Long before the emergence of a repertoire in the Italian language, it was the Neapolitan song, which alone could transcend regional boundaries and be appreciated abroad, to represent the Peninsula in music. The product of poets, playwrights and musicians who infused it with the quintessence of a long-established cultural tradition in Europe, the Neapolitan song is notable for its literary and musical qualities. By the end of the nineteenth century it had already reached an admirable balance that enhanced the “song form” until then prevalently explored by music genres like opera and the lieder. Its influences are the opera house, the romance, the nineteenth-century dances and the peasant tradition. That Naples was a “musical” city was first noticed by foreign visitors – writers and scholars, as well as painters and musicians – who since the Grand Tour had described it in its most relevant aspects, thus contributing to a myth destined to last until today.
In the nineteenth century Naples was the undisputed centre of vaudeville and of the song. When it lost some of its relevance as a result of the annexation to the new Italian state, the former Bourbon capital was the most populated city of the Kingdom with over 400 thousand inhabitants, and the fourth in Europe after London, Paris and Istanbul. It retained a dominant position for a long time, giving a major impetus to the emergence of a popular culture in which the song plays a central role, spanning art and craft, the publishing and the music industry, creativity and craft. The golden age of Neapolitan song flourished around 1880 on the strength of the city’s printing and publishing houses with hundreds of printers and engravers, theatres, cafés, restaurants and festivals that would be reminiscent of a beginning-of-the-century Tin Pan Alley, had they not preceded that experience at the root of the American popular song. Foremost among the iconic figures that made this musical genre famous around the world is Enrico Caruso, the tenor who was also the first music superstar in the era of recorded music. The classic Neapolitan song reached its apotheosis in the twenties, later absorbing the influence of other genres (from jazz to Latin dances) that changed its nature and shaped its modern configuration.