I’m not ashamed to admit it—I love Christmas music. I love listening to it, singing it, and playing it. One of my favorite Christmas songs is “Gesù Bambino,” composed in 1917 by Pietro A. Yon. The song combines a beautiful melody in the form of a Pastorale (a dotted rhythm in six-eight or twelve-eight time) with the tune to Adeste Fideles. There are innumerable performances on youtube. Here’s Luciano Pavarotti singing the Italian version.
I am more familiar with the English lyrics, beginning “When blossoms flowered ‘mid the snows,” written by Frederick H. Martens. Here’s a performance by the Cathedral Singers.
Nowadays Pietro Yon might be considered a one-hit wonder, with “Gesù Bambino” being his one hit, but during his lifetime he was well-known as a virtuoso organist and composer, mostly of sacred music. Here’s a newsreel clip from 1930 showing him playing the organ at St Patrick’s Cathedral (he starts playing forty seconds in; sorry about the audio quality).
I recently discovered some unexpected family connections to Pietro Yon. My maternal grandmother, Josephine Valentino (whom we called “Nonni”), spent her last years in a nursing home. She had long expressed a desire to write the story of her life, and my father (her son-in-law) offered to help her. He would visit her once a week and tape record her reminiscences, transcribe them during the week, bring them to her on his next weekly visit for her review, and then start the cycle again. Working this way, they produced two volumes of memoirs, which he had duplicated and bound at a copy shop and sent to all the relatives. Producing these books, I think, was one of my grandmother’s proudest accomplishments.
Recently my son asked me a few questions about our family history, and to answer them I got out Nonni’s books. I hadn’t read them in a long time, and I found a few surprising things (look for later blog entries!). Nonni and my father chose some supplemental materials to go along with her text. These were mostly family photos, but in the section where she talked about her 1924 wedding at Sacred Heart church in Manhattan, my father transcribed newspaper accounts of the event. One of these articles listed some of the wedding guests, including, according to my father’s transcription, “Peter and Constantino Yon.” My first reaction upon reading this was, could that be Pietro Yon, the composer of Gesù Bambino? And if so, I wonder if it was the newspaper that called him “Peter” or if that was a transcription error on my father’s part?1 Next, I wondered if Pietro’s wife was named “Constantina” and if “Constantino” was a typo (again, either my father’s or the paper’s).
Some quick googling answered at least some of my questions. Pietro Yon was born in Italy in 1886 and came to the US in 1907. From 1907-1926 he was the organist at St Francis Xavier church in New York City, and from 1926 until his death in 1943 he was the organist at St Patrick’s Cathedral. At least the chronology and geography, therefore, are consistent with his attending my grandparents’ 1924 wedding in New York City. Yon’s wife was named Francesca, not Constantina, but it turned out that Constantino was the name of Pietro’s brother, also a church musician.2 Wikipedia also helpfully informed me that Pietro Yon’s birthplace was in the Piedmont region of Italy, which is the same region my grandmother came from (she emigrated to the US as a child in 1910). The obvious next step was to check Google Maps, where I discovered that Yon’s hometown, Settimo Vittone, is only a couple of miles from Borgofranco d’Ivrea, where my grandmother’s family lived.
Next piece of evidence: the photographs. Here’s a photo of Pietro Yon from the internet:
And here’s a photo taken at my grandparents’ wedding reception at the Hotel McAlpin:
I’d say the gentleman on the far left is Pietro Yon. I’m not sure if Constantino is in the photo, as I couldn’t find a good image of him for comparison. (As an aside, check out the pageboys, dressed as Little Lord Fauntleroy. There’s a wedding custom that probably would profit from further research.)
I think it’s fairly certain that Pietro Yon attended my grandparents’ wedding. But the question remains, what was the connection? How did he (and his brother) get on the guest list? It’s possible, given the closeness of Settimo Vittone and Borgofranco, that the families knew each other in the Old Country. Or perhaps they just moved in similar Italian-American circles in New York City. I like to imagine my grandmother’s stepfather, Carlo Boatti, encountering Pietro Yon at an event—perhaps a dinner at some Italian-American society—and recognizing his accent. Just like in canto ten of Dante’s Inferno, where Farinata degli Uberti hears the character Dante’s speech and calls out to him, “O Tosco” (“Hey, guy speaking Tuscan!”)3 Maybe Carlo Boatti called out, “O Piemontese!” I was unaware of this family connection to Pietro Yon while either my grandmother or my mother was alive, so I can’t ask them how our family knew the Yons. I guess I’ll never know.
I found another Yon connection in the course of my research. Pietro’s older brother Constantino was also a musician. In addition to being the organist at St Vincent Ferrer church in New York City, Constantino was also a music instructor at the College of Mount St Vincent in the Bronx (affectionately referred to as “The Mount”). Pietro dedicated one version of Gesù Bambino to the college, presumably because of his brother’s connection to it.
Mount St Vincent is affiliated with the Sisters of Charity of New York, the same order who ran Holy Cross Academy for Young Ladies, the school attended by both my mother and grandmother. My mother, who graduated first in her class, was offered a full scholarship to Mount St Vincent, but she turned it down in favor of attending Hunter College, where she majored in music (another story for another blog entry). But if she had taken the scholarship, she might have studied under Constantino Yon. And to bring the connections full circle, the Sisters of Charity of New York are a branch of the order founded by Saint Elizabeth Seton, who left New York and settled in Emmitsburg, MD, where one of her other communities, the Daughters of Charity, have their Mother House right down the road from Mount St Mary’s University, also affectionately referred to as “The Mount,” and where I teach. And now I think I’ll go play “Gesù Bambino” on my violin.