Son qual nave ch’agitata

One song I’m very fond of, for a whole bunch of reasons, is Ricardo Broschi’s “Son qual nave ch’agitata.” It is a song like many others in a way. It picks up the metaphor of a ship, lost on the sea in a storm. The calm B-part is describing reaching safety, which means the shore, and the beloved one.

It’s not an unusual subject for an aria. A ship at sea in a storm has been a very popular allegory for the human soul and its emotional state in Baroque and even after.


  • Siam navi all’ondi algenti (A. Vivaldi)
  • Vo solcando un mar crudele (J.C. Bach)
  • Da tempeste (G.F. Handel)
  • Sperai vicino il lido (Gluck, Vivaldi, Mozart,… how many versions are there?)

One of the most famous arias picking up the subject is most probably Mozart’s “Come scoglio.”

So why do I like the “Son qual nave,” of all possibilities?

It is a weird piece, one of Broschi’s best, most probably, but — he was no genius, in my perception. The aria — written to fit the voice of his brother, known as Farinelli, the famous castrato — is a show-piece. It doesn’t have the emotional depth of Vivaldi’s or Handel’s music. Broschi illustrates the overall subject wonderfully. “A ship at sea, in a storm. Hell, yeah!” You can almost see Broschi, head-banging, when he was sitting at the harpsichord writing it. Still, for him, apparently, a storm is fun. Neither does it have the accuracy of description that Vivaldi’s music has, all those lovely descriptive details. Do you notice how the violins in Vivaldi’s aria paint a figure that make you fear the ship might be capsizing any moment?

Broschi’s cliffs are rather of a vocal sort. The singer has to overcome quite a few hardships in the specific piece. While Vivaldi’s and Johann Christian Bach’s coloraturas flatter the voice, Broschi’s don’t. Bartoli’s voice still shines in it, of course, as well as Genaux’ who also likes to sing Broschi once in a while.  But it can hardly be counted as Broschi’s achievement — Bartoli and Genaux shine in almost everything.

“Son qual nave” is composed to be an almost vulgar display of skill. It already starts at the very first bars with the explicitly put-in messa di voce. 

Letter LVII October 3, 1813, from

Anecdotes of Music, Historical And Biographical;
in a
Series of Letters
from a
Gentleman To His Daughter.
A.Burgh, A.M.

So, Broschi wasn’t Vivaldi, but then, is he to blame for it? Let’s focus on what the aria achieves.

It transports restlessness, being at a loss, and to be happy to be so; it’s a mad tour de force. 

It is a declaration of love in a way. Broschi wrote it for his brother, knowing that his brother would be admired the more for his performance of the aria.

For me though, it has another notion to it as well. The almost perverted technique required for the piece describes better than any words could what inhumanity it was to castrate boys before their voice changed. The aria shows what a voice can do, with almost no emotion required, a pure display of what can be achieved.

But, I won’t lie, had I lived back then, I would have been the first in the audience to scream “Viva il coltello!” at the top of my voice; had I been born a boy — With any talent, I’m convinced I would have chosen like Caffarelli allegedly did: I would after some consideration gladly have swopped my balls for maybe being able to sing like that.

Hell, yes. I like Broschi. Some share my likes, apparently.

Son qual nave ch’agitata
da più scogli in mezzo all’onde
si confonde e spaventata
va solcando in alto mar.
Ma in veder l’amato lido
lascia l’onde e il vento infido
e va in porto a riposar.

5 thoughts on “Son qual nave ch’agitata

  1. This song has always made me want to throw myself at something passionately, to do something, anything as long as it kept me moving forward. It’s a song that I like to listen to when I feel like I’m going nowhere, because it does help me move out of my funk. And I especially like Bartoli’s execution of the piece.
    I found the excerpt from the “anecdotes” a great way to ground the song in it’s original setting. I wish I could have been there to hear Farinelli’s rendition.
    As an opera enthusiast with little formal musical background I want to thank you for offering me new insight to this piece.

  2. Oh! we want to play this aria , but we need the score! do you have the score? it’s very important for as (baroque orchestra)

  3. I have! I just took some pictures – today is national holiday and I don’t have a scanner at home. I’ll make a proper scan tomorrow.

    The sheet music was from the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, the number of the file in the library is printed on the cover, for further research. It was free back then, apart from a small fee for the fuss to send a printed copy. The Stadtbücherei Düsseldorf helped me to research where there was any existing sheet music of the piece back then. (Those were the times … bless you, internet.)
    I found a piano reduction which is quite close to the one I have, but the Generalbass numbering is missing etc..

    The problem is that although the pasticcio is by Hasse, the aria is by Broschi, so it seems to be missing in most of the compilations and scores. (At least I didn’t find the one I have at a quick search),_Johann_Adolph)
    I have no idea at which place it it set in the original opera, as it isn’t even part of Metastasio’s libretto.

    *edit, 05.10.2012 – I just wrote you an email with the link for the pdf file. I scanned it.

  4. About trading your balls, I’m not so sure (for myself, I yet have to add the condition “IF I were a man”), but anyway, keep in mind that by the age they were cut off, it might have been impossible to tell if your talent was truly extraordinary. You might be left an average singer with no balls.

    • You’re absolutely right. On another note: I’m unsure at times whether I should take all of this blog offline. It feels strange arguing for or against lines I wrote years ago, about topic I felt more passionate about then than I do now. Anyway, thank you for your comment!

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