Jan
09

“Ciao Umberto”

By
Umberto Da Preda (image from an album cover via YouTube, uncredited).

Umberto Da Preda (image from an album cover via YouTube, uncredited).

“Journalism,” said G.K. Chesterton, “is telling the public that Lord X is dead when the public didn’t know that Lord X had ever been alive.”

The case of the recently departed Umberto Da Preda might be a case in point.

Those who knew him, or at least had heard of him, were saddened to read on December 27 that he had died the day before, after a month-long illness in the hospital. The first article announcing this event was fairly long, partly in tribute and partly to refresh the memories or succor the ignorance of the day’s readers. Because while many people in his native sestiere of Cannaregio were genuinely grieved– though not taken entirely by surprise — Lino is convinced that there are plenty of Venetians who learned of his existence for the first time in the obituary.

Da Preda was “The ‘voice’ of the Venetian song,” as the Gazzettino termed it. Another report headlined: “Death of Da Preda, the most beautiful voice of the Venice which is no more.”

If such standards as “La biondina in gondoleta” or “El gondolier” are now widely known, it’s thanks to his innumerable performances and abundant recordings.  The two respective links are:  http://youtu.be/A0I0m6IPHtU and http://youtu.be/THinSRIRek0

The Gazzettino continues:  “Umberto Da Preda leaves … a vast musical repertoire, 90 per cent of  which is made up of traditional themes which even now represent the classics of the gondoliers during the serenades, and to which he gave a completely personal imprint.” (Note: Gondoliers almost never sing; the warbling comes from a singer hired to entertain his clients.)

Da Preda’s mainstays, some of which began to be composed in the 18th century, are generically termed “canzoni da batelo,” boat-songs, intended to be sung to the passengers out on the water enjoying a nocturnal summer fresco, (literally, “cool”).  Many are anonymous pieces, passed along between generations. Like many of his vintage, Lino learned most of the approximately 8,319 songs he knows from his father, or from other Venetians.  But Da Preda delved into deep cultural troves to bring forward an extraordinary assortment of songs, some of which were created by noteworthy poets and composers.  They’re not all little ditties about wanting to take Ninetta out in the lagoon when the sun goes down.

Da Preda was on the way to an international career; he performed, with his guitar, in the Bahamas, in Russia, in Israel, in the US, and in England, where he sang for Queen Elizabeth II. But he loved Venice and preferred staying here, close to home, singing at the Danieli and Cipriani hotels, or in private palaces at what seems to have been a steady stream of fetes, entertainments, and soirees.

“What did he die of?” we asked a friend of his the next day.

He shrugged.  “The sand in the hourglass ran out,” he said.  “And he drank a Mississippi in his life.” Evidently Da Preda kept a bottle of whiskey close at hand on the many evenings he performed in assorted boites and restaurants.  Singing is thirsty work, and I think in those days the sparkling-water-with-lemon-slice hadn’t been discovered.  Not that he would have wanted it.  I drink it and I don’t want it.

In any case, the friend continued, Da Preda didn’t take seriously any warnings about hard living he might have gotten from his nearest and dearest. “He said once, ‘I’ve eaten, I’ve drunk, I’ve done what I wanted in my life,'” the friend told us.  “‘When it’s time for me to go, I’ll just head on out'” (vado in zo, which is the most casual leave-taking phrase there is in Venetian).

I went to his funeral on January 2 — a week ago today — a dreary, raw day.  I admit I was curious to see what sort of farewell would be given.  Naturally I can’t judge what emotions the 150 or so mourners were feeling, which may have been deep and intense, but if so they kept them well under control.  It was a subdued ceremony, distinguished mainly by two things.

The first was the playing, as the casket was being taken out of the church, of Da Preda singing one of his best-known songs, “Ciao Venezia.”  The second was the alzaremi, or oar-raising in salute, by rowers from the Settemari and Querini rowing clubs.  The presence of any Venetian boats is always a beautiful thing, and although he wasn’t particularly prominent in the boating world, he was 100 percent Venetian, and this calls for some special acknowledgment, in my opinion.

He lived his life just the way he wanted to and if he had any regrets, he kept them to himself. That’s what I’m going to remember.  Here’s the link:  http://youtu.be/D8zmgatPh-w

The basilica of SS. Giovanni e Paolo is so big that even a large crowd is manageable.

The basilica of SS. Giovanni e Paolo is so big that even a large crowd seems modest.

The priest pauses to pronounce the last phrases, more or less audible beneath the strains of "Ciao Venezia."

The priest pauses to pronounce the last phrases, more or less audible beneath the strains of “Ciao Venezia.”

Accompanying the casket to the riva where the funeral motorboat is waiting.

Accompanying the casket to the riva where the funeral motorboat is waiting.

The gondolier bringing his clients back to shore removed his hat.

The gondolier bringing his clients back to shore removed his hat.

As the casket is placed onto the fancy platform, the rowers from the Settemari club execute an "alzaremi."  In 1979 Da Preda was voted "Venetian of the Year," an annual recognition bestowed by the club.  The commemorative plaque was placed on the casket during the service.

As the casket is placed onto the fancy “we-don’t-have-to-sweat-anymore” platform, the rowers from the Settemari club execute an “alzaremi.” In 1979 Da Preda was voted “Venetian of the Year,” an annual recognition bestowed by the club. The commemorative plaque was placed on the casket during the service.

The funeral boat, carrying the departed and his family, heads for the cemetery, followed by the "diesona" of the Settemari, and a gondola from the Querini.

The funeral boat, carrying the departed and his family, heads for the cemetery, followed by the “diesona” of the Settemari, and a gondola from the Querini.  The people ashore applaud as their last farewell.

It's not far to the cemetery island of San Michele; the two boats are going to arrive only a few minutes after the motorboat, visible in the canal ahead of them (and just ahead of the vaporetto).

It’s not far to the cemetery island of San Michele; the two boats are going to arrive only a few minutes after the motorboat, visible in the canal ahead of them (and just ahead of the vaporetto).

 

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Categories : Venetian-ness

Comments

  1. Needless to say, I had never heard of him before he died, I’m a latecomer to this beautiful city, but more surprisingly, neither had any of my Venetian friends.
    René Seindal recently posted..In the Press: Lonely Planet (video)

    • Erla Zwingle says:

      I guess that confirms what Lino said about his not being so well-known in Venice. Odd, but no odder than many other things…

  2. Kathy Maher says:

    “He lived his life just the way he wanted to and if he had any regrets, he kept them to himself.” That’s about as good as it gets. Thanks, Erla, for this evocative post–and for introducing Da Preda’s music to me: I’ve played each link at least twice. He’s reaching an international audience again!

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