Lyric Singing is UNESCO Heritage. What about Spain, Italy, and Portugal?

It’s official, Lyric Singing is UNESCO Heritage. The news was announced on the official website of the Ministry of Culture, and as Italian Minister of Culture Giorgio Sangiuliano stated, it is a source of great satisfaction that Lyric Singing is now part of UNESCO’s cultural heritage.

Italy being a place full of traditions and culture is not new, but it’s always a great pleasure when another Italian cultural achievement is added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. It’s hard to believe that there’s anyone in the world unfamiliar with the famous arias of composers like Giacomo Puccini, Giuseppe Verdi, Gioacchino Rossini, and Vincenzo Bellini. Italian Lyric Singing works are performed in the world’s most important theaters, from Tosca to Rigoletto, from La Bohème to Turandot. We hear them in films, advertisements, TV series, and on the streets as we walk. These works go beyond history; they accompany it, influence it, and that’s precisely why, since December 6, 2023, Lyric Singing is UNESCO Heritage. As the UNESCO Intangible Heritage Committee writes:

“Lyrical singing in Italy is a physiologically controlled way of singing that enhances the power of the voice in acoustic spaces, […] it involves a combination of music, theater, recitation, and staging. Transmitted orally between master and pupil, the practice promotes collective cohesion and socio-cultural memory.”

What is UNESCO?

If you’re wondering what UNESCO is, let’s clear that up right away. Founded in 1945, UNESCO is the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations (193 member states, 11 associate states, and public and private partners). Its main goals include promoting basic education for all, safeguarding cultural and natural heritage, promoting freedom of expression, fostering international scientific cooperation, and combating poverty through access to education. It is crucial for preserving cultural diversity and promoting intercultural dialogue to contribute to global peace and security.

In this way, UNESCO represents the highest expression of how the current world is constantly interconnected. All states must engage and interact with national and supranational institutions, and, most importantly, cooperate with each other for a higher purpose. It is thanks to activities like those of UNESCO that initiatives such as the European Agenda for Music are born, the same European initiative that gave rise to SEA and YOU, promoting Flamenco, Fado, and classical Neapolitan song, fostering dialogue between associations and creating, through European grants, the first European Traditional Music Festival.

UNESCO Material and Intangible Heritage

It is with this spirit that Lyric Singing has been designated as UNESCO Heritage.

States propose a candidacy for a property, whether it be Material or Intangible, to the UNESCO Commission. A preliminary evaluation is then carried out by the World Heritage Center together with ICOMOS (International Council on Monuments and Sites) and IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). This evaluation determines whether the candidacy meets the eligibility criteria.
The World Heritage Committee, composed of representatives from different countries, meets annually to review the candidacies and make decisions.

At this point, let’s clarify for a moment. There are two types of properties that UNESCO protects: Material and Intangible.

The former includes all buildings, monuments, archaeological sites, works of art, artifacts, and landscapes that can be touched and seen.
The latter consists of traditions, artistic expressions, knowledge, and skills that are an integral part of a community’s culture. They cannot be touched, and they may include oral traditions, folk festivals, traditional craftsmanship, musical expressions, spiritual practices (some examples are Argentine tango, traditional Japanese washoku cuisine, and Brazilian samba). It is within the Intangible Heritage that Italian Lyric Singing is positioned, bringing the total to 16.

Among Intangible Heritage, you can find a wide variety of elements from around the world: dances, songs, rituals, but also the production of a specific object. That’s why the iconic Panama hat falls under Intangible Heritage. It’s not the hat itself that is a Material Heritage, but the history it carries with it. Within Intangible Heritage, we find, not surprisingly, Flamenco and Fado, but not classical Neapolitan song.
Let’s explore this further.

Spanish Flamenco

Spain is a concentrated mix of cultural practices worthy of study and preservation. Among its Intangible Heritage listed by UNESCO are transhumance (the movement of shepherds from one region to another) and river fluting, shared with other states, the practice of making glass objects, and the culture of bell ringing. Then there are those traditions so distinctive that they are identified as purely Spanish, such as Castells, a Catalan custom involving building human towers by participants climbing on top of each other, or Gomera, a shepherd’s language made up of whistles. But undoubtedly, when we think of Spain, we think of Flamenco, the quintessential Spanish music. Combining singing (cante), dance (baile), guitar (toque), and rhythm (palmas and compás), Flamenco, performed in typical Tablao venues, is now one of the most beloved musical styles. The fusion of Gypsy, Jewish, and Arab cultures gave birth to Flamenco, and today it is recognized worldwide as one of the most intense and emotional forms of art (and to do this it uses Duende, find out more here).

Anyone who has witnessed a Flamenco performance can confirm the passion, fervor, and spirituality with which it is executed, and they can’t get enough of it. This is why Intangible Heritage is so important, and this is why it is crucial that Lyric Singing is UNESCO Heritage.

Portuguese Fado

Like Spain, Portugal boasts traditions and practices on the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. Among these, the beautiful Fado, the pride of Portuguese culture, could not be missing. Much more than music, Fado is poetry, passion, vitality. It can be heard in typical Fado Houses scattered throughout Portugal, welcoming tourists from around the world every year. But there is a very special place in Portugal, similar to a Fado House but not a restaurant (an indispensable feature to be an authentic Fado House), called Ideal Fado. A spectacular concert hall that, for years, has decided to highlight Fado through a pure and simple musical show. Much more than a concert hall, it is an association of artists, a group of musicians, a place where art can breathe with vitality and freedom. Ideal Fado in Porto is among the promoters of SEA and YOU, the first festival of traditional music in Europe, along with Napulitanata and CajaGranada. These associations, on a smaller scale, perform a similar role to UNESCO. All three cooperate to enhance traditional musical styles, styles that are of fundamental importance to the country and the world. Two of these musical styles are already UNESCO Intangible Heritage: Fado and Flamenco, but not classical Neapolitan song.

The Absence of Classical Neapolitan Song in Intangible Heritage

Italy is the country of culture par excellence, rich in both Material and Intangible Heritage. Finally, even Lyric Singing is UNESCO Heritage, joining a long list of other traditions, such as Sicilian Puppets, the magnificent Sardinian Tenore singing, the surprising and heartfelt Festivals of shoulder-held machines (an ancient tradition involving the transport of enormous wooden structures through the streets of villages), but also practices like mountaineering, truffle hunting, and the art of Neapolitan pizza making.

It is surprising at this point that classical Neapolitan song is missing from the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list. Given UNESCO’s strong focus on traditional music, one would expect the world’s most famous musical style to be included among Intangible Heritage, and indeed, voices have been raised for some time to have classical Neapolitan song recognized as UNESCO Intangible Heritage. Some unverified news continues to circulate on the internet, claiming the inclusion of classical Neapolitan song in the UNESCO Intangible Heritage list, but it is pure fantasy. While awaiting the well-deserved recognition, the concert hall Napulitanata takes care of making classical Neapolitan song known and valued in Naples through its concerts and globally with Sea and You!

Don’t miss any news from SEA and YOU, the first festival of traditional song in Europe. Continue to follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

By Davide Lancia