“VILLANELLA” (1850s)

The Rural Folk Music of Southern Italy and Peasant Life in Feudal Italy

The villanella was traditionally a simple, strophic song that “originated in Naples and hence was also called villanella alla napoletana.” (britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/629118/villanella).

Many published works mistakenly claim that the strict modern form of the villanelle originated with the medieval troubadours, but in fact medieval and Renaissance villanelles were simple ballad-like songs with no fixed form or length. Such songs were associated with the country and sung by farmers and shepherds, in contrast to the more complex madrigals associated with sophisticated city and court life. The French word villanelle comes from the Italian word villanella, which derives from the Latin villa (farm) and villano (farmhand); to any poet before the mid-nineteenth century, the word villanelle or villanella would have simply meant ‘country song,’ with no particular form implied. The modern nineteen-line dual-refrain form of the villanelle derives from nineteenth-century admiration of the only Renaissance poem in that form—a poem about a turtledove by Jean Passerat (1534–1602) entitled ‘Villanelle.’


During the 1850s, when the “Risorgimento” project’s “Villanella” is set, rural southern Italy was desperately poor. After visiting Italy, French writer Alexander Dumas wrote that he could not understand how the aristocracy could treat its dogs better than its people (Picchione 2010). With abysmal living and health conditions, mortality rates were very high. Below are statistics from 1861 comparing mortality rates between European countries, of which Italy is second-last.

Table 4.2 Birth and death rates per 1,000 inhabitants in some European countries, 1861 and 1913

                                                            1861                                        1913             
Country                           Births           Deaths           Births          Deaths
Sweden                                32.6                 18.5                  23.2                13.7
UK                                           34.6                 21.6                 24.1                13.8
France                                  26.9                 23.2                 18.8                 17.7
Low Countries              33.0                 23.9                 28.2                 12.3
Germany                            35.7                 25.6                 27.5                 15.0
Spain                                     39.0                 29.8                 30.6                 22.3
Austria                                 37.4                 30.8                 29.7                 20.3
Italy                              38.0              30.9              31.7              18.7
Russia                                    49.7                 35.4                 43.1                 27.4

Source: B.R. Mitchell, European Historical Statistics, London: Macmillan, 1978, pp. 20-31. (Tonioli 27)

Labourers who slaved in the landowner’s fields died from the most inane of illnesses as a result of exhaustion, malnourishment, and lack of medical attention. Pregnant women, new mothers, children, the elderly, and the sick were not exempt from long days of hard labour. Poverty and despair resulted in deep-seated resentments and resignation.

In “Villanella” in the “Risorgimento” song cycle, the story is of a young peasant girl. The text is left ambiguous as to whether her community is preparing for her modest wedding or her funeral. A wedding would have been very basic, with perhaps a veil passed down from one family member to the next, and fellow peasants able to offer modest gifts of bread or a ride in a horse cart. However, it could also be a young girl who has died from disease, or a young mother deceased from, perhaps, pregnancy complications. The “little bride” covered in a “veil” in her “springtime” for a bed of “hay and flowers” with community’s “empty hands” and “full hearts” and the women (madonne) praying. These are images open to either a celebratory or sombre interpretation. While these humble preparations take place, in the distance the landowner’s carriage passes with his own daughter celebrating the same undisclosed ritual as the peasant girl. The Landowner’s procession, however, is lavish and paraded before the peasants who go about their preparations making do with only the bare minimum of everyday items.

The text structure of the villanelle intertwines rhyming lines in a particular fashion. With nineteen lines in total, a villanelle is comprised of two refrains that alternate with two lines of text in between each refrain, save the verse following the first refrain and the last two lines where the first refrain is immediately followed by the second. An example below is an English villanelle by poet Edward Arlington Robinson.

First refrain
Second refrain
First rhyming scheme
Second rhyming scheme

1 a – 1st refrain              Since Persia fell at Marathon
2 b                                          The yellow years have gathered fast
3 – a – 2nd refrain         Long centuries have come and gone.
4 – a                                        And yet (they say) the place will don
5 – b                                        A phantom fury of the past,
6 – a – 1st refrain           Since Persia fell at Marathon
7 – a                                        And as of old when Helicon
8 – b                                        Trembled and swayed with rapture vast
9 – a – 2nd refrain          Long centuries have come and gone.
10 – a                                      The ancient plain, when nigh comes on,
11 – b                                     Shakes to a ghostly battle blast,
12 – a – 1st refrain        Since Persia fell at Marathon
13 – a                                      But into soundless Acheron
14 – b                                     The glory of Greek shame was cast:
15 – a – 2nd refrain      Long centuries have come and gone,
16 – a                                     The suns of hellas have all shone,
17 – b                                     The first has fallen to the last;–
18 – a – 1st refrain        Since Persia fell at Marathon
19 – a – 2nd refrain      Long centuries have come and gone.


The villanella rhyming scheme needed to work well with a simple, repetitive folk accompaniment in the style of the early, rural villanella. Because of this, the strict form appropriated by the French villanelle in the nineteenth century did not fully satisfy the natural and flexible rhyming scheme needed for the villanella. In the “Villanella” composition, the first nineteen lines follow the above villanelle scheme in large part with the exception of a second refrain. After the nineteenth line, the text is set in Spanish, depicting the Spanish Bourbon aristocrats, but returns to the Italian text as though the royal procession is fading away into the distance. The text following the first nineteen lines, and the Spanish verse, do not follow the nineteenth century villanelle rhythmic pattern as closely as the first section, allowing for more flexibility in the final section.

The music in this piece is typical of southern Italian folk music and of the villanella, which have very limited harmonic movement in the accompaniment, a more florid vocal line often embellished by the singer, and often improvised text. The vocal line in “Villanella” is written as though improvised with phrases that sometimes stretch beyond the common four measure phrases. In the Spanish section, however, the rustic accompaniment gives way to a more refined, lute-like guitar style forgoing the rustic Italian accompaniment. In the context of the simple song the short 3/4 section bears a modest air of sophistication. The vocal line too is more elegant while including the characteristic Spanish b2 (as in the Phrygian scale commonly used in flamenco music) on the Spanish exclamatory word “Ay” as well as the Andalusian cadence iv-III-bII-I (or i-VII-VI-V – Dm, C, Bb, A) as well. The Spanish “Ay” on the dissonant b2 resolves on the Italian exclamatory word “Aimé.” As the “little king” and his princess trot off in their carriage, the royals fade away in the distance, the music returns to the rustic accompaniment and so too does the text return to the reality of the peasants. In the end, the only fanfare left to the peasant girl’s sacramental right of passage is a chorus of crickets.

The purpose of the “Villanella” in “Risorgimento” is to show the difficult living conditions of the average Italian worker living under the elite class, and to provide a context for the events that follow.

Cultural references in “Villanella” are:
1Re minor”: meaning D minor key or a “little” king or a “king of little,” of minor importance.
2 “infante”: (Italian) a lower rank in the royal hierarchy – also means “infant” or “young.”
3“Ecce Homo (Latin) said by Pontius Pilate to a riled crowd as he presents a beaten and degraded Christ. John 19:5 (classic.net.bible.org/dictionary.php?word=Ecce%20Homo).
4 “peste”: (Italian) could mean plague or pests.
5 “saltarello”: a folk dance and kind of folk music from the Abruzzo region.
6 “stornelli”: a strophic folk song with very florid singing style using improvised texts sung over a very simple accompaniment.

“Villanella” – Text, Translation and Rhyming Scheme

Refrain – word to mark the beginning and end of verses.
First rhyming scheme
Second rhyming scheme
Internal rhymes

(Italian)                                                      (English translation)
1 – a -1st refrain  Lillallera,   Lillellera
2 – b        Marietta in bianco stasera      Marietta in white tonight
3 – a        Fiocco nero, tralallero                Black bow, tralallero
4 – a       Piccola sposa sotto il velo       Tiny bride under the veil
5 – b      in primavera                                     in (her) springtime
6 – a-1st refrain  Lillallero, lillallera.

7 – a -1st refrain  LillaroneLillarone,
8 – b       nella brezza sua canzone         in the breeze, is her song
9 – a        Pane e vino, il pastore              bread and wine, the shepherd
10 – a    Mare e sale, il pescatore           sea and salt, the fisherman
11 – b   per il Re minore1, infante2 padrone  for the little king, infant master
12 – a – 1st refrain      lillarone lillarone.

13 – a – 1st refrain      Lilleranno, Lilleranno
14 – b    Le madonne mormorando              the madonnas murmer
15 – a     su un letto di fieno e lino                 on a bed of hay and linens
16 – a     cuore pieno, man’ divino                 full heart, divine hands
17 – b     rosarie e zafferano,                               rosaries and saffron
18 – a – 1st refrain      lilleranno,                                
19 – a – 1st refrain      lilleranno.                                           


Real del carro y coronas,                    Royal carriage and flowers
para la hija del barón                             for the baron’s daughter
oro y perlas para la reina,                  gold and pearls for the princess,
hojas de olivo para el peón.              crown of olives for the peasant.
Pero en la tierra del granjero          But into the farmer’s earth
cada esclavo y caballero                       both servant and cavalier return
Ay! Ay! Aimé!                                             Ay! Ay! Aimé!

Lillarino,  Lillarino,
Cielo, e roccia Appennino             sky, and Apennine rock
acqua santa e magìa                             holy water and sorcery
contadino e carrettino,                     farmer and handcart,
ecce homo3 e destino,                                here is man and destiny,
Lillarino, lillarino                                                     

Lillallero, Lillarilli,
Ninnananna, e Amarilli,                   lullaby, and amaryllis
fame, fuoco, frate e figli                     hunger, fire, siblings, and children        varicella e morbillo                               chicken pox and measles
peste4 pioggia e parassiti                  plagues, rain, and parasites
fazzoletti e campanelli                         handkerchiefs and church bells
angioletti e uccelli                                   little angels and birds
ciaramella e tarantella,                       shawms and tarantellas
balzello e saltarello5                             heavy taxes and saltarello
stalle, strilli, e stornelli6                                barns, stornelli and screaming
Canta il campo                                          The fields sing
con un coro di grilli                              with a chorus of crickets
lillallero, lillarilli.                                

Text by Romina Di Gasbarro

(*Note: the text was modified further for the Villanella recording.)