Kölle alaaf! These days, we at the Cologne Academy want to take a look at the music in carnival. If we take today’s Cologne carnival as our starting point, most folks probably know the current hits by Höhner, Bläck Föös, Kasalla, Domstürmer, Miljöh, Klüngelköpp, Cat Ballou and Brings. If you go back a little further in history, however, things get a little more nebulous: no longer quite so well known (or only among the older generation) are numerous classics by Willi Ostermann, for example, from whose pen probably one of the most beautiful carnival songs “Ich möcht zo Fooß noh Kölle jonn” (1936) originated. Karl Berbuer’s song “Wir sind die Eingeborenen von Trizonesien” (We are the natives of Trizonesia) also dates from the post-war period and describes the mood in the zone area at that time better than any other.
But what about classical music in carnival? Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals” probably comes to mind spontaneously, but there are numerous other examples that also appear as early as the 15th century. While in the pagan tradition the carnival was above all an exorcism of winter, in 15th-century Venice, for example, and even today, the social aspect was also interesting: Slipping into a different role, turning hierarchies upside down, finding oneself at eye level with otherwise higher-ups (or even above them) – these are all things that were possible in disguise or behind the mask. A state of emergency that is not so different from many opera plots that revolve around courtly life and many an aberration. Especially the works based on the commedia dell’arte often show carnivalesque features, for example in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte” or Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”. It is not unusual for carnival to play an active role in the operas, for example in Amilcare Ponchielli’s “Gioconda”, which is set in the carnival of Venice. Verdi’s “Masked Ball” revolves around a costume party at the Stockholm Opera, and while Violetta in Verdi’s “La Traviata” breathes her last in her poor abode in Paris as the carnival procession parades through the streets.
If you look at the Italian carnival, such as the famous Venetian carnival, you cannot ignore the colourful hustle and bustle in the streets, but above all the courtly environment. For this is where the music played in the truest sense of the word! Alongside Venice, Naples was also considered one of the Italian strongholds of carnival. In the 16th century, it was mainly the nobility who celebrated carnival at pompous balls and receptions. At that time, it was still closed to the common people. Sources from the 17th century report on street parades organised by fishermen and merchants. Whether at the courtly ball or the colourful street parades – music must always have played an important role. Whether the works of Emanuele Barbella (1718-1777) were also heard in the palaces during the courtly carnival in Naples is not documented. However, the Neapolitan violinist and composer enjoyed great popularity, so one can assume that it was. He first studied with his with his father. After his father’s death, he studied with Pasquale Bini, a pupil of Tartini’s, and took composition lessons with Leonardo Leo, Barbella was active at several important institutions in Naples. From 1753 he was first violinist at the Teatro Nuovo. He was considered an insider of the scene, which is why he also guided the well-known music theorist Charles Burney through the musical life of the city during his stay in Naples. His compositions correspond to the gallant style, are quite pleasing and brim with “joie de vivre”. A wonderful example of this is his Mandolin Concerto, which the Kölner Akademie recorded together with mandolin superstar Alon Sariel. A wonderful project and fitting for the year 2023, in which the mandolin is the instrument of the year in Germany. On 3 March, the work can also be heard live in Grimbergen, Belgium. You can get a small sample here. Enjoy!