If you’ve been paying attention to this blog (and if you haven’t, I forgive you), you’ll have noticed that the three teams yet to appear include one team in Sunday’s final, and one team who’ve made tomorrow’s third-placed playoff. So far, so good, but the third team haven’t been a part of the World Cup since the 24th of June, when they unceremoniously dumped out of the competition by Slovakia, having failed to win a single game or keep a single clean sheet (how shameful for the country that invented pragmatic, ultra-defensive football!). And yet, they are (for the next two days, at least) the reigning champions of the world.
Truthfully, the campaigns of 2006 and 2010 weren’t that far apart for Italy, at least from the eyes of the neutral. They didn’t thrill here, and didn’t have any star stand-outs, but then, they didn’t in 2006 either – in fact, their victory in that dull, dull final was a crushing blow to anybody that appreciates attractive attacking football (especially coming after Greece’s similarly bloody-minded win in Euro 2004). And yet they won. Of course they won – it is the Italian way. They are a country that historically comes out on top – the Roman Empire, Catholicism, the Renaissance, numerous examples in football – to the point where failure isn’t really considered as an eventuality until it’s already happened. Music is no different; it’s just another field where Italy have consistently been world leaders.
Italy’s pre-eminent musical genre is, of course, opera, a form they have always dominated despite the continued efforts of composers from other nations. (Remember the scene in Amadeus where Mozart suggests composing an opera in German and is almost laughed out of the room? That’s historically accurate.) They invented it, of course (‘opera’ being an Italian word, the plural of ‘opus’), but they were also the protagonists of just about every major trend aside from Meyerbeer’s grand opera and Wagner’s gesamtkunstwerk – bel canto, opera seria, verismo, opera buffa, azione sacra. The Italians are quite right to be as fiercely proud as they are of opera’s history, and any attempt to sum all of that up in just one YouTube video would be clearly mental, so rather than try, I’ll default to popular opinion. Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly is the most regularly performed opera in the world, and this is its defining moment.
Italian’s contributions to art music run further back into history than this, mind – you might be surprised to learn that “Greensleeves”, the world-famous English ballad, is actually a romanesca, a song form popularized in Rome, as you probably guessed. Two similar forms, for the Renaissance, were called passamezzo antico and passamezzo moderno; both always involved the same chord progression, one in a minor mode and one in a major mode, and had an improvised melody over the top of this repeating harmonic pattern. For the theory nerds out there, the progression is i-VII-i-V-III-VII-(i-V)-i for the minor or the comparatively boring I-IV-I-V-I-IV-(I-V)-I for the major. These important forms predate both chamber music and lieder, and had an influence on both.
Perhaps Italy’s most prestigious musician today continues in this art tradition – which is not such a shock in a country that seems uniquely resistant to popular music, reserving its deepest affection for Pavarotti and Bocelli and generally forcing its citizens to spend more time looking abroad than domestically for pop thrills. The man in question is Ennio Morricone, the most credible, respected, and revered composer of film music in the world right now, and probably of all time. He has composed works that bear no relation to films – and proven himself to be a bloody good composer in the process – but it is his legendary spaghetti western scores that have made him the legend that he is. Even if this theme below lifts heavily from Pachalbel, it’s still a gem.