Corsican polyphony

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I spent last Thursday and Friday at a workshop on error analysis, and Thursday evening there there was a Corsican banquet, with a concert by the musical group Sarocchi. The banquet and concert were in honor of Joseph Mariani, who is originally from Corsica. Here's a video of part of an a capella duet, which I took with my cell phone:

The language of the performance is of course Corsican, and the Wikipedia article on Corsican says that

Ferdinand Gregorovius, 19th century traveller and enthusiast of Corsican culture, reports that the preferred form of the literary tradition of his time was the vocero, a type of polyphonic ballad originating from funeral obsequies. These laments were similar in form to the chorales of Greek drama except that the leader could improvise. Some performers were noted at this, such as the 18th century Mariola della Piazzole and Clorinda Franseschi.

The Wikipedia article on Corsican music says that

Polyphonic songs (pulifunie) in Corsica are a cappella, and can be either spiritual or secular. Hymns, motets, and funereal songs (lamentu) are an example of the former, while the nanna (lullaby) and the paghjella are examples of the latter. Traditionally, 4 to 6-voice improvised polyphony was sung only by men, with the exception of the voceru (sung only by women) and cuntrastu (usually 2-voice) and nanne often sung by women. Brotherhoods of polyphonic singers (cunfraternita) remain, some dating back to the 12th century. Corsica's actual tradition of improvised vocal polyphony is more recent, dating to 15th century. It is traced to renaissance practice of falsobordone and the Genoese tradition of Trallalero.

At Thursday's performance, M. Sarocchi gave an explanatory introduction before each song, but I can no longer recall which the details of this one, which was the last of the evening's offerings. Perhaps someone who knows Corsican, or a Corsican-like language, can transcribe it for us.

N.B. The business of cupping a hand over one ear is apparently traditional in this sort of singing. I don't know how widespread this practice is, or what it's called by those who use it. If you try it, you'll see that it enhances lower-frequency sounds, especially your own voice, which is presumably the motivation.



  1. Bob Ladd said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 5:35 am

    There are similar polyphonic traditions in Sardinia, in which the singers also often cup a hand over or in front of one ear. (Search for "Sardinian throat singing" or "chant sarde" on Google and you will find YouTube and other videos.) In some styles, the singers aim to tune the notes so that certain harmonics reinforce each other and give the illusion of a fifth voice higher than any of the four (male) voices. Presumably hearing your own voice more clearly helps to do this.

  2. Simon Wright said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 6:05 am

    Cupping a hand over one ear – frequently done by British (English?) folk singers, see

  3. Stefano Taschini said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 6:27 am

    As a native Italian speaker it is quite easy to understand enough words to be able to google them [link in a separate post, to reduce the risk of this comment getting blocked].

    It's a letter by Stefanu Luciani, a war prisoner held by the Germans during WWI, to his mother. The recording starts on the last word of the fourth line ("fame").

    Lettera à mamma

    Mamma risponde nun possu
    à e vostre dulente chjame
    Troppu miseria aghju à dossu
    e' mi si rode la fame
    So prigiuneru languente
    in quella Prussia à punente
    Venissi una rundinella
    Ch'eu la mandi messaggera
    O venga puru una stella
    à purtà la mo preghera
    Le mo pene lu mo core
    versu di voi Mamma d'amore
    V'abbraccciu per lu penseru
    vi mandu sti versi soli
    Dicendu so prigiuneru
    chi tuttu què vi cunsoli
    Mamma la vostra tristezza
    à me dà tanta amarezza.

    A very rough translation: Mum, I cannot reply to your sorrowful calls: too much misery and hunger. I'm a prisoner languishing in western Prussia. Would a sparrow come, or even a star, so that I could send it as messenger, carrying my prayer, my sorrows and my dearly loving heart to you, mother. I give you a hug for your thoughts and can only send you these verses, and let my saying that I'm prisoner be of consolation to you. Your sadness is giving me much affliction.

  4. Stefano Taschini said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 6:28 am

    Here's the link with the text and Italian translation:

  5. Stephen Self said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 6:28 am

    Here is a link to a YouTube video by a wonderful Corsican polyphonic singing outfit called Dopy Cena. You'll see some of them similarly cupping their ears.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 6:29 am

    I've seen singers from various Central Asian countries cup their hands over their ears while singing.

  7. Ray Girvan said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 8:09 am

    @Simon Wright: frequently done by British (English?) folk singers

    … or, as is frequently cited in ridicule of traditional folk, a finger in the ear (which outsiders view as an affectation, but has the perfectly sensible reason of letting you better hear your own pitch). A lot of 'serious' singers use an earplug for the same purpose.

    [(myl) Both in theory and in phenomenological practice (i.e. trying it out), plugging the earhole and cupping a hand over the ear (with the sides and bottom clear) have rather different effects.]

  8. tk said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 8:27 am

    Hand-on/behind-ear is frequent in American Indian powwow singing.

  9. Dan Lufkin said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 9:15 am

    In barbershop quartet singing, getting that harmonic overtone is called "hearing the bird." You've got to have four very good singers for it to happen.

  10. Ralph Hickok said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 9:45 am

    I've seen several black and white photos of U.S. vocalists cupping a hand over one ear while recording or performing on the radio, i.e., when out of sight of the audience.

  11. Tom Saylor said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 11:52 am

    I seem to recall that Robin Gibb often cupped his right ear while singing with the Bee Gees in the 60's and early 70's, before the advent of earphone monitors.

  12. Heidi R. said,

    November 25, 2013 @ 12:56 pm

    I've studied Corsican singing in Corsica, with Corsican master singers. The hand isn't actually OVER the ear, but touching the bones near the ear. By singing into the inside of one's wrist, and touching the head, one hears one's own voice more clearly. It's a way to stay more in tune. This technique is used in MANY singing traditions, including Southern Asian (Indian) singing.

  13. Harold said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 12:19 am

    This is very similar to Genovese and Ligurian polyphony, as recorded in 1954 by Alan Lomax and others. I understand there was a robust tradition of lay devotional societies specializing in this kind of singing. However, this secular song belongs to the genre of "Prison songs". In this case, a prisoner of war. I wonder if it is from Piedmont/Savoy, which had the only army in Italy before the unification. Was Corsica ever part of the Kingdom of Savoy, I wonder?

    [(myl) Corsica has been part of France since 1768, and France has had armies for a long time, some of them including noteworthy Corsicans.]

  14. tk said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 7:11 am

    Oh, yes, (and how can we forget): there's also Gary Owens, announcer for Laugh-In (qv), cupping his hand behind his ear as he speaks

  15. blahedo said,

    November 26, 2013 @ 4:02 pm

    Speaking as someone who has been in many choirs (though never professionally), the hand-over-the-ear thing is a pretty standard trick for us to be able to hear our own note clearly while trying to blend with the choir (i.e. without singing louder, which would break the balance). Actually sticking your finger _in_ your ear is bad because then you're just getting the bone conduction, which I guess has the right note but sounds weird (and also it blocks you too much from hearing the other singers). Putting your hand to hover over your ear (finding the right positioning is a bit of a craft and presumably varies by shape of hand, head, and ear) you're bouncing your own sound off your hand and controlling its blend with everyone else according to your own needs.

    Actually, it just occurred to me that a possible other effect, in the sorts of large rooms that we tend to sing in, would be that we get a "quicker" bounce off our hands than from the walls of the room, which would be very short in any case but may make a reaction time difference on the subconscious level—certainly a difference of 50 ms can have an effect in some linguistic and cognitive contexts, and it seems like shortening a feedback loop from (say) 20 or 30ms to 1 or 2ms seems like it could plausibly make a difference.

  16. Harold said,

    November 27, 2013 @ 2:29 am

    I looked it up, which I should have done first. Corsica was in fact part of Genoa, before becoming independent and then French. I believe the words of the Italian song (referring to WW1) could have been Piedmontese — but no doubt such "prison songs" crossed over the political borders of the region and there were similar 'prison' songs before WW1. I was struck by the the type of polyphony to which it is set, which is a regional specialty of in Genoa and Liguria, and also Sardinia (part of Piedmont) and antedates Napoleon., since it goes back to church practices. Actually after the defeat of Napoleon Genoa was absorbed into Piedmont though Corsica remained French. Perhaps the Italian nationals who read this blog know more about the song lyrics.

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