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MUSIC

CLASSICAL MUSIC & OPERA

The Italians have played a pivotal role in the history of music: they invented the system of musical notation in use today, a 16th-century Venetian printed the first musical scores, Stradivari (Stradivarius) and others produced violins in Cremona and Italy is the birthplace of the piano.

The 16th century brought a musical revolution with the development of opera, which began as an attempt to recreate the drama of ancient Greece. One of the earliest successful composers in this genre, Claudio Monteverdi (c.1567-1643), drew from a variety of sources.

In the 17th and early 18th centuries, instrumental music became established, helped by the concertos of Archangelo Corelli (1653-1713) and Antonio Vivaldi (1675-1741). Vivaldi, whose best-known work is Le Quattro Stagioni (The Four Seasons), created the concerto in its present form while he was teaching in Venice. Domenico Scarlatti (1685-1757) wrote more than 500 sonatas for harpsichord and Giovanni Battista Sammartini )1700-75) experimented with the symphony.

Verdi (1813-1901), Puccini (1858-1924), Bellini (1801-1835), Donizetti (1797-1848) and Rossini (1792-1868) are all stars of the modern operatic era. Giuseppe Verdi became an icon midway through his life; his achievements include Aida and one of the most popular operas of all, La Traviata. Rossini's Barber of Seville is an enduring favourite with a lively score andMadame Butterfly ensures Puccini a firm place in musical history.

The composer Gian Carlo Menotti (born 1911) is famed for creating the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of Two Worlds;) at Spoleto in Umbria. In addition to his operas, written in English (he has lived most of his life in the USA), he has also written many ballets.

One of the greatest conductors of the past two centuries was, with little doubt, Italy's Arturo Toscanini (1867-1957).

CLASSICAL MUSIC & OPERA TODAY

The main opera season in Italy runs from December to June, The country's premier opera houses include La Scala in Milan, San Carlo in Naples, the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome and La Fenice (closed at the time of writing) in Venice. With restorations partially completed, Sicily's prestigious Teatro Msimo in Palermo is back in action.

The tenor Lucio Pavarotti was today's luminary of Italian opera, although the remarkable blind tenor Andrea Bocelli (born 1958), who has done some mixing and matching and even managed to make the pop charts is seen by some critics as Pavarotti's natural successor. Meanwhile Cecilia Bartolli (born 1966) has been making great strides as Italy's latest mezzo-soprano sensation.

Among the country's leading conductors, Naples-born Riccardo Muti (born 1941) has a distinguished career behind him both at hone and abroad, Since 1986 he has been musical director at La Scala in Milan and continues to tour widely across Europe and the USA, He is equally at home conducting opera or symphonic music. Claudio Abbado (born 1933) comes from a long line of Milanese musicians. He has been the main conductor for some of the most prestigious orchestras in the world, including the Berlin Philharmonic and the London Symphony Orchestra, and has been musical director of the Vienna State Opera.

CANZONE NAPOLETANA

If a great many rock and pop greats in the English-speaking world have their roots in the blues tradition Italian popular music has much the same relation to to the canzone Napoletana(Neapolitan song).

By the late 18th century, an annual pilgrimage in September to the Chiesa di Santa Maria di Piedigrotta in Pozzuoli had become an accasion for merriment and song. At a time when the Neapolitan dialect had the status of a language in its own right, bands played in impromptu competitions that soon began to produce with could be considered the year's top hits. In 1840 came the first real classic, Te Voglio Bene Assaje, a song that remains enshrined in the city's musical imagination. But surely the best-known Neapolitan song is O Sole Mio.

CONTEMPORARY MUSIC

Few modern Italian singers or groups have made any impact outside Italy. Probably the best vocalist to emerge since WWII is Mina who cut dozens of records during the 1960s. Many of her songs were written by Giulio Rapetti, better known as Mogol, the undisputed king of Italian songwriters.

The 1960s and 1970s produced various cantautori (singer-songwriters) who were vaguely reminiscent of some of the greats of the UK and USA. Lucio Dalla, Vasco Rossi and Pino Daniele have been successfully hawking their own versions of protest music since the early 1970s. While they are not of the stature of, say, Bob Dylan, the strength of their music lies in lyrics - occasionally laced with venom - portraying the shortcomings of modern Italian society. Daniele, whose Neapolitan roots are clearly on display, brings an unmistakably bluesy flavour to his music.

Lucio Battisti's material is much softer and less inclined towards social comment but has been highly popular since the end of the 1960s. Some of the early stuff (the classics) may make your hair stand on end (very 1970s).

Ivano Fossati is another well-established singer-songwriter but some of his most agreeable material is surely instrumental.

Zucchero (Adelmo Fornaciari) is a phenomenon on the Italian music scene. Starting out as a session musician with the likes of Joe Cocker, he has aimed at both the Italian and international market in a way few other Italians have; he sings many of his songs in Italian and English.

Other classic names to look out for include  Luca Carboni, Francesco de Gregori, Antonello Venditti and Franco Battiato, A much rockier sound comes from Vasco Rossi, still a big concert draw.

The grand public face of Italian pop is the annual San Remo songfest in February, but most would agree that the veteran performers and new hopefuls who appear at this glitzy spectacle are not always of the best quality.

As well as these die-hard melody-makers, a whole jungle of new bands ranging from rock to punk to hip-hop has thrived in Italy over the past few years, Litfiba is a high-profile indie Florentine duo that has been around since the 1990s. Ligabue is more of a straight roc band with a big following.

Jovanotti's lyrics are thought-provoking and make him the top exponent of rap in Italy - and one of the most fun and challenging of Italy's contemporary musos. For truly demented lyrics (such as the song dedicated to John Holmes, the deceased American porn star renowned for his genitalia), check out the band Elio e Le Sorie Tese.

One of the most popular female singers of the moment is the Tuscan Irene Grandi.

CINEMA

Born in Turin in 1904, the Italian film industry finally made an impression with silent spectaculars. By 1930 it was virtually bankrupt and Mussolini began moves to nationalise the industry. These culminated in 1940, when Rome's version of Hollywood, Cinecitta', was ceded to the state. Set up in 1937, this huge complex was fitted out with the latest equipment. Half the nation's production took place here- 85 films in 1940 alone. Star

Stars of the Screen
In his brief six-year career, Rudolph Valentino (actually Rodolfo Pietro Filiperto Guglielmi; 1895-1926) took Hollywood by storm in the silent movie era. His 10 films remain classics, just as his own was a classical American success tale. Born in Apulia, he migrated to the USA at 18 in search of fortune; after working as a waiter and professional dance partner he was "discovered".

Among Italy's greatest actors since WWII was Marcello Mastroianni (1924-1996), who starred in La Dolce Vita and countless other films, including Robert Altman's Prt--Porter.Vittorio Gassmann (1922-2000) was of similar stature in Italy but less acclaimed outside his homeland. One of his last film appearances was as a New York gangland boss in the American flick Sleepers (1996). Other notable Italian thespians include Anna Magnani (1908-73), who won an Academy Award for The Rose Tatoo, Gina Lollobrigida (born 1927), best know for Go Naked in the World and Come September, and, of course, Sophia Loren (born 1934, whose innumerable films include It Started in Naples, Houseboat and Boy on a Dolphin.

Following in the steps of Loren, Isabella Rossellini (born 1952), film director Roberto Rossellini's daughter, has carved out a career for herself in Hollywood. She came to particular attention with her role in David Lynch's disturbing 1986 film, Blue Velvet, but has appeared in many other films.

For a long time Toto' (1898-1967) was the undisputed king of film comedy. Until his death, Toto' was for Italy what Chaplin became internationally. That he never achieved similar recognition can perhaps be attributed to the special appeal for Italian audiences of his quick Neapolitan wit, the kind of thing that does not translate well.

Who, however, has not seen at last one spaghetti western with 160kg Bud Spencer and his tin, blue-eyed counterpart Terence Hill? The names are pseudonyms -   these cowboys are all-Italian. From 1970, when They Called Him Trinity was released, until 1986, they kept Italy and much of the rest of the world in stitches with their version of how the West was won.

The contemporary scene has thrown up few actors of international stature but there are some names to watch. Massimo Troisi (1953-1994) brought a striking human  touch to his characters, who where nearly always Neapolitan. His greatest legacy was his starring role in Il Postino (The Postman; 1995)), the story of Pablo Neruda's exile from Chile to a southern Italian town.

One who has occasionally appeared out of the Italian context is Roberto Benigni (born 1952), a  highly popular Tuscan comedian. Long established as one of Italy's favourite comedic actors, he must be the first director to try to get a laugh out of the Holocaust - and succeed. He picked up three Oscars in 1999, including that for best actor - an honour rarely bestowed by Hollywood upon anyone but its own - for his La Vita e' bella (Life is Beautiful; 1998). Benigni was already known  to cinema-goers outside Italy for his appearances in Jim Jarmusch's Down by Law and Night on Earth.

Two Mediterranean beauties who started as models before branching into film in the past few years are the Umbrian Moncia Bellucci and Sicily's Maria Grazia Cucinotta. Both were born in 1968 and it remains to be seen what acting heights they can scale. Bellucci has appeared in 20-odd films, of which the latest was Giuseppe Tornatore's Malena. With barely a line in this uneven movie, she relies heavily on her beauty (to which the picture seems dedicated). Cucinotta's most serious cinematic moment came with her role in Il Postino.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Italy's answer to Chaplin: Toto'

 

Abandoned later in the war, Cinecitta' only went timidly back into  action in 1948 - its absence had not bothered the first of Italy's neo-realist directors anyway. In 1950 an American team arrived to make Quo Vadis? and for the rest of the 1950s film-makers from Italy and abroad moved in to use the site's huge lots. By the early 1960s, however, this symbol of Italian cinema had again begun to wane as location shooting become more common.

The Italian version of the Oscars, the David awards, were instituted in 1955 and continue to be a barometer for Italian film-making.

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