In the eastern valleys of the Gran Sasso Mountain the folk songs are sung in different ways and with different melodies, the so-called arias. They can be sung for dancing or field work, accompanying the instruments and rhythms of dance or the strenuous movements under the spring and summer sun, the rains and the first chills of autumn. Among wheat and flax, corn, grapes and olives, the teams of men and women of the last century expressed their emotions and feelings in the first person in song, in a chain sequence of lines and verses arising from the interaction between the peasant singers and their desire to communicate, from dawn till dusk: “and now the sun goes down, rondinelle rondilà, where do the swallows land, rondinelle rondilà”.
In the community of Arsita, a village in the Alta Valle del Fino not far from Monte Camicia, the teams of men and women sang during the work in the countryside, carried out largely by hand or with the help of only animal traction before the mechanization of agriculture. While they laboured in the fields, singing was an instrument of dialogue, of conflict and easing of tension in social relationships; it was used to alleviate the fatigue and make the work less heavy, also thanks to the movements of the body which became synchronised with the rhythmic beats of the songs.
The repertoires of songs linked to agricultural work are some of the oldest and most deeply ingrained in people’s memories, although they have not been used for at least forty years. They are also the songs that show the most archaic musical elements, among those still widespread and remembered in the rural communities of the central Apennines.
The annual agricultural cycle provided a succession of jobs in the countryside: they began in the spring with the weeding of the wheat fields and continued in July with the reaping then the processing of the flax, then in September there was the corn shucking and the grape harvest and in November and December the olive picking. “All these occasions,” says the ethnomusicologist Marco Magistrali who has studied them extensively, “were associated with a specific way of singing and each district or family even used a different melody; the season of every job is characterized in the memory of the old people by a precise singing mode and vice versa.”
In the territory of Arsita the arias for the weeding of the wheat fields were sung while the wild plants were pulled out by hand in the warm spring months, and they took two main forms: songs in hendecasyllables, or in lines of seven or eight syllables organized into verses and refrains, characterized by repetition and alternating singing. On the other hand, when processing flax, after harvesting and soaking the plants in the river then breaking the woody stalk using the so-called trocchë tool, the finishing stage was accompanied by song, supported by the rhythmic and cadenced beat of the macinnë tool.
The ditties created for the work songs are, therefore, designed to be sung outdoors, by a singer with a particularly strong and powerful voice, who makes extensive use of the resonances of the head and facial cavities. “Knowing how to sing these sturnillë, also called canzunë,” says Magistrali, “means not only knowing many of them and using them at the right time but also knowing how to modulate the voice, enriching the musical mode pattern with embellishments and lengthening breathing through the appoggio technique in order to project the voice efficiently.”
WATCH THE VIDEO
Lavinia Zecchini and Adele Di Marcoberardino sing some reaping songs at the “Valfino al Canto” festival.
Arsita (TE), August 10, 2005.
Video footage by Davide Pirri,
Altofino Association Archive.
Cultural transmission and preservation
As the methods of agricultural work and its specific social relationships changed radically in the second half of the twentieth century, these songs are no longer practiced or learned by younger generations. They make up a repertoire practiced in the past especially by the women of Arsita, who have recently contributed, in the framework of multi-year research projects funded by the Abruzzo Region and supported on site by the Municipality of Arsita, the Altofino Association and the Pro-loco of Arsita, to keeping memory alive with recording sessions and participation in numerous meetings and events. The research, conducted by the ethnomusicologists Marco Magistrali and Carlo Di Silvestre, has led to the publication of CDs, the creation of the Valfino al Canto festival (co-directed from 2003 to 2013 together with the anthropologist Gianfranco Spitilli) – which these old women have taken part in many times – and the organization of school workshops and seminars. In 2007, Marco Magistrali, Filippo Marranci and Gianfranco Spitilli curated an exhibition coordinated by the Altofino Association and funded by the European Union with the collaboration of GAL Appennino Teramano. It made extensive use of unreleased recordings of the repertoire of agricultural work songs, which visitors could access independently at the listening station.
In this way, Adele and Lilla Di Marcoberardino, Carmela Rubini, Quintina Lanari, Donatina Ciafardone, Maria Icaro, Annina Di Bernardo and Lavinia Zecchini, most of whom have now passed away, were able to hand down to future generations at least a part of their rich repertoire. These old women from Arsita also occasionally sang together with younger singers from further afield. Among the many songs that used to be well-known and often performed in the countryside, the most famous is Jë vulessë ca scessë la lunë, a ritual song linked to the paraliturgical repertoire of Holy Week but often sung in the Alto Fino valley in different contexts, with a narrative function and the specific form of the polyvocal repertoire of agricultural work in which two melodic lines, lu addë and lu bbassë, are lengthened at the end of each line of the song by suspending the rhythmic pulsation given by the syllables, thus creating an evocative and prolonged sound mix.