Apart from being the motherland of some of the world’s most famous opera composers like Rossini, Verdi and Puccini, Italy holds another title in the list of musical phenomena birthplaces. Today’s traditional Italian weddings and national celebrations rarely come without the favourite accompaniment of this passionate people – tarantella. Traditionally an iconic dance/song, it also overflew into the instrumental music of many composers of the Romantic period.
Tarantella, often called ‘the song of Italy’, varies by region. So the Neapolitan, Calabrian and Sorrentine examples may differ in style, but what they all have in common is the fast tempo, rhythmic and lively.
Like with many historical phenomena the real roots of which are already hard to verify, the term ‘tarantella’ has a number of versions regarding its origin and purpose. The most ingenious and picturesque theory blames the wolf spider ‘tarantula’ (not same as the contemporary species) that inhabited the area near the Italian town of Taranto. According to the legend, the bite of that little creature was very poisonous and people believed that frenzied dancing in a special rhythm would rid the body of the dangerous venom that should go away with the sweat. There are even ‘testimonials’ that Middle Ages fiddlers would walk the surroundings in search of people who had been bitten by tarantulas and offer them their service of playing the cure-song and fighting off the death.
According to other sources, the popularity of the tarantella mass dance, with all of its hectic moves, could have been partly explained by the special ‘herbs’ in combination with the rhythmic music that drove people insane and that eventually raised the authorities’ concern and the subsequent ban of the practice. Some say that the spider version was invented afterwards in order to get this ritual back out of the underground.
There’s a more ‘medical’ version too. Simple: tarantella was used to cure depressions, you dance – you regain the joy of life as people watch you self-express in a rhythmic dance show. Later on, the dance itself was often performed as a courtship dance, though it could be seen danced both by couples and solo females.
No matter what the initial purpose of the dance was, what we have today is a beautiful national tradition and a number of amazing classical music works that were born inspired by it. Let’s have a look at some of them.
The ancient tarantella dancers would usually move to the beats of mandolin, accordion, guitar, and, most importantly, tambourine that helped to create the most perfect rhythmic pattern. With the flow of time, composers would add more instruments (piano, violin, flute, clarinet) and experiment with style, some making the sound more frenetic and daunting (Schubert's “Death and the Maiden Quartet” and Mendelssohn’s “Tarantella” from his Symphony No.4), while others preferred sticking to the traditional sound and the rhythm of 6/8 (Rossini’s Neapolitan “La Danza”). Below are some of the most notable tarantellas (the sheet music to all of the compositions is available in our catalogue).
Giacomo Rossini, “La Danza”. One of the most ‘classical’ works of the kind.
Louis Moreau Gottschalk, “Grande Tarantelle”. The piece was transcribed for various combinations including, piano solo, piano and violin, two pianos, two violins and piano, piano and orchestra.
Frédéric Chopin, “Tarantelle in A-flat, Op. 43”. Inspired by and similar to Rossini’s “La Danza”.
Franz Liszt, "Tarantella, Venezia e Napoli". No. 3 from the set of 3 suites for piano “Années de pèlerinage” (Year 2: Italy).
Camille Saint-Saëns, wrote a separate “Tarantella, Op. 6 in A minor” (flute, clarinet and orchestra/piano) and also used this form in the 2nd movement of his “Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor”.
Some of the most popular guitar tarantellas were composed by Santiago de Murcia and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, while for violin – by Pablo de Sarasate (“Introduction and Tarantella”) and Karol Szymanowski (“Nocturne and Tarantella”).
The list of classical compositions, be it a separate music work or a tarantella embodied in a symphony, is a long one. Above are just a few examples of this well-recognized Italian folk feature. The references to tarantella are also to be met in other forms of art like literature (“A Doll’s House” by Henrik Ibsen) and cinema (“The Godfather”).
At MusicaNeo, you can also get acquainted with the modern vision of the famous Italian dance song: this type of music is popular among contemporary composers who write tarantellas of their own.