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A Tuscan Melody

SEVEN hundred years ago, when the heart of Italy was glowing
from a new fire and strong with a new youth, a poet of whom
little is known parted from his lady in a Tuscan orange grove.
The fading blue of the sky above them, and the green and bright
colour of the orange trees dim in the sudden twilight, made a
sweetly toned background to her small delicately shaped Italian
head, and greatly pleased the poet. Those were caressing words
that he whispered as they waited in the dusk. They parted, she
to thread her way down to the village, he upwards to the little
house above the orange trees. Her round lips pouted as she
slipped away. “He does not love me. No, he does not love
me,” their petulant little curves seemed to whisper to each other.
Yet, when his hand was on his doorlatch, he stood for man
minutes looking down to where her white dress flickered through
the trees. Looking at him then, one would have said he loved
her. But suddenly a sweeter smile moved his face, a brighter
light lit his eyes. He looked like one before whom the beauty of
the earth has dawned in a glowing cloud on a pale sky. He dis-
appeared into the house and was soon striding up and down a
brown wood room, bare with scanty furniture. Words were
singing in his ears. His heart throbbed to a strangely beautiful
measure. Now and again he took a long pen from a small table
in a corner of the room, and wrote words upon a piece of parch-
ment. Then he would cross them out and write the words again.
His face shone like the lanthorn of pale glass that hung in the
corner over the table. Looking upon him then, one would have
said that all the love of all his life was held in the faint thing
that he was snatching from the air and setting out in trembling
loving strokes upon his scrap of vellum.

    All night he worked, building up a song from live words,
and fitting them with all the art that was in him to a fine old
Tuscan melody. As the orange trees broke into brilliance under
the morning sun, his song was finished and he rested for a moment,
humming it happily over to himself. Then, drunk with the joy of
having made a new thing, he ran down the hill to bring Valeria,
his lady, who had the sweetest voice in all the valley, that she
might be the first to sing the song that he had made. Then indeed
was he in love. Whether with the Sparse song, each word of
which seemed like a little mesh in the net of music that held his

soul, a painting, trembling captive, or with the thought of the dainty
Lady Valeria singing it over in the house above the orange trees,
it is impossible to say. He found Valeria, and brought her all
untidy and fresh as the dew on the grass, at tumbling pace up
through the trees. They climbed hand in hand. His hand held
hers so tight that the blood that beat in him seemed to her to be-
long to her own veins also. “Surely he loves me,” she thought.
Even as they ran he kept telling her the words of the song, lilting
over the melody she was to sing. They reached the house, and he
took a long draught of wine, holding it up for her to see the sun-
light sparkling in its crimson depths. She refused when he offered
it, but he made her sip a little that her song might rise the

    She sang, and the poet turned his head aside, gazing
dumbly out over the valley, and a mist was in his eyes. The
beauty of Valeria bringing the other beauty from the heart of his
own song was like the bright lightning that stuns everything to
silent thought. As she neared the end of the song he turned again
towards her. And when she stopped with a little sob in her voice,
he caught her in his arms. She sang it for him again and again.
He knew as she sang that he loved her. Shortly they were
married. This is the end of the story of Valeria and her poet, but
the tale of the song is not finished yet, nor ever will be while men
love to hear their women singing.

    For the little wild thing that was born to the poet in that
mad happy night in the house above the orange grove has been
sung through all the world so long and so often that the name of
the poet has been forgotten. The peasants in the valley call it
Valeria’s song, for when she came down into the village it was
ever on her lips. They loved the music and the words, and passed
them on from mouth to mouth long after the poet and Valeria lay
together under the grass with the orange trees blossoming above
their grave. The poem was sung nightly in the hot Italian
summers when the peasants sat together after sunset, watching
the reds and greens of the sky darken to purple and deep blue.
Petrarch heard it sung in his Tuscan childhood, and he wrote
other words to fit the music, but the old words clung on, and may
still be heard in the valley where they were written.

    The song might always have remained here as one of the

                                    A Tuscan Melody

old songs of the place, and never been known elsewhere, if it had
not been for a fortunate accident. One year when the valley was
not so prosperous as to promise employment for all its young men,
a youth, one of a numerous family, determined to leave his home
and hack a golden fortune from the wealth of Pisa. This youth
was clever in the making of little statues and his voice was clear
and fresh. He came to Pisa, and as he had not money to rent a
booth, he age his figures on a tray and carried them through the
streets. Friendless among the quick contemptuous dwellers in
the city, he was puzzled and not a little dismayed by the finely
dressed youths who swaggered past him, and the quaint dresses
of the sailing folk who came from all parts of the world. He was
very lonely. To lift his soul which felt bruised and beaten by the
buzz around him, he sang as he walked, the old song of the valley
he had left, away in the Tuscan hills. As he sang, he forgot the
people and all the hum of the chattering trading city. He thought
of the big tree in the middle of his village, in whose boughs he had
sat and teasingly flung leaves and twigs at a dark-haired girl who
stood gazing up at him. Perhaps he thought a little of her also.
However that may be he did not notice a tall Pisan who One
to listen to him, so that he started quickly when the man laid
a hand on the curling black hair that covered his bare head.
“Youth,” said he, “you must sing that song before my master.
Whence came it? Who was its author?” The lad was accus-
tomed to speak freely, and undismayed by the dignity of his
listener, who was a man finely dressed, he told what little he knew
of the origin of the poem. Me was taken to a great house richly
furnished, and sang the song before one of the greatest nobles of
the city. He listened to the song, and it brought a wistful look
of a man rather than of a statesman, to his care-laden eyes. He had
the song over again and often afterwards, and it was spread through
all Pisa. From Pisa it was carried to all the cities of Italy by
travellers or by the accidents of war. The Venetians knew it. It
became a common street song in Rome and Naples, and often on
cool nights in Florence youths and maidens drifting in silent
boats between the banks of the Arno, heard music in the houses
that they passed, and this song with its ancient Tuscan melody
floated to them over the water in the beam of light from one of the
open windows.

From Venice it found its way northward into the rugged
heart of Germany. The old strong life still throbbed in the pulses
of the North, when an engraver in wood came over the hills to
the city on the sea. His manners were rough, of the north, but
his face was free and open, and he soon became a favourite among
the artists of Venice. One, in particular, grew very close with
him, and the two worked in the same room. Now this artist was
painting a picture for a rich man, and a noble Venetian lady, who
loved him, was sitting as a model. She was fond of singing, and
among all the songs she knew, this Tuscan song was her favourite.
Once, as they were preparing their painting tools, she sang it to
beguile the time. The tune and its words seized the German
artist and held him fast. Though there was nothing sorrowful in
the lyric, yet it moved him as it had moved the man who wrote
it, and his sight was dimmed with tears. He begged her for the
words, and found a strange joy in the swaying rhythms of the
Latin that she taught him, half laughing at his eagerness. Then
when he returned to the north he chanted the song at one of the
merry feasts where soldiers and artists, priests and poets sat
together heartily at a single board. He sang it hesitatingly as one
exhibits a new sword which looks handsome but has given no
proof of its strength. Under his broad eyebrows he looked round
for the applause he expected and won. The others asked him for
the words. Twice he repeated them. Then, with clash of flagons
on the table, the whole company of men in lusty chorus chanted
the ancient song until the rafters creaked.

    Already the song had filled all Italy and been carried across
the seas to the East and across the hills to the North, when hun-
dreds of years after that first singing in the orange grove among
the Tuscan hills, travelling singers carried it West, to the Dutch
fishermen who chanted it as they brought their boats to beach, to
the roystering taverns of old France, and in many varying versions
to Norway, and the unknown lands beyond. About this time,
when all the world was singing, when lovers sang beneath the
windows of their loves, and peace and war alike filled men with
song, the melody came curiously to England. A pious English
pilgrim, with a little of the devil still in him that he wished
to cast out by his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, was tramping across
Europe, singing as he went psalm tunes and all manner of godly

                                    A Tuscan Melody

chants. One day in southern Germany, as he passed under the
windows of an old brown inn, a voice started into the air directly
above him. His pious meditation was so strong upon him that he
was decidedly startled, but all thoughts of angels or devils were
flung from his mind, when, looking up, he saw a red-cheeked
German maiden leaning from a window-sill, singing heartfully this
same old Tuscan song. Pilgrim though he was, he tucked up his
skirts, dropped his staff and scrip, and in two bars of the song was
up the wooden stairs and laughingly pursuing that German
maiden round and round a table. He caught her at last, of course,
and she sang the song to him very sweetly, sitting before him on
the table, swinging her wooden shoes. He vowed that he would
sing it himself, and it is recorded that he entered the Holy City
with the wild thrill of the Tuscan melody upon his pious lips.
When he returned to England his song spread far among the
learned, and soon descended to the unlearned, who sang it quite
as lustily. As years passed, it became most popular, and the
chubby little boys who sat cross-legged on imitation dolphins
sang it to Queen Elizabeth at that famous revel in the grounds of
Kenilworth Castle. She was pleased with its melody, and had a
copy writ on vellum in inks of red and green, with much fine gold,
and caused her pages to sing it to her when she rested in a balcony
of Windsor, weary and tired from her day of careful scheming.

    For the next two hundred years the song was sung through
all Europe, by the students of the universities, by soldiers on the
march, by merry-making priests; the light-haired girls of Germany
and the dark-haired ladies of Spain sang it always with the same
subtle enjoyment, bringing gaiety to some and tears to others.
But of all the stories of its singing that we know, there is none
I like so well as this, of eighteenth century France. A dainty
demoiselle, given the words by a stiff old singing master, read
them and found them sweet to her careful little tongue. She
stood by the greyheaded man at the instrument, and her slender
throat swelled up and down with the wavelets of the song. She
sang it as it should be sung, with the fresh passion and clear
voice of a young girl, and the old master bent his locks over her
little hands and kissed them for her singing. Then she blushed
prettily and would sing no more till, coaxed by the pleading
courteous old gentleman, she burst out laughingly with one of the

lilting songs of the France that has long been dead except in the
souls of her poets.

    Lastly, to prove that all this is true, was not the old song
sung to me to-night, when dusk caressed my orchard. Two
girls, who looked like spirits in their pale dresses against the
darkness of the trees, sang to me leaning on a bough whose faint
pink blossoms still showed dim in the twilight. Only an hour
ago, when I passed into my cottage, the stars sang high in the
heavens above me and the echoes of those two sweet girlish
voices were clinging round my heart.

    Besides these, the song, and the melody which is older than
the song, have had many other adventures. They have been
woven into operas, and sung in brilliant theatres and cold glimmer-
ing streets, in crowded cities and on the wide expanses of the
East. Some day I mean to build the stories of the singings into
a little book.

                                                              ARTHUR RANSOME

MLA citation:

Ransome, Arthur. “A Tuscan Melody.” The Venture: an Annual of Art and Literature, vol. 2, 1905, pp. 141-146. Venture Digital Edition, edited by Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2019-2022. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Toronto Metropolitan University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2022,