3.a   La Nuvena di Natali

I will now pause to look at the first type of Novena indicated here, proposing a example recorded and then recorded in the 1930s. The importance of the record production of those years, and we are talking about 78 rpm shellac discs, in terms of the Italian popular music heritage is quite evident today. That repertoire, which was recorded before the beginning of the activities of ethno-musicological research in Italy, constitutes the only documentary source that we can refer to in the study of the traditional music from the first half of the 20th century. Many of these recordings, even if made without ever meaning to become ethno-musical documentaries but made exclusively for commercial purposes, remain the only direct testimony of the art of the singers and the players, so their documentary and musical value is enormous.

Catalog of Italian Records OKeh-Odeon-Fonotipia 1924/25 made in the US.

The 78 rpm record production on themes that are generically of a Yuletide spirit is rather large: all the record companies operating in Italy until the 1950s actually believed it was important to provide a product in their catalogues that was sellable and much in demand. The same thing happened in the 1920s and 1930s in the United States where large communities of Italian emigrants lived and where the record market was growing quickly and sales were buoyant.


Catalog of Italian Records OKeh-Odeon Fonotipia 1924/25

made in the US.

Most of the recordings on the Christmas theme refer to the instrumental repertoire of the popular and/or folk tradition and mainly to the music for Italian zampogna alone or together with the oboe-like ciaramella; another large part regarded the vocal repertoire, or the vocal-instrumental one, and to a certain extent, that of various kinds of sketches, humorous or ironic, which have been so popular among the communities of Italian immigrants in the United States (see Sarica and Fugazzotto 1999).

The document included here was published by the Odeon record company with the dialectal title La nuvena di Natali. The authors were Ajello-Carrubba, and it was performed by the Tenore Carrubba, with an Orchestrina Tradizionale Siciliana. The recording recapitulates, with the obvious limits of duration imposed by the capacity of the recording medium, the kind of vocal-instrumental suite which even today is documented on most of the Sicilian territory and consists of the following: instrumental introduction, litanies, story or narrative song on the events of the Nativity, instrumental finale (usually a merry dance tune). In the central part of this Novena, furthermore, we can find once again those stylistic patterns as well as the musical themes and the verbal texts that were part of the folk or ballad singer’s musical tradition. The orbi, as the blind players were called, performed the novenas on request from their clients, in the houses or in the streets before the small altars. Pitré’s 19th century testimonies depict this tradition that was very much alive and active. But in the space of little more than a century the change was in some ways considerable. In the immediate post-war period the orbi certainly operated as players of novenas and other religious songs in Palermo and

Messina. Today nearly everywhere the figure of the blind story-teller has disappeared, even if in some villages in the island that kind of novena has not yet been completely abandoned (see Anelli and La Mantia 1977; Guggino 1980-1988).  

The piece refers to the Sicilian devotional techniques. The invitation to start playing, on the part of the singer - I candìli d’a cona su’ addumati, avanti, sunati! - (The candles of the shrine are lit, go on, start playing!) - indeed confirms for us the Christmas tradition of the cona, the image of the Nativity or the Child that would be adorned with shoots of orange or mandarin trees, and that substituted the nativity scene.

The Cona. S. Filippo Superiore (Messina), 1986

La Nuvena di Natali (file mp3)

Straight afterwards the characteristic Sicilian ensemble, as it is called on the record label, which performs an instrument piece, starts with the functions of prelude before and interlude later, having a merry and brilliant character. The ensemble is made up of a violin, strings and guitars with a set up that very much resembles that of the orbi.

The first piece of the suite is the  Litanies in honour of the Virgin Mary that are sung in the Latin lesson, as is still in use today both in the Christmas tradition and in other repertoires of the religious festivities in many Sicilian villages.

A rather surprising example due to its similarity in terms of the stylistic and performance with the Litanies I recorded at Novara, in the province of Messina, on the occasion of the feast of the Assumption, where the priest and the faithful take the place of the singing of Carruba and the band takes the place of the accompaniment of his orchestrina.

Procession  of the Virgin Mary.

Novara di Sicilia, 15th of August 1998

(file wmv, 41", 801 Kb)


The Litanies were followed by the story of the events of the Nativity. With a declamation from ballad singers that is alternated with the instrumental interludes, the Tenor Carrubba recites:


L’eternu Diu criau l’universu,

ogni Prufeta già lu criticau,

e non vulennu , no, lu munnu persu

l’unicu figghiu so’ nni distinau.


L’Arcanciulu Gabrieli Diu mannau

P’annunziari a la vergini Maria

Lu spirtu santu ca si ci ‘ncarnau

‘n senu pi ginirari lu Missia


A Giuseppi spusau pi prufizia

Cesari avia bandutu na riscigna

Ieva a Betlemmi ognunu e si scrivia

Così fici sta coppia, santa e digna


Cu fridda notti a sdranduni nascìu

Intra a na grutta Gesù Bambineddu

Lu voi lu riscardava e l’asineddu

E l’anciuli cantaunu Gloria a Diu


Ora pi divuzioni di Natali

Offritinni nu picculu spuntinu

Pani, sasizza e costi di maiali,

turruni, nuci, crispeddi e bon vinu

pi spunzicari, tantu p’assaggiari


[The eternal God created the Universe

Criticised by every Prophet

But not wanting the Earth to go to waste

He sent us His only Son]


[God sent the Archangel Gabriel

To announce to the Virgin Mary

That she would bear the Holy Spirit

In her Womb to generate the Messiah]


[She married Joseph as prophesied

Caesar had issued an Edict

Everyone had to go to Bethlehem for the Census

And thus did this holy couple]


[In the cold night he was born naked

In the stable, the Baby Jesus

The ox and the donkey warmed Him

And the Angels sang Glory to God above]


[Now as Christmas devotion

Offer us a bite to eat

Bread, sausage and pork chops

Torrone, nuts, pancakes and good wine]

[Just a snack, just a taste!]



This mostly concerns quatrains of hendecasyllables with an alternating rhyme, the same metre of the Sicilian tales or ‘razioni that narrate the episodes of the Passion of the Christ. As in all the texts destined to the singing of the Novena for the devotees, in the last stanza the request for payment is made explicit: in this case drinks and foodstuffs

Even the third piece present in the record by Carrubba seems to belong to that broad Christmas repertoire spread until the start of the last century by the orbi. The proliferation of these sacred texts in dialect reached its peak in the 18th century and was encouraged, directly and indirectly, by the Church. The aim of the institutions was to foster the religious education of the lower classes by translating the Christian message into an easily accessible language. The orbi were the instrument of this cultural policy and the Clergy, at least for the whole of the 19th century directly controlled their activity. To the orbi themselves were destined the religious publications written in dialect, so that they could be disseminated among the people.

A well-known example of these texts, the most ancient Novena by an author ever seen, is the Il viaggio dulurusu di Maria Santissima e lu Patriarca San Giuseppi (see Conigliaro-Lipari-Scordato 1987; Garofalo 1990).  The text is attributed to the Priest of Monreale Antonino Diliberto who published it for the first time around the mid-18th century going under the pseudonym of Binidittu Annuleru.


O Divina Maistati

Vi prisentu sta Nuvena

E vi preiu ca mi dati

Risistenza,  forza e lena


[Oh Divine Majesty

I present you with this Novena

And I beg you to give me

Endurance, fortitude and will]



Vinni n’anciulu a vvisari

Fui Giuseppi prestamenti

Picchì Erodi fa ‘mmazzari

Li nicuzzi assai (putenti)


[An angel has come to warn us

Flee Joseph, quickly

For Herod will kill

All the first born boys]


Lu viaggiu di San Giuseppi

Erice, 8 dicembre 1993

(file wmv, 27", 542 Kb)

The last part of the recording by Carrubba is an instrumental dance theme in tempo 6/8. As Pitré wrote in 1881, in some villages the Novena was performed by groups of five, eight or ten players of the village band. Four pieces were played, the first two imitated the Novena for zampogna; the third, that of the Litany; the fourth was chosen by the players or the owner of the house. This piece was always a merry dance tune played at the end of the recital. Even in eastern Sicily the Novena for zampogne, after the introduction and the slow-moving central part following the melody of Tu scendi dalle stelle, is brought to a close with the so-called ballettu.

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