• F. Milella

Welcome to the Sounding (Out) 19th-Century Italy blog. This is a platform to share research and ideas for scholars working on 19th-century Italian sonic cultures. If you’d like to contribute a post, please contact Francesca Vella (fv250@cam.ac.uk)

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  • F. Milella

By Marco Ladd

One of the many challenges that music in very early cinema poses to historians is the way it seems to fall between two metanarratives. It’s well known that cinema—as technology, as spectacle—emerged from a nineteenth-century fascination with optical illusions, and from experimentation with technologies that sought to capture and reproduce the work of the human sensorium. Still, taken as a whole, the birth of the cinematic medium is apt to be seen as the quintessential marker of advancing modernity: cinema is the “eye” of the twentieth century, as the film scholar Francesco Casetti puts it, not the nineteenth [1]. By contrast, the sounds that accompanied this marvel of a new age, at least in its first few decades (c. 1895–1925), are usually written of (and sometimes written off) as the residue of nineteenth-century culture. Scholars generally agree that the sonic profile of the earliest cinema was that of the entertainment spaces in which films were exhibited: old stalwarts such as the vaudeville theatre and the café-concert. And when cinema was eventually reconceptualised as a medium for telling stories, some 5–10 years after it had exploded onto the world stage, the musical accompaniment that it inspired drew heavily on various forms of musicalized theatre—melodrama and pantomime above all. Poised precariously at the cliff-edge of modernity, then, early cinema is a twentieth-century medium trailing nineteenth-century soundscapes along with it. Certainly, the notion that sounds were the embarrassing, unmodern layer of a sophisticated, modern, essentially visual cinematic spectacle persisted well into the new century.

With early film music, then, cinema seems to open a window onto nineteenth-century soundscapes. Or, conversely, those soundscapes seem to hold the key to understanding what music might have been like in the earliest film projections. But there is a sense in which this reciprocal promise of illumination is a work-around for the lack of sources attesting to the sounds of early exhibition. Knowing that early cinema in the U.S. found a home in the vaudeville show is not the same as having sources that tell us exactly what music was used, and how, and when. These problems are only magnified when we talk about the very earliest cinema, the years when the Lumière brothers exhibited their famous cinématographe to marvelling audiences across the globe. Take, for instance, their very first exhibition of the new technology for paying customers, which took place on December 28, 1895, at the Grand Café in Paris—symbolically the birth of cinema itself. Film music scholars have long known that a pianist named Emile Maraval was involved in this first series of Lumière exhibitions, if perhaps not the very first night. Maraval’s possible presence at this First Night of cinema is tantalizing, strengthening the claim that music—and sound more broadly—were integral to cinematic exhibition right from the get-go [2]. But as Julie Hubbert and James Wierzbicki have pointed out, we have no idea what Maraval played. Was he “accompanying” the short films while they were projected? Or playing between them? Or something else? As Wierzbicki notes, “it is at least within the realm of possibility that M. Maraval provided music simply to usher crowds in and out of the viewing room” [3].

Galleria Umberto I, Naples (c. 1890)

Similarly elusive are the earliest cinema exhibitions on the Italian peninsula. The cinématographe came to Italy early, just a few months after the first Parisian demonstration, in exhibitions sponsored by Lumière distributors and operators. Thus on March 12th, 1896, Lumière films were shown in Rome at the home of a renowned photographer; in Milan, it was March 29th, at a photography club [4]. And on March 30th, three months almost to the day after the first Grand Café soirée, the cinématographe was exhibited at the Salone Margherita in Naples. For music scholars, this is the most interesting of the three events, for the Salone Margherita was unequivocally a venue for musical performance: a café-chantant, to be exact, a type of establishment offering refreshment and entertainment that had emerged in Paris long before. In the late 1800s, Naples was the epicentre of an Italian belle-époque culture, in a distinctly Parisian mould. The Margherita, built at the very heart of the Galleria Umberto I (a new shopping arcade) had opened its doors in 1890 with the intention of emulating—and bettering—the fabled nightlife of Montmartre. Everything, from menus to billboards to the language of service, was in French; the venue was also one of the first in Italy to feature a chorus line of can-can dancers. It was a place where intellectuals, journalists, writers, poets, and songwriters mingled with aristocrats, industrialists, and the movers and shakers of society. Small wonder that it was one of the first to play host to the Lumières’ new-fangled moving pictures, then at the cutting edge of French culture.

Salone Margherita, Naples (first half of the 20th century)

Music, then, would certainly have been present in the Margherita on the evening of this first Lumière show. In fact, we know that at a showing just a few days later the cinématographe was sandwiched between acrobats and snake charmers, French music hall artists and German singers [5]. More broadly, the venue would have had a musical signature all of its own: for, in emulation of the French chanteuses whose sentimental ballads gave the café-chantant its characteristic sound, the Italian caffé-concerti (like the Margherita) bred their own, homegrown sciantose. Though the sciantose would have had a repertoire of popular song in Italian, they were also at the heart of a specifically Italian tradition then at the peak of its Golden Age: Neapolitan song. The origins of this musical tradition lay distantly in folk song, but its modern history had begun in 1833 with the founding of the yearly Piedigrotta song festival. Artistically sophisticated and commercially successful, by 1896 Neapolitan song was on the verge of becoming one of the mainstays of the early phonograph record industry. In a way, its trajectory correlates with that of the cinema, and the idea that the two art forms unfolded in parallel is an alluring one, nineteenth-century fixations being subsumed by twentieth-century pressures.

And yet, the gap remains: the gap between knowing something about the sonic environment of this singular Italian exhibition space, and identifying the effects that the Salone Margherita’s sounds may have had on the development of a characteristically cinematic mode of musical accompaniment a decade later. Filling that gap remains the challenge: one that will hopefully begin to be solved as scholars of Italian music and sonic cultures of the nineteenth century leave the seductive song and bright lights of the opera house, and step across the street—if only for one night—to the cabaret.


1. Francesco Casetti, Eye of the Century: Film, Experience, Modernity, trans. Erin Larkin with Jennifer Pranolo (New York, 2008).

2. Julie Hubbert, ed., Celluloid Symphonies: Texts and Contexts in Film Music History (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 2011), 2–3.

3. James Wierzbicki, “The Silent Screen, 1895–1924,” in Sound: Dialogue, Music, and Effects, ed. Kathryn Kalinak (New Brunswick, N.J., 2015), 15–36; esp. 18–19.

4. Aldo Bernardini, Cinema italiano delle origini: Gli ambulanti (Gemona, 2001), 10–14.

5. Giuliana Bruno, “Streetwalking around Plato’s Cave,” in Feminisms in the Cinema, ed. Laura Pietropaolo and Ada Testaferri (Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1995), 146–67.

Marco Ladd is a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, having previously studied at Yale University and the University of Cambridge. He is currently working on a book about film music in Italy during the silent era.

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Updated: Nov 21, 2019

By Jane Sylvester

In the midst of a decade-long stylistic crisis in the world of Italian opera, a young Giacomo Puccini emerged on the public scene in 1884 with Le Villi, a two-act opera-ballet detailing the haunted demise of an unfaithful man by way of the opera’s eponymously titled characters. ‘Le Villi’, or ‘The Willis’, were virgins who died of grief because of their lover’s betrayal. In their afterlife they became vindictive nymphs who haunted forests and preyed on men who crossed their paths at night, encircling their victims in bacchanal rounds until they died at their feet.

Libretto for the first staging of the two-act version of 'Le Villi' at Turin's Teatro Regio during the 1884-1885 Carnival-Lent Season. Courtesy of the Historical Archive of the Teatro Regio Torino, Alberto Testa Collection.

In Puccini’s opera, the Willis first manifest themselves through orchestral sound in the work’s two-part symphonic intermezzo, set between Acts I and II. In particular, the second part of this intermezzo, entitled ‘La Tregenda’, introduces the ghostly nymphs in a strangely visceral and gestural manner. Set in a brisk triple metre, ‘La Tregenda’ resembles a lively tarantella, a southern Italian folk dance typically performed by an ensemble of women. Traditionally, the tarantella is performed in a frenzied round, with at least one dancer playing the tambourine along with their supporting accompaniment. In Puccini’s take, aggressive brass lines contrast with lighter, buoyant melodies from the high woodwinds in clear, four-bar phrases, teetering on the edge of rooted balance and erotic pleasure. Characterised further by its fast, cyclical qualities, ‘La Tregenda’ emulates the motion of the dangerous ghostly Willis, as suggested by librettist Ferdinando Fontana’s scenic poetry.

While Italian audiences were enthusiastic about their rising operatic star, a number of critics took issue with Puccini due to the heavy-handed orchestral treatment of his villainous spectres. For them, ‘La Tregenda’ not only created an uneasy, sonic notion of the immaterial body, it also incited controversy about the increasingly prominent role of orchestral sound in the tradition of Italian opera. Though otherwise enthusiastic about Puccini’s work, Milan’s leading critic of the time, Filippo Filippi, wrote that ‘Puccini has an essentially symphonic nature, and … often abuses it, overloading the pedestal to the detriment of the statue’. Filippi voiced ongoing concerns about Puccini’s experimental treatment of the symphonic element, and appeared cautious towards the composer’s Germanic sonic leanings, particularly as his colourful orchestration overwhelmed the ‘statue’ of melody so central to the Italian operatic tradition.

For Filippi and other like-minded contemporary observers, Puccini’s heightened, sensorial treatment of the orchestra was reminiscent of Wagner—or, at the very least, of the more radical Italian scapigliati. While later defending Puccini’s Italianness in the opera, a critic from Lucca poked fun at ‘La Tregenda’ for evoking the wrong kind of ghost: not the nymphal spectres soon to emerge in Act II, but instead the phantom of the (recently dead) German composer. This writer argued: ‘the Wagnerian ghost sometimes peeks out, and there is a point in which, rather than [envisioning] the Willis turning furiously, one would believe they had seen the furious “Ride of the Valkyrie”’. While enthusiastic about Puccini’s potential, Verdi, too, was concerned about the young composer’s robust orchestration. In a letter to Count Opprandino Arrivabene, he outcried: “it seems that the symphonic element predominates in him! No harm in that. But here we should go carefully. Opera is opera and symphony is symphony, and I don’t think that in an opera it’s a good idea to write a symphonic piece merely for the pleasure of making the orchestra dance’.

While Verdi found Puccini’s symphonic tendencies indulgent, others welcomed his orchestral stylings in ‘La Tregenda’. A critic from the prominent periodical, the Gazzetta musicale di Milano, celebrated the interlude’s resemblance to Wagnerian music dramas, praising ‘La Tregenda’ as a promising and necessary step towards defining the future of Italian opera. ‘Even in popular theatres’, he observed, ‘the old conventionalism of Italian melodrama is ruined … The ever increasing symphonic concerts cannot fail to have a huge influence on the fate of musical theater … The libretto is about to change into a poem, as the melodrama is about to change into a great symphony represented on the scene’. Other critics similarly received Puccini’s abstract take on melodramatic expression as a welcome novelty. Antonio Gramola, for example, praised the interlude for its ‘fresh’ ideas of sensory ‘fantasy’— a seeming novelty on the Italian operatic stage. Aminatore Galli celebrated the work’s ability to ‘bewitch’ the listener with its ‘acoustic colors’.

In all, this boisterous intermezzo not only roused anxiety about the variable position of sound and materiality within the tradition of Italian opera, but spoke to contemporary pseudoscientific practices that were influencing sensory modes of perception. Specifically, the rise of spiritualism prompted a new obsession with representing ghostly and spiritual bodies in a quantifiable, even palpable manner. At its height in the mid-to-late nineteenth century, spiritualism functioned as a form of bourgeois amusement, a religious practice and a discipline of scientific investigation. As early as 1848, spiritualist performers and mediums held public shows and séances to channel spirits. In such settings, draped cloths and dim lighting obscured concrete images or sounds, while percussive tapping, vocalizations and instrumental sounds played from veiled distances, giving the impression that supernatural forces played of their own accord.

'Record of the several phases of a jump' (1886). Photograph by Étienne-Jules Marey utilizing rapid exposure to record the body’s imperceptible motion. This image features a ghostly figure in the forefront, alluding to the imperceptible, even invisible nature of the body’s most intricate movements.

Machines and gadgets became crucial tools for scientifically-inclined spiritualists to document imperceptible expressions of the body and of material objects. The intervention of photography—a medium understood for its transparency in the nineteenth century—was a critical tool for spiritualism’s crossover from the entertainment industry into genuine scientific study. Achieved through techniques such as double exposure, superimposition, and staging scenes with levitating props and mysterious figures, spirit photography rendered the invisible world perceptible to the naked eye of mass consumers and intellectuals alike.

Evident in the photographic and mechanic innovations of Eadweard Muybridge and Étienne-Jules Marey, these new modes of sensory and bodily documentation captured intangible sources of movement and life. Muybridge, best known for his chronographic images of human gesture and animal motion, captured the intricacies of movement that were imperceptible to the eye in real time. In his 1886-87 movement study, Marey recorded the impact of physical sensations on objects, including, among others, the impact of air on inanimate objects. Enlivening both the living and inanimate beyond what the naked eye could see, Muybridge and Marey’s photographic studies cataloged various forces acting on and around the body, forming an inscriptive mode to analyze the body in space and time.

Considering such innovations in light of Puccini’s unsettling intermezzo, we might understand the young composer’s robust orchestral treatment of his ghostly nymphs as a nod to these modern aspirations to perceive invisible sensations. Key to contemporary spiritualist practice was the play of immaterial authority (through nebulous imagery or sound) over material space, an idea explored to controversial effect in ‘La Tregenda’. Whether sceptical or celebratory towards the resultant sounds of this intermezzo, Puccini’s critics uniformly gestured towards a turning point for Italian opera, particularly in respect to its sonic treatment of the body. For Filippi and Verdi, Puccini’s heavy-handed symphonic writing frustrated the conventional balance of the senses in the musical-theatrical genre: the orchestral interludes tempted the ear to the detriment of the eye, a misstep in a musical tradition rooted in the material and the visual. Others, like Gramola and Galli, were enchanted by Puccini’s fantastical evocation of the ghostly nymphs.

Puccini’s orchestral dance not only preemptively articulates the Willis’ powerful, gestural bodies through sound, but furthermore projects their influence in a sensational fashion that transcends voice and materiality before they appear in the following scene of Act II. In an operatic tradition long celebrated for its melodies—sung by real, humanly bodies rather than supernatural or spectral sources—Puccini’s elusively sensorial treatment of the Willis in this interlude triggered caution and excitement towards bodies heard and affectively felt, but not yet seen. Like the technologies and practices of spiritualism, we might hear Puccini’s intermezzo as an experimental enlivening of the senses beyond their conventional or even objective capacity, rendering invisible bodies, sensations, and narratives perceptible to his audiences.

Jane Sylvester is a PhD candidate in Musicology at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. Her current research considers the sociocultural conditions underlying verismo opera’s celebrated bodily realism by tracing the genre’s indebtedness to contemporary scientific and pseudoscientific disciplines, including criminology, hypnosis, forensics, and spiritualism.

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