Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry Feb. 2003
CONTAINS AUDIO                          
Funiculì-Funiculà,  music (4)              Listen to it first!

Everyone has had the experience of being obsessed with and possessed by a melody. It takes you completely unawares—most likely a little jingle that somehow slipped down behind the sofa cushions of your mind once upon a time and now, responding to the call of the mysterious Heavenly Hoover, is sucked up unbidden and unwelcome into your consciousness. Suddenly you're helpless. You have no control over your own brain. A diabolical zombie tunesmith is throwing the switches of your limbic system, gleefully rerouting the same melody over and over and over, turning your noggin from the crowning achievement of God's Creation into a useless carousel, wearing grooves in your head and wasting valuable synaptic connections that could be better spent trying to remember important things such as the molecular structure of testosterone, for example. 

It is not clear exactly what it is that gives a tune that ability to move in with you as wholeheartedly as your in–laws and take over so completely, but the rhythms of some songs seem to be specially crafted for it. Lilting little waltzes like Ach, Du Lieber Augustine, for example. 

DUM dee duh duh / DUM duh dum /DUM duh dum / DUM duh dum 
DUM dee duh duh / DUM duh dum /DUM duh dum / DUM !

Next on the all–time list of songs you'll need an exorcist to get rid of happens to be one of the national anthems of Naples. Unlike many Neapolitan songs that dwell on unrequited love or warm evenings spent trying to find the requited kind, Funiculì Funiculà is a snappy happy little march about going up the side of a volcano. Almost everyone knows the melody and at least some version of the lyrics, many of which were written by sniggering boy–scouts when they should have been practicing their knots and are, therefore, quite unrepeatable around high class folks like yourselves, so forget it. 

In 1880, a cable–car, or funicular railway, was opened on the slopes of Vesuvius; for the occasion, Giuseppe Turco, a noted journalist of the day, and Luigi Danza turned out the lyrics and melody, respectively. The melody opens on a lively fanfare interval of a fourth: ta–taah! and then carries on. The text in the original Neapolitan dialect starts:

"Aissera, Nanninè, me ne sagliette/ tu saie addò! / tu saie addò!
Addò sto core 'ngrato chiu dispiette/ farme nun pò/ farme nun pò/"

Now the verse does speak of escaping up the slopes of Vesuvius to get away from "your ungrateful heart" (it wouldn't be a Neapolitan song without at least lip service to the doctrine of faithlessness), but the real ambush comes a few measures later when that famous refrain starts playing raquetball against the inside of your skull:

"JAMmo, JAMmo, 'nCOPpa jammo JA…/ 
JAMmo, JAMmo, 'nCOPpa jammo JA…/ 
FunicuLI FunicuLA FunicuLI FunicuLAAAA/ 
'nCOPpa jammo JA… FunicuLI FunicuLAAAAAA!"

What this means (in a feeble attempt to show that profundity is in inverse proportion to the square of obsessiveness) is: 

"LET'S go, LET'S go, LET'S go to the TOP!"

It works perfectly. Boy, does it ever. This is the refrain that took the 1880's crowd by storm, hereabouts. When the funicular started its regular runs up to the top ("'ncoppa") of Mt. Vesuvius, one imagines hordes of volcano berserkers hanging out the windows, denting the downbeats into the sides of the carriages and bellowing "DAAAH–dum DAAAH–dum", winding up on the inspired open–throated nonsense syllable, "LAAAA!" with an obsessive ferocity that makes one absolutely nostalgic for the enchanting strains of "A Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall". And unlike the titanic battle that Mr. Nasenbaum in Beginning Physics swore would shape up at encounters of this nature, when the irresistible trochaic force of this song meets the immovable object of your head, it ain't even close. You get hammered. Undoubtedly, Neapolitan mothers in the 1880's spent much of their time shouting: "Will you kids shut up with that song!" (Or was it: "SHUT up, SHUT up, SHUT up with that SONG! Damn! Now you've got me doing it!") 

They're still doing it. And so are the rest of us. I heard it again the other day and now it's up there, riding the cable–car in my head, going round and round. The original cable–car, by the way, has been dismantled. It had been having its ups and downs over the years. There is some talk of rebuilding it. I can't wait. 

CAN'T wait / CAN'T wait. 


[update-2010. Actually, there IS some talk of rebuilding it. Here is one plan.]

[Here are the texts in dialect to a number of Neapolitan songs. On that page, as of June 2013, there are some recorded excerpts, including Funiculì Funiculà, performed by Roberto Murolo.]

Finally, Funiculì Funiculà has been used by some classical composers over the years, including Schoenberg, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Richard Strauss. Schoenberg acknowledged the composer, Denza, clearly labeling his string quartet version as an arrangement or orchestration. Rimsky-Korsakov and Strauss, on the other hand, apparently thought they were using a folk song, uncopyrighted or at least in the public domain. Rimsky-Korsakov entitled his version "Neapolitan Song" and Strauss incorporated his version into an orchestral composition called Aus Italien (From Italy). Maybe they both thought they had another Capricco Italiano on their hands. That composition by R-K's countryman, Tchaikovsky, from 1880, indeed uses a number of "free" items, such as an Italian army bugle call, the Roman folksong known as Papà non vuole, Mamma ne meno, and a well-known but public domain Neapolitan tarantella. Denza sued Strauss over the latter's use of Funiculì Funiculà and won. I am not aware that Denza sued Rimsky-Korsakov.

[Also see, Copyright Laws that Make your Head Hurt.]

[Also see this item on the connection of the Vesuvius cable-car to the travel agency of Thomas Cook & Son.]

             to music portal          to top of this page

© 2002 - 2023