Canzone #1: Minuetto by Mia Martini (1973)

by Alexandra

How did I learn Italian? Through awkward attempts at conversations with my flatmates, email exchanges with my landlady, sporadic grammar practice in “Si! L’italiano in Mano“, making progress piano piano as I read novels in Italian, arguments about my phone bill, eavesdropping on conversations between my students, watching Romanzo Criminale, chatting to the man who sells flowers in the market and…music.

Listening to music is a fantastic way to learn a language. I used to tell this to my students before making them listen to “Space Oddity” and fill in the gaps in the lyric sheet. If I’m honest, I used that song mostly for selfish reasons (I love Bowie), but I still believe it was a useful exercise. If I hadn’t spent hours and hours listening to Italian songs and memorising the lyrics, I don’t think my listening skills would be as good as they are.

These days, my primary reason for listening to Italian music is my love of the songs. I listen for pleasure, not because I’m trying to brush up on my listening skills, and I’m always discovering new songs – partly as a result of having an Italian boyfriend who’s even more music-obsessed than I am.

I’m going to start a new series of blog posts focusing on Italian songs, most of which are probably unknown outside of Italy. I’ll post some classics (Lucio Battisti), some trashy classics (Renato Zero) and some pure trash (Pino D’Angio).

Here’s the first canzone (song) in the series:

E vieni a casa mia, quando vuoi, nelle notti più che mai,
dormi qui, te ne vai, sono sempre fatti tuoi.
Tanto sai che quassù male che ti vada avrai
tutta me, se ti andrà per una notte…
… E cresce sempre più la solitudine,
nei grandi vuoti che mi lasci tu!

There’s a whole genre of popular music in Italy that doesn’t really exist in the English-speaking world. Highly sentimental love songs sung by singers with amazing voices, so over the top and unashamedly emotional that they sound like something from a musical. All right, those songs do exist in the English language, but they’re mostly crap, and they’re not popular and critically acclaimed in the way that their Italian counterparts are.

I think language is a big part of it. I just attempted to translate the lyrics above into English and gave up, partly because I’m just not very good at translating, and partly because they sound beautiful in Italian, but sort of silly in English. “And my solitude keeps growing, in the empty spaces that you leave me“. Perhaps a better translation would make it sound more elegant, but I believe that some things are so Italian, they’re almost untranslatable. And do they even need translating? You wouldn’t bother trying to translate “pizza”, for example. The Italian word is perfectly adequate, and the thing it describes is so good that it transcends language.

I know that you can’t really compare song lyrics to food, as words are obviously so much more important for one than the other. But “Minuetto” is sung with such power – and by a woman who sings from experience – that ultimately, it doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the words.

Mia Martini had a brilliant career but was less lucky in her personal life. The lyrics of “Minuetto” were written by Franco Califano (a well-known singer-songwriter who I’ll write about another time). The emotion, however, is all Mia’s. It’s about getting old and realising she’s been wasting her time in a dead-end relationship with a man who’s only using her for sex. And instead of blaming the man, she blames herself:

Ora ammetto che la colpa forse è solo mia,
avrei dovuto perderti, invece ti ho cercato

Now I admit that perhaps the fault was only mine
I should have got rid of you, instead I looked for you

How does she manage to turn such bitter, miserable lyrics into something beautiful, and almost empowering? As I said before, some things only work in Italian…