revised 22 December 1995

EF/hm Magrini article

5. Comparing male and female ballad singing

Men's musical style
Men's fusion through singing
Men's ballads on the wane
Folklorists have considered ballads as a typical women's repertoire. This may be why male ballad singers are seldom mentioned in the Italian literature of the nineteenth century (9). 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. We have little information about the past performance practices tied to this tradition, but, as far as we know, they seem connected to the occasions of male social life outside the household, for example, with entertainment in taverns. More recently, male musical activity has been often linked to the organization of choruses. This form of organization helps maintain the male traditional practice of singing.

Men's musical style

Men and women have generally shown different attitudes towards ballad singing. Women were clearly interested in narratives and tended to preserve long texts of ballads. Men often seem mainly interested in singing per se, and are not much interested in narrative. These two aspects are reflected in the male style of performance. The two-voices in parallel thirds structure typical of women's ballads is often expanded in male performances by means of a third and sometimes a fourth part, enriching the texture by doublings at the octave, burdens or adding chord tones in the style typical of Northern polyphonic singing (Macchiarella 1990).

In the ballad "Bell'uccelin del bosc," interpreted by a male chorus from the region of Emilia, soloist 1 performs the incipit section of the song in B Major. Then soloist 2 moves a third above and introduces the upper part. After a few tones all the chorus joins in and sings in four parts. Three parts belong to the common performance practice of ballad singing in the North. In the terminology of North Italian singers, the "first" singer performs the solo incipit and the doubling of the main melody a third above. In this recording the part of the "first" is unusually divided between two singers, who perform respectively the solo incipit and the upper part. "Seconds," perform the main melody, and the basses double the main melody at the lower octave (Macchiarella 1990). This group has also added a fourth voice, which has the basic task of enriching the harmony by maintaining the fifth degree, F-sharp. Its part is enriched with some short movements, for example, the initial jump tonic-dominant-tonic.

Example: "Bell'uccelin del bosc" (Nigra no.95)
Performers: "I Bruschi", male chorus of the Valle dell'Idice (Bologna)
Videorecording (December 1994) and transcription by T. Magrini
5.68 MB .mov
Bell'uccelin del bosc score

Like the female ballad style, this male style

Unlike female ballad singing style, the men's style The men's performance is prolonged and impressive, while women's performances of ballads are generally lively and fast. The male style is physically demanding. In this performance, the part of the soloist is split in two sections, entrusted to different performers, so as to lighten the role of the "first." This style seems to communicate vocal strength and fusion among the singers. It seems to me that this choice of style suggests that men are interested in emphasizing the social and cohesive nature of singing and in this way they express one of the basic tendencies of human beings.

Men's fusion in singing

The tendency toward fusion has been recognized as a fundamental component of normal psychological behavior, together with the opposed tendency towards individualization (Tagliacozzo 1985, Arrigoni Scortecci 1988). Music is an ideal means toward fusion, better than any other symbolic activity. The tendency towards fusion might be one of those specific contents expressed through musical activity that Blacking suggests should to be looked for by music anthropologists (Blacking 1979). The male emphasis on fusion and strength in choral singing sometimes leads choruses to assume the simple action of singing together as their ultimate aim. For example, male choruses sing ballads together with other songs, without making any distinction among the different repertoires. This may explain why the emphasis on the narrative in the male tradition is generally less than in the female tradition of singing.

Men's ballads on the wane

In my long work with the male chorus "I Bruschi" in the Valle dell'Idice in Emilia region of northern Italy, I noticed that sometimes singers know only some verses of a ballad or sometimes they prefer to sing only some verses. They say that to sing long texts in their style is demanding and those old songs are boring. In this way, the verbal texts of ballads are often shortened in their choral performances and the meaning of the narrative is lost. The male singing tradition thus tends to forgo the "configurational" dimension of ballads and to maintain only the episodic one, the description of a situation which becomes a simple occasion for singing together. Also, the kind of narrative typical of ballads, with its obsolete characters and plots, may seem to them to be out of date in our contemporary world and more difficult to remember. This reinforces the observation that men tend to emphasize the social dimension of singing at the expense of the narrative. This is another reason why ballads are dying in Italy, together with the preference for a different repertoire. In concert, the male group prefers to sing comic and off-color songs. The concerts of the Bettinelli sisters also shied from ballads, when no ethnomusicologist introduced them and suggested the interpretation of old ballads. It is likely that these kinds of choices indicate the performers' belief that old ballads are unsuitable for today's audience. The men's chorus in Valle dell'Idice thinks so.
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