By Jeanne Cannavo
Music is and always has been an integral part of the fabric of Italy’s culture. Throughout the centuries, tales of historic deeds, of love and joy and loss, have been a part of daily life and lore – stories that have long found expression in music. In 1951, the idea of presenting these songs to the wider public came to fruition with the Festival di Sanremo.
After World War II, one of the proposals to revitalize the economy and the reputation of Sanremo was to create an annual music festival in the city. It all began on the Italian Riviera in 1951 in the resort’s famous casino. It was the idea of flower seller and political activist, Amilicare Romboldi. With the help of the administrator of the Sanremo Casino, Piero Bussetti, and the conductor of the RAI orchestra, Giulio Razzi, the group decided to launch a competition among artists with recognition of both singers and composers. Officially titled Festival della canzone italiane (literally “Festival of the Italian song”) the first competition lasted a week, a tradition that still exists today.
The first festival in January 1951 was broadcast by RAI’s radio station Rete Rossa. Twenty songs were presented in the competition with only three singers to sing them as either solos or duets. Nilla Pizzi, Achille Togliani and Duo Fasone interpreted the songs for the festival. The winning song, sung by Nilla Pizzi, was “Grazie dei Fiore,” a piece written by Saverio Saracini. He was an Italian composer, guitarist and conductor who lost his sight shortly before composing the song. The song is a tale of a bittersweet story of someone receiving roses from a lost love, which invokes feelings of gratitude but also painful memories.
Between 1953 and 1971, except in 1956, two different artists twice sang each song, each using an individual orchestral arrangement, to illustrate the meaning of the festival as a composers’ competition, not a singers’ competition. During this era of the festival, it was customary that one version of the song was performed by a native Italian artist while an international guest artist performed the other version. This became a way for international artists to debut their songs on the Italian market, including Louis Armstrong, Stevie Wonder, Jose Feliciano, Paul Anka, Kiss, and many others.
The festival went on to form the basis for the annual Eurovision Song Contest and has often been used as a method for choosing the Italian entry for the Eurovision competition. It has launched the careers of some of Italy’s most successful musical acts, including Andrea Bocelli, Il Volo, Giorgia, Laura Pausini, Eros Ramozzotti, and Gigliola Cinquetti.
Beginning with the third edition of the festival, held in 1953, each song was performed by two different artists with different orchestras and arrangements. Two years later, in 1955, the festival made its first appearance on television, since part of the final night was also broadcast by RAI’s channel Programma Nazionale. The last night of the show was also broadcast in Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, and Switzerland.
In 1964, Gianni Ravera, who organized the 14th Sanremo Music Festival, slightly changed the rules of the contest, requiring each song sung once by an Italian artist and once by an international singer who could sing the song in in the language of his or her choice. The same rule was applied in the following year’s contest. Between 1967 and 1971, entries did not need interpretation by foreign artists, but double performances were still allowed. In 1972, each entry was sung by one artist only.
The competing artists were split for the first time into “big artists” and “young artists” during the Sanremo Music Festival 1974. The competition had only one winner, but the entries in the “young artists” category had to go through an elimination round, while “big artists” were directly admitted to the final round.
In 1977, the Sanremo Casino, which hosted all the previous editions of the contest, closed for renovations and the show moved to the Teatro Ariston. The theater became the usual location for the annual contest except in 1990, when the show was broadcast from the Nuovo Mercato dei Fiori, also known as Palafiori for a 40th year celebration.
In 1980, pre-recorded backing tracks replaced the orchestra, while playback performances were allowed in 1983 during the final round. In 1984 and 1985, all the artists were required to perform in playback, while live performances with the orchestra were reintroduced in 1990. During the same years, several other changes were introduced in the contest. In 1982, accredited music journalists decided to create an award to recognize the best song competing in the festival. In 1983, the best song prize was officially awarded during the event. The critics’ prize was later named after Mia Martini, the first to receive the best song award for her entry “E non finisce mica il Cielo.”
In 1984, the separation between newcomers and established artists was evident with the introduction of two different competitions with separate winners. In 1989, the producers introduced a third category, an upcoming artist’s section, which was then removed the following year. Only in 1998 were the top three artists in the newcomer section allowed to compete in the main competition. This led to the victory of the debuting Annalisa Minetti, which created a bit of controversy and led to the reintroduction of separate competitions starting from 1999.
The distinction among various categories was abolished again in 2004. In 2005, the contest included five different categories – newcomers, men, women, groups, and classics. The winner of each category competed for final victory in the contest. The classic category was abolished in 2006 but the following the festival returned to the rules used in the 1990s, with two separate competitions for established artists and newcomers.
Over the years, the Festival di Sanremo has become a much-awaited winter tradition. It is the mirror that reflects Italian society and culture. It is a competition in constant flux, adapting to societal changes. The show is Italy’s most popular Italian song contest and awards ceremony featuring singers with previously unreleased songs.
A number of songs became international hits over the years. In 1958, the winner was “Volare” (“Nel blu dipinto di blu”). Originally recorded by Italian singer-song-writer Domenico Modugno and written
by Modugno and Franco Migliacci, it was released as a single on Feb. 1, 1958. It became a No. 1 hit in the U.S. Dean Martin went on to record the hit, as did Bobby Rydell.
In the 1960s, “Al di là” (Beyond) won with singer Betty Curtis and later became popular in the U.S. with a version recorded by Emilio Pericoli. Al Martino had a hit with a bilingual version.
In 1970 Adriano Celentano won with “Chi non lavora non fa l’amore” (Who doesn’t work doesn’t make love). He has remained a popular recording artist to this day. Al Bano and Romina Power (daughter of the late movie star Tyrone Power) won in 1984 with “Ci sarà” (There will be). The couple toured widely outside Italy including numerous times in the U.S.
The Italian musical group Pooh won the 40th edition of the festival in 1990 with the song “Uomini Soli” (Lonely Men) and the internationally known artists Il Volo won in 2015 with their song “Grande Amore” (Great Love).
To decide this year’s winner the votes used will come from three areas: 34 percent public televoting; 33 percent jury of the press room, TV, radio and web; and 33 percent from a demoscopic jury. The winner can then go on to represent Italy in the Eurovision contest if they want to. If not, RAI will internally select one of the other competitors.
Last year’s tormentone (a smash hit) was “Zitti e buoni” (Quiet and Good) by the rock group Måneskin. Stayed tuned for the winner for 2022!