The Teacher’s Corner : Making Sense of a Text that Just Doesn't Make Sense

Don’t ask me—ask a social historian—why convention gen-erally allows women to sing men’s texts, but forbids men to sing women’s texts. Stanislao Gastaldon’s famous song “Musica proibita” began to preoccupy me for this reason. Its narrator seems to me to be clearly a girl, yet this song has been a favorite of most celebrated tenors throughout opera history—many of whom were also among the most celebrated womanizers in opera history!

The frequently repeated “fact” that the song is an aria from Gastaldon’s Mala Pasqua! led me to read through the entire opera. The song is not there. Mala Pasqua! is based on the same Verga story as Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and was produced first. It did not, however, receive second prize in the Sonzogno competition won by Mascagni, as commonly believed.

“Musica proibita” was, in fact, composed in 1881 as Gastaldon’s Opus 5. Although the text was credited to “Flick e Flock,” both of these gentlemen were, it seems, the composer himself. The song was an immediate international success. I surmise that since the song belongs in many respects to that most inexact of categories, “Neapolitan” songs, and since these are generally male songs, tenors simply preempted it. Certainly, Caruso’s 1917 recording provided a precedent for later tenors.

The narrator of this song text is a girl who, from her balcony, has heard a handsome young man singing a serenade. (Is the serenade intended for her? The song does not absolutely commit itself.) “Mamma” forbids her daughter to sing the song, but the girl professes not to understand why and hastens to sing it to herself as soon as mamma leaves. “Vorrei baciar i tuoi capelli neri . . . ” (“I would like to kiss your black hair . . .”).

So how does a male singer performing this song reconcile this text? One option is to simply ignore the specific meaning, as well as the distinction between the narrator and the quotation of the serenader. But if a male singer chooses to respect the text, perhaps there are some better ways to rationalize it as a male text.

Let’s suppose that the narrator is an adolescent boy, reared by his domineering and protective mamma. The serenade, which the boy hears from his balcony, is addressed to a neighboring woman. The boy would like to emulate this dashing young man some day—sneaking around at night, singing songs of desire to beautiful women. Mamma is fully aware that the serenader is a heartless seducer and that her son admires him.

Naturally, mamma loathes hearing her son sing the song “Vorrei baciar” and forbids him to do it again. Her prohibition succeeds in adding the thrill of rebellion to the thrill of desire and, the moment she is out of the house, the boy resumes the forbidden song with fervid longing. (Mothers take note: Such injunctions are all too likely to produce such unintended consequences!)

If the text is to make sense, the narrator, whether male or female, must convey the awakening of desire in a naïve, youthful innocent. The song’s rich, interpretive markings can be helpful here. So rather than ignoring them or just dutifully observing them because they are there, try to infer why the composer wrote them.

The narrator begins simply, relating occurrences rather than expressing emotion (“Every evening below my balcony . . . ”). Thus, the composer requests that the singer begin the song quasi parlato, almost spoken—in other words, lightly and without full legato. Emotional expression follows shortly. The narrator goes on to say that upon hearing the serenader, her (or his) heart pounds. The double consonant “t” in the phrase “E battere mi sento forte il core” can be emphasized to suggest the beating of the narrator’s heart.

For the exclamation “O quanto è dolce questa melodia,” Gastaldon asks for a forte. This marking may not be an obvious choice, but it does not contradict the text. The narrator finds the overheard melody sweet, but his expressed enthusiasm for it need not be soft. The following phrase, by contrast, is marked piano.

In the passage beginning “Ch’io la canti . . . ,” the narrator expresses frustration at mamma’s prohibition and the music is marked più animato (more animated). Then, with the narrator’s further determination to rebel is the marking affrettando (rushed). The modulations in this passage disorient the listener’s sense of the song’s tonality, and the key of the serenade, although closely related to the original key, sounds fresh and surprising following this harmonic digression. (In fact, we have already heard the melody of this serenade in the song’s introduction. We may now infer that in this prelude, the melody’s abrupt termination results from mamma’s shutting the window.)

Gastaldon asks the singer to begin the serenade pianissimo più presto. The tenderness of the words might make the singer want to slow up rather than accelerate the tempo, but the marking suggests that the serenader is pressing his advances with breathless urgency. The passage rises to a fortissimo stentando in both voice and piano (stentando or stentato literally means “with difficulty”—therefore, heavily accented and slowed).

With the endearments “Oh, beautiful beloved—my treasure,” the accompaniment drops to pianissimo and the voice to sotto voce (whereas mezza voce indicates softness, sotto voce implies secretiveness—a tone of voice, not just a dynamic). What vocal effect is more erotic than the unexpected caress of the subito piano! Initially, the soft phrase may seem an anticlimactic ending to the serenade. We learn, however, that it is not finished but, rather, interrupted by the narrator’s interjection, “Qui sotto il vidi,” and then resumed. The singer can distinguish this interjection (“I saw the man singing only yesterday!”) from the serenade by delivering it quasi parlato as in the song’s opening—the narrator is again confiding in the audience.

The second half of the serenade begins the same way as the first, but ends with more fervent text and music. Instead of “I want to kiss your hair, lips, and eyes,” we now hear “Press me to your heart—make me experience the intoxication of love!” And this time, the voice rises to a fortissimo high A—an integral feature of the composition, not an interpolation. It would be hard to mistake the climactic nature of this passage but, just in case, Gastaldon marks the phrase con slancio. The best English equivalent might be “with oomph.” It has about the same meaning as the German mit Schwung or the French avec élan.

“Musica proibita,” as I learned, is not from Mala Pasqua! or any other opera. Nevertheless, it is more a scena than simply a song. It allows the singer to tell a story with three characters: an impressionable narrator, an ardent serenader (in quotation), and a mamma (lurking behind the scenes). No matter how many times I have heard it, I always find myself wondering how it will turn out.

Special thanks to Mascagni scholar Alan Mallach for help in discrediting common myths about Mala Pasqua!

Joseph Smith

Joseph Smith is a highly respected New York coach, particularly known for helping singers with difficult and unfamiliar scores.