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Have you ever had a dream that you were flying? Most people will answer “yes” to this question. The incident, of which I am about to tell you, entered the world in just this way, through a dream.
Our story begins somewhere in Italy around June of 1957. A young man named Franco Migliacci tinkered with the lyrics for a new song after having been inspired by a couple of paintings by the Russian painter Marc Chagall. Several prints of Chagall’s paintings covered the walls of Franco’s home and he stared at them, often mesmerized by them.
Franco and his friend, Domenico Modugno, had planned to spend the day at the seashore. As Franco waited at home for his friend to arrive, he stared at the paintings and sipped a glass of wine. The time for Domenico to arrive had come and gone and as Franco continued to wait, he took a second glass of wine and then a third until eventually he fell asleep with visions of Chagall’s paintings in his head blending into his dreams.
Franco’s dreams turned into nightmares and, when he awoke, he stared at the Chagall prints: “Le coq rouge” (The Red Hen) and “Le peintre et la modelle” (The Painter and the Model) hanging on his wall. He noted that in Le coq rouge, a yellow man was suspended in midair, while in “Le peintre et la modelle,” half of the painter’s face was colored blue. In this state of mind, he began to write lyrics about a man who dreams of painting himself blue before taking flight into the heavens.
It was much later the same evening that Domenico finally arrived. Although Franco was quite angry with Domenico for standing him up, he could not contain his excitement. He felt that he had to share with his friend the first few lines of the new song he had written. Domenico, a musician and song writer, took an immediate interest in what he was hearing. Together, for several days after, they continued to work on the song which they titled, “Sogno in Blu” (Dream in Blue).
But something was missing, thought Domenico. He was not satisfied with the lyrics. He gave it much thought and as he pondered the missing element, a storm suddenly blew open windows of his home. It was that sudden gust of wind which brought the inspiration he needed to modify the chorus: It was the introduction of the word “Volare” (To Fly), which also became the song’s title.
The song was later translated into several languages and it was recorded by a wide range of performers, including Dean Martin, Al Martino, David Bowie, the Gipsy Kings, and Barry White. Franco’s desire to narrate his dream experience in a song can be described as poetry set to music. Unfortunately, perhaps because of the translator’s desire for rhyme, much of its original meaning is lost. Poetry has been defined as having metric form and verse or prose with poetic qualities intended to stimulate the imagination. Both Italian and English lyrics make for an interesting comparison of imagery.
But unlike the Italian version, the English version does not introduce the song with the narration of a dream, but merely invites another person to fly.
Let’s fly way up to the clouds
Away from the maddening crowds
We can sing in the glow of a
star that I know of
Where lovers enjoy peace of mind
Let us leave the confusion and
all disillusion behind
Just like birds of a feather, a
rainbow together we’ll find. Volare Cantare.
Now compare: The following Italian lyrics of Volare have been translated as closely as possible to its original meaning, of course, without rhyme:
I think that a dream such as this will never return.
I have painted my hands and my face the color blue.
Then suddenly there came a rapid wind.
And I began to fly into the infinite sky.
To fly, To sing,
In blue painted blue,
Happy just staying aloft.
And I flew and I flew happily
beyond the sun and again higher still.
While the world slowly, slowly
Disappeared in the distance below.
A sweet sound of music played
For me alone. To fly. To sing.
Volare was hailed an instant success in Italy, selling more than 20,000 copies in the first 12 days. It became an international hit, selling in the United States and the United Kingdom as well as the rest of Europe. The song which originated from a place far beyond the shores of the United States of America was destined to make musical history.
During the first Grammy Awards held on May 4, 1959, at Hollywood’s Beverly Hilton Hotel, “Nel blu dipinto di blu” received two awards, for “Record of the Year” and “Song of the Year.” Volare was the only foreign-language recording to achieve this honor.
Somehow, to this day, the spirit of Volare has not faded, because it truly flies and sings in the hearts of those who have experienced the dream of flying, those who sing along with perhaps the only words they know:
Volare, Oh! Oh!
Cantare, Oh! Oh! Oh! Oh!
Nel blu, dipinto di blu,
Felice de stare lassù.