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The Abruzzi mountains and the pifferari

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    Berlioz had a low opinion of music-making in Rome, especially as regards orchestral music. ‘Instrumental art is a closed book for the Romans. They have absolutely no idea of what we call a symphony’, he writes in his Memoirs (chapter 39). He then continues:

The only music that struck me in Rome is a form of popular instrumental music which I am rather inclined to think is a survival from antiquity – I mean the pifferari. That is the name they give to wandering musicians who as Christmas approaches come down from the mountains in groups of four or five. Equipped with bagpipes and pifferi (a kind of oboe), they come to perform devout concerts in front of images of the Madonna. They usually wear broad coats of brown cloth, and the same pointed hats worn by brigands; their appearance has a kind of wild mysticism which is full of originality. I have spent hours watching them in the streets of Rome, their heads slightly inclined over the shoulder, their eyes blazing with the most intense faith, their gaze fixed with pious love on the holy Madonna, almost as still as the image they are worshipping. The bagpipe, supported by a large piffero which sounds the bass, plays a harmony of two or three notes, over which a medium length piffero performs the melody. Then on top of it all two small and very short pifferi, played by children of 12 to 15 years, rain down trills and cadences and bathe the rustic melody with a cascade of exotic ornaments. After cheerful and jolly tunes which are repeated at great length, a slow and solemn prayer, full of patriarchal warmth, brings the naive symphony to a worthy conclusion... Heard at close quarters the sound is so loud as to be almost unbearable; but heard from a certain distance this strange orchestra has an impact which leaves few unmoved. I then heard the pifferari on their home ground, and while I had found them remarkable in Rome, once in the wild Abruzzi mountains, where my wandering fancy had taken me, I was moved by them even more.

    There appears to be no mention of the pifferari in the letters Berlioz wrote during his stay in Italy.

    In the third movement of his symphony Harold in Italy, entitled ‘Serenade of an Abruzzi mountaineer to his mistress’, Berlioz introduced a ritornello which imitates the music-making of the pifferari. There is also an echo of this music in the first of the three pieces for Alexander’s melodium which he wrote in 1844: it is entitled ‘Rustic serenade to the Madonna on the theme of the Roman pifferari’.

The Abruzzi mountains and the pifferari in pictures

Unless otherwise stated, all the photos on this page were taken by Monir Tayeb in 2012; all other pictures have been scanned from engravings and other publications in our own collection. © Monir Tayeb and Michel Austin. All rights of reproduction reserved.

1. The Pifferari in times past

The Pifferari in the Abruzzi mountains

(Large view)

The original copy of this painting, by William Turner (c. 1838), is in Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.

The original copy of the following engravings and other publications have been donated by us to the Hector Berlioz Museum and they hold copyright for them.

The Pifferari in Rome in 1827

(Large view)

This engraving, after a painting drawn in Rome is by Sir David Wilkie, signed and dated 1827. It was inspired by the sight of the pifferari parading the streets at Christmas time in 1825. 

The Pifferari in Rome

(Large view)

The above engraving was published in the Illustrated London News, 4 May 1850.

The Pifferari in Romagna

(Large view)

The above engraving is dated 1850.

The Pifferari in Rome

(Large view)

This engraving has been scanned from an article by Lieutenant George H. Preble in Ballou’s Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, published on 18 April 1857.

2. Popular Italian traditional musicians in our time (2012)

The following photos show the musicians who performed serenades of their respective regions: Sardinia, Corsica, Sicily, Genoa, Naples… at the Festival Berlioz in August and September 2012. The  venue of the performances was the garden of the Hector Berlioz Museum.

2.1.  Stefano Valla (piffero and voice); Daniele Scurtai (accordion)

(Large view)

(Large view)

(Large view)

2.2.  Ensemble Unavantaluna 
The musicians in the ensemble are, from right to left: Pietro Cernuto (bagpipes, voice), Carmelo Cacciola (Cretan lute, voice), Luca Centamore (guitar, voice), Francesco Salvadore (percussion, voice).

(Large view)

(Large view)

(Large view)

© (unless otherwise stated) Michel Austin and Monir Tayeb for all the pictures and information on this page.

Copyright notice: The texts, photos, images and musical scores on all pages of this site are covered by UK Law and International Law. All rights of publication or reproduction of this material in any form, including Web page use, are reserved. Their use without our explicit permission is illegal.

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