCO has named Parma as the “Creative City for Gastronomy” in 2015. Some of the famous delicacies that came from Parma include Prosciutto di Parma, Parmesan cheese, balsamic vinegar, and tortelli.

Other nearby attractions include Castle of San Pietro in Cerro, Abbey of Chiaravalle della Colomba, and National Museum Giuseppe Verdi.

Verdi – ‘Brindisi’ (‘The Drinking Song’) from La Traviata.
Live at Glyndebourne Opera House, 2014.

Puccini &La Boheme

Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca by djedj on Pixabay

Love seems to be a reoccurring subject in Italian operas. Known as “the greatest composer of Italian opera after Verdi,” Giacomo Puccini (1858~1924)’s most famous works such as La Boheme (1896), Tosca (1900), Madama Butterfly (1904), and Turandot (1924) all revolve around romance. La Boheme tells the story of a love affair between a poor poet and an equally poor seamstress in 19th century Paris. The opera also drew inspiration from Puccini’s own life as a young man in Milan. 

Born in a musical family in Lucca of Tuscany Region, Puccini’s great-great-grandfather was the maestro di cappella of the Cattedrale di San Martino in Lucca, and the composer himself was a member of the boys’ choir and later as a substitute organist.

“Quando m’en vo’ soletta” from La Bohème, performed by Anna Netrebko soprano & the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Yuri Temirkanov.

Every year, there’s a month-long Puccini Festival held in Torre del Lago in July/August performing operas by the composer. 2019 will be its 65th year.

Luciano Pavarotti

Modena Cathedral by Ermanno Ferrarini on Pixabay

Born in Modena of Emilia-Romagna region, Luciano Pavarotti (1935~2007) was one of the most commercially successful operatic singers of all time. His final performance was “Nessun dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin.

During Pavarotti’s lifetime, he hosted annual charity concerts with his friends in Modena. His funeral was held at Modena Cathedral, a Roman Catholic Church that was built in 1184.
Pavarotti’s “Nessun Dorma” at 2006’s Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy.  

Today, Pavarotti’s home in Modena has been converted to a museum that houses the personal belongings and all things that are related to his legendary career.

In addition, Modena is the home of Enzo Ferrari, the legendary car maker.

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