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The term tarantella groups together a number of different folk dances characterized by a fast upbeat tempo, usually in 6/8 time (sometimes 18/8 or 4/4), accompanied by tambourines. It is among the most recognized forms of traditional southern Italian music. The specific dance-name varies with every region, for instance tammuriata in Campania, pizzica in the Salento region, Sonu a ballu in Calabria. Tarantella is popular in Southern Italy and Argentina.
History, past and today
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In the Italian Taranto, Apulia, the bite of a locally common type of wolf spider, named "tarantula" after the region, was popularly believed to be highly poisonous and to lead to a hysterical condition known as tarantism.  This became known as the Tarantella. The oldest documents mentioning the relationship between musical exorcism and the tarantula are dated around 1100 BC. R.Lowe Thompson proposed that the dance is a survival from a "Dianic or Dionysiac cult", driven underground. John Compton later proposed that these ancient Bacchanalian rites had been suppressed by the Roman Senate. In 186 BC the tarantula went underground, reappearing under the guise of emergency therapy for bite victims.
The tradition persists in the area, and is known as "Neo-Tarantism." Many young artists, groups and famous musicians are continuing to keep the tradition alive. The music is very different—its tempo is faster, for one thing—but it has similar hypnotic effects, especially when people are exposed to the rhythm for a long period of time. The music is used in the therapy of patients with certain forms of depression and hysteria, and its effects on the endocrine system recently became an object of research.
Courtship vs tarantism dances
The stately courtship tarantella danced by a couple or couples, short in duration, is graceful and elegant and features characteristic music. On the other hand, the supposedly curative or symptomatic tarantella was danced solo by a supposed victim of a "tarantula" bite; it was agitated in character, lasted for hours or even up to days, and featured characteristic music. However, other forms of the dance were and still are couple dances (not necessarily a couple of different sexes) usually either mimicking courtship or a sword fight. The confusion appears to arrive from the fact that the spiders, the condition, its sufferers ("tarantolati"), and the dances all have similar names to the city of Taranto.
The first dance originated in the Apulia region and spread next to all part of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. The Neapolitan tarantella is a courtship dance performed by couples whose "rhythms, melodies, gestures, and accompanying songs are quite distinct" featuring faster more cheerful music. Its origins may further lie in "a fifteenth-century fusion between the Spanish Fandango and the Moresque 'ballo di sfessartia'." The "magico-religious" tarantella is a solo dance performed supposedly to cure through perspiration the delirium and contortions attributed to the bite of a spider at harvest (summer) time. The dance was later applied as a supposed cure for the behavior of neurotic women (" 'Carnevaletto delle donne' ").
Tarantism, as a ritual, has roots in the ancient Greek myths. Reportedly, victims who had collapsed or were convulsing would begin to dance with appropriate music and be revived as if a tarantula had bitten them. The music used to treat dancing mania appears to be similar to that used in the case of tarantism though little is known about either. Justus Hecker (1795–1850), describes in his work Epidemics of the Middle Ages:
A convulsion infuriated the human frame [...]. Entire communities of people would join hands, dance, leap, scream, and shake for hours [...]. Music appeared to be the only means of combating the strange epidemic [...] lively, shrill tunes, played on trumpets and fifes, excited the dancers; soft, calm harmonies, graduated from fast to slow, high to low, prove efficacious for the cure.
The music used against spider bites featured drums and clarinets, was matched to the pace of the victim, and is only weakly connected to its later depiction in the tarantellas of Chopin, Liszt, Rossini, and Heller.
While most serious proponents speculated as to the direct physical benefits of the dancing rather than the power of the music a mid-18th century medical textbook gets the prevailing story backwards describing that tarantulas will be compelled to dance by violin music. It was thought that the Lycosa tarantula wolf spider had lent the name "tarantula" to an unrelated family of spiders having been the species associated with Taranto, but since the lycosa tarantula is not inherently deadly in summer or in winter, the highly poisonous Mediterranean black widow (Latrodectus tredecimguttatus) may have been the species originally associated with Taranto's manual grain harvest.
The Tarantella is a dance in which the dancer and the drum player constantly try to upstage each other by dancing longer or playing faster than the other, subsequently tiring one person out first.
Grand Tarantella ballet
The Balanchine ballet Tarantella is set to the Grande Tarantella for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 67 (ca. 1866) by Louis Moreau Gottschalk, reconstructed and orchestrated by Hershy Kay. The profusion of steps and the quick changes of direction this brief but explosive pas de deux requires typify the ways in which Balanchine expanded the traditional vocabulary of classical dance.
- Benjamin Britten wrote a tarantella as the third movement of his Sinfonietta for Chamber Orchestra, Op. 1.
- Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco wrote a Tarantella for solo guitar, Op. 87b
- Frédéric Chopin wrote a Tarantelle in A-flat, Op. 43 with the characteristic 6/8 time signature. It was inspired specifically by Rossini's's song "La Danza"
- John Corigliano wrote a Tarantella as the fourth movement of his Gazebo Dances.
- Claude Debussy wrote a piece called "Danse (Tarantelle styrienne)."
- Leopold Godowsky transcribed Chopin's Etude Op. 10, No. 5 "Black Key" into a tarantella for the piano.
- Helmut Lachenmann's twelfth movement of Tanzsuite mit Deutschlandlied (1979–80) is Tarantelle.
- Franz Liszt composed a piece called "Tarantella, Venezia e Napoli" (No. 3 from Années de pèlerinage, 2nd Year: Italy), which is in a rapid tempo in 6/8-2/4 time.
- Felix Mendelssohn wrote a piece called "Tarantella" in 1845 (Op. 102, No. 3). The final movement of his Italian Symphony is in the form of a tarantella.
- Albert Pieczonka, a pianist and composer who performed in Prussia, England, and the United States wrote a popular piano composition titled Tarantella in A Minor.
- David Popper wrote a piece called Tarantella (Op. 33), written in 6/8 time.
- The fourth of Sergei Prokofiev's twelve easy pieces for piano—Musique d'Enfants, Op. 65—is a Tarantella.
- Sergei Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 2 for Two Pianos, Op. 17, features a tarantella for its finale.
- Gioachino Rossini's song "La Danza" is a Neapolitan tarantella.
- Camille Saint-Saëns composed "Tarantella" Op. 6 in A minor for flute, clarinet and orchestra, or for flute, clarinet and piano. He also transcribed this piece for two pianos.
- The last movement of the Piano Concerto No. 2 in G minor by Camille Saint-Saëns is a tarantella.
- Pablo de Sarasate composed an Introduction and Tarantella for violin.
- Franz Schubert's Death and the Maiden Quartet uses a tarantella in the frenetic fourth movement.
- Franz Schubert's Piano Sonata in C minor, last movement, is a tarantella/rondo.
- The fourth movement of Schubert's Symphony No. 3 is also a tarantella, but following the Sonata form.
- William Henry Squire wrote a tarantella for cello in D minor.
- The fifth movement of Igor Stravinsky's Suite italienne is a tarantella.
- Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky's Capriccio Italien ends in a frenzied variation of a tarantella. Also, one of his Pas de Deux in The Nutcracker features a tarantella.
- Mark-Anthony Turnage composed a violin concerto entitled Mambo, Blues and Tarantella in 2007, with the tarantella being the finale.
- Henryk Wieniawski composed a well-known violin masterpiece, called Scherzo-Tarantella, Op. 16
- Tarantella for Piano and Orchestra was composed by American composer Michael Glenn Williams for pianist Sean Chen
- The last movement of Malcolm Williamson's Sinfonietta (1965) is a tarantella.
Allan Small wrote Tarantella in A minor for Piano
- In literature
- A performance of the tarantella was central to the plot of Henrik Ibsen's play A Doll's House.
- In Susan Sontag's 1992 novel The Volcano Lover: A Romance Lady Emma Hamilton shocks her company by dancing a tarantella.
- In film
- The Fairy Godmother's song Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo from Disney's Cinderella is a tarantella.
- It has appeared in feature films such as The Godfather.
- In The Godfather II, Frankie Pentangeli tries to get the band playing at Michael's son's 1st communion party (whose members are not Italian) to play a tarantella; following some quick coaching, the band instead ends up playing "Pop Goes the Weasel".
- The dance is referenced in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, where it is the result of a magical curse.
- It is also in the soundtrack to Inglourious Basterds by Quentin Tarantino
- Extensive use of tarantellas is made in the French film "Tous les soleils"
- It has appeared in the musical version of Peter Pan with Mary Martin and is danced by Captain Hook and his band of pirates, illustrating the above mentioned occasional association with swordfights vis à vis the metaphor of pirates. In this performance, which is available on film and DVD, the context is silly fun.
- It has appeared in The Legend of 1900 when some immigrants request 1900 to playing tarantella music
- In games
- A tarantella was part of the soundtrack for 2009 game Assassin's Creed II
- One level of Earthworm Jim 2, "Puppy Love" uses both a tarantella and Funiculì, Funiculà as music.
- In manga/anime
- In "Axis Powers Hetalia", South Italy/Romano cures his disease by dancing the tarantella with Spain. His character song, "The Delicious Tomato Song", is a tarantella.
- Blatter, Alfred (2007). Revisiting music theory: a guide to the practice, p.28. ISBN 0-415-97440-2.
- Morehead, P.D., Bloombury Dictionary of Music, London, Bloombury, 1992
- Linnaeus would name the spider Lycosa tarantula in 1758
- "POISONOUS SPIDER BITES.". The Queenslander (Brisbane, Qld. : 1866 - 1939) (Brisbane, Qld.: National Library of Australia). 8 September 1923. p. 2. Retrieved 1 September 2013.
- R.Lowe Thompson. The History of the Devil. Paul, Trench, Tubner and Co. (1929), p.164.
- John Compton. The Life of the Spider. Mentor Books (1954), p. 56f.
- Toschi, Paolo (1950). Proceedings of the Congress Held in Venice September 7th to 11th, 1949: "A Question about the Tarantella", Journal of the International Folk Music Council, Vol. 2. (1950), p. 19. Translated by N. F.
- Ettlinger, Ellen (1965). Review of "La Tarantella Napoletana" by Renato Penna (Rivista di Etnografia), Man, Vol. 65. (Sep. – Oct., 1965), p. 176.
- Hecker, Justus. Quoted in Sear, H. G. (1939).
- Sear, H. G. (1939). "Music and Medicine", p.45, Music & Letters, Vol. 20, No. 1. (Jan., 1939), pp. 43–54. Note that Sear may mistake the Neapolitan and Apulian tarantellas and that those by Romantic composers to which he refers may have been intended as Neapolitan.
- Rishton, Timothy J. (1984). "Plagiarism, Fiddles and Tarantulas", The Musical Times, Vol. 125, No. 1696. (Jun., 1984), pp. 325–327.
- Legend of the Tarantella
- Word of the Day: Tarantula and Tarantella, etymology and folklore
- RHYTHM IS THE CURE
- Sicilian Culture: Tarantella Dance
- The tarantella dance!
- Dance the 'Viddaneddha'
- Tarantella, Tarantella
- YouTube Video: Draga Matkovic, oldest practicing classical pianist of the world, plays her own Tarantella composition from 1927 on her 102nd birthday, November 4, 2009.
- Tarantella's history