EOL article
Tullia Magrini

"Ballad and gender: reconsidering narrative singing in Northern Italy"

Women as ballad singers
Historical sources of the second half of the nineteenth century and later show that women in northern Italy commonly sang ballads. In the countryside, women lived in multiple family households and sources often describe singing as connected to women's collective work. Singing ballads or listening to ballads seems to have been one of the principal means for women to perform in a group. Historical photographs

Narrative function of ballads
Italian ballads mainly tell stories of women. They tell of danger from men, of terrible consequences which arise from conflict with family or authority over love or lawlessness, and of virtuous female behavior. Ballads represent and interpret events which happen or may happen, and point out what seemed the principal dangers and faults in women's lives in peasant society. Ballads taught women their role in society and consequences of their actions. Historical photograph

The world of ballads and its transformation
The deep transformation which affected peasant work and way of life in the 1950s ultimately caused the death of traditional ballad singing. It led to detachment from the old way of women's social life and interruption of the usual processes of creation, transmission and performance of songs. Meanwhile, women's collective experiences of work in rice-fields gave rise to a new repertoire and vocal style, which spread in the lowlands and replaced old ballads.

Music analysis of ballads
In Italy, the practice of two-voice singing seems widespread in the nineteenth century. Many apparently monodic ballads seem to derive from this earlier two-voice singing practice. Transcriptions, music

Comparing male and female ballad singing
Until recently, we have had scarce information about the role of men, but ethnomusicological research carried out since 1950 has uncovered a tradition of male choral singing which includes ballads. Female and male traditions display continuities and differences in verbal and musical behavior. Both men's and women's styles reveal the associative character of music-making. Men's and women's styles differ in narrative and multi-part singing aspects of ballad singing. Video



References updated 9 October 1996

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30 September 1995