Corsican Polyphony

Polyphony is 2 or more simultaneous lines of separate melodies, or a couple of voices. It is different from monophony which has one dominant vocal. It is thought that Corsican polyphony goes back to 9 AD. Music took a different path, from one voice singing to several voices appearing and creating a new dimension.

For polyphony, the human voice is a miracle because of how it can change and express emotion. Through this music genre, feelings like pain, happiness, sorrow can be expressed like no other.  For Corsican, singing is a way of life. People start hearing polyphony in their early childhoods in churches, then they grow up and hear it in bars or just walking past the church square. Music accompanies the citizens from their cradle to the grave, playing an important role in everyday life. Corsican sing a song called Iamentu at funerals, or other sad events, leading a loved one to a better place. They sing while farming as well, and that is called tribbiera, when angry or seeking revenge they sing what is called voceru, if they are in love a song called – sirinati, and lullabies are nanne.

Vocal traditions in Corsica cannot be so easily described, you need to hear it for yourself and decide how you feel about it. Some hate it, some are captivated by them. Dorothy Carrington, who was an English travel writer lived in Corsica from 1948 till 2002, said about her first encounter with polyphonic singing, “The voice sounded like it is coming from the depths of the earth, from the dawn of times, from the beginning of the world. it sounded like something that no one can explain.”

Polyphony was not invented in Corsica, as Jean- Francois Bernardini says, but they invented the oral tradition, it is a way to express and emphasize several vocals.  He says that it was the first music he heard in his childhood. The whole village was full of polyphony and famous singers started to practice with his father.

Polyphony often has 3 voices. A Secunda is pitch following the main melody, UBassu- a supporting voice, A Terza- the highest one which enriches the main melody by certain notes. Traditionally it was sung by 3 men, but these days women also sing in this style, i.e. Jacky Micaelli who is the most famous woman singer in polyphony. Singers stand in a circle, placing their hands on each other’s shoulders. Sometimes they put one hand on the ear to avoid hearing the other voices and to hear their own voice better, to control the vocal.

The paghjella (plural paghjelle) is a traditional Corsican polyphonic song, composed of six verses of eight syllables, where a rhythm is created at each word and generates poetry. Petru Guelfucci and Antone Ciosi are famous soloists who accompany the performed paghjella. There are many famous Corsican music groups who sing in polyphony: isulatine, Caramusa, I Muvrini and others.

Forms of Corsican polyphony are secular and sacred. The most known is Agnus Dei, Gloria or Sanctus, even if you are not a religious person, I can bet that you heard them somewhere, or in case you haven’t, you can listen to it once in Corsica.

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