ESC Copenhagen 1964 — “Non ho l’eta”

Eurovision 1964

full show (audio only)

Date: 21 March 1964
Venue: Tivoli Concert Hall, Copenhagen
Winning country: Italy (1st win)
Winning entry: Gigliola Cinquetti, “Non ho l’eta”

The audience are on their feet. Loud roars of approval fill the room. She’s so popular with them, they will eventually give her three times the score of her nearest challenger; she comes back to take a second bow, something that’s never happened before at Eurovision and will never happen again. Gigliola Cinquetti, at just 16 years of age, has become the latest — and for two decades, the youngest — winner of the Eurovision Song Contest.

We have had young winners at the Contest before; Jacqueline Boyer was only 19 when she sang “Tom Pillibi” four years ago. But most of our winners have been somewhat older and more mature; sometimes their performance even depended on their (relatively) advanced age — recall Lys Assia’s hazy nostalgia or Corry Brokken’s neglected-wife act. At Copenhagen, however, the winning song is one that repeatedly stresses how “I’m not old enough”, and is sung by an ingenue who looks nothing but awestruck every time she appears onstage. It is tempting to think that Cinquetti represents a changing of the guard, that her Eurovision win reveals a generational shift in Europe’s music tastes — except, as “Non ho l’eta” demonstrates, it was nothing of the sort.

(Little surviving footage exists of the 1964 Contest, this channel’s reconstruction is apparently quite faithful though.)

I think the most surprising thing about “Non ho l’eta” is that it even exists, from this artist, with that music and those lyrics, in this Contest. In 1964, I don’t think a lot of teenagers would have been saying “I’m not old enough”; certainly not sixteen-year-olds like Gigliola Cinquetti, who were probably far more likely to be screaming and tearing their hair out to the Beatles or the Stones in a crowded concert hall. Those newly in-vogue songs also emboldened the free flow of emotions; you felt things first, acted upon those feelings, and only afterwards would you think about what they meant. So the placidity with which Cinquetti sing the song goes against the times: she sings the song softly, almost hesitantly, pausing every so often as if to mull things over — “I’m not old enough… to love… you”, she says in the song’s opening moments, then doubles back to once again stress and think about her youth.

This maturity of reflexive thought is, depending on your own views, admirable or prudish for someone of Cinquetti’s age; the point is that it was rather passé by spring ’64, more practised by people in their fifties (which the writers of the song were) than bouncy teenagers. What Nicola Salerno’s lyrics portray are an ideal, an imagining of a youngster based on how his generation experienced it — certainly no self-respecting teenager, whether in the 60s or another sixty years on, would dare admit that “I would not have anything to tell you”, nor would they settle for a distant “someday” where “all my love will be for you”. It practically begs for a disclaimer in front: “any resemblance to actual adolescents, living or otherwise, is purely coincidental”.

But I would conjecture that this disconnect was PRECISELY what the gathered audience at the Tivoli Concert Hall wanted. What with the socio-cultural landscape shifting all around them, here was a modest young woman they could relate to: a standard-bearer for the music that they liked, singing chaste lyrics about waiting for your lover. Yes, most of the other songs at Copenhagen that night were also largely of the same subject, but none of them were being sung (and therefore endorsed) by the face of the future. It wasn’t just the lyrical content, either — did not these sedate, atmospheric accompaniments prove that there was no need to resort to loud guitars or screaming? That noise that all their sons and daughters seemed to be listening to these days, that was strange and brash and all so unnecessary. (I’m sure there were people in the audience who loved the Stones and the Supremes as much as they did this year’s French entry, but by and large it would have still been the case that the average ESC viewer was not a big fan of “Can’t Buy Me Love”.) That the youth would keep their heads down and hold on to the European traditions of finesse and conservatism must have been very gratifying for them.

This, then, was the fantasy that “Non ho l’eta” offered: despite its repeated insistence that “I’m not old enough”, Salerno’s lyrics offered a wise-beyond-their-years sensibility that other generations could relate to. The fantasy, I will note, was deliberately constructed as a simple one: the song is really just four verses of three truncated lines, introduced and repeated in various permutations. Of course it had to be simple: how else would it convey nostalgia if it didn’t offer up something everybody could understand?

But here’s the thing: the fantasy works. The song is utterly convincing as a love ballad. Some of this is due to the intricate orchestral arrangement; to name just one example, the two-note thump that comes after every utterance of the title phrase is a thing of quiet yet exquisite beauty. But more of it is down to the singer herself — if Cinquetti felt an emotional distance from the lyrics, she doesn’t show it onstage, where her wide-eyed innocence brings the song that conviction it so sorely needs. She sounds a little out-of-breath when it comes to the bridge, the lush orchestration drowning out her desire to “experience romantic love/ While I’m waiting for that day to come”, but this comes across as more due to timidity than vocal incompetence, which is to say it is an asset to the performance as a whole. A belted rendition of the same section (for reference: almost every Eurovision song nowadays) would have ruined the illusion of soft-spoken youth; it’s thanks to Cinquetti’s restraint — or perhaps inexperience — that it instead comes across instead as sweet and perfectly relatable.

And ultimately, shouldn’t that the mark of a good pop song, Eurovision or otherwise? A song that’s simple enough to be remembered and resonates with every listener, despite its lyrics being nigh-incomprehensible to every non-Italian speaker; a song that has just the right amount of profundity for people to project their own experiences on. Perhaps that’s why “Non ho l’eta”, despite its stubborn traditionalism, has endured throughout the ages and gained cross-generational appeal to become the platonic ideal of the 60s ESC ballad. When Gigliola Cinquetti returned to the Eurovision stage in Turin last year, she sang her winning song once again, and even though it was almost six decades on, she still sounded right at home singing those same lyrics, articulating the thoughts and feelings of a shy sixteen-year-old. I remain unconvinced that these are thoughts that a teenager might voice, nor are the song’s attempts at wisdom particularly wise. But I do believe that its mellow heart is genuine — and I suspect that’s quite enough.

And on that note: happy Eurovision, everybody!

Rating: 6/10

Best song

It will hardly surprise anybody by now that the United Kingdom once again nabbed a second place. This time, the Brits sent Matt Munro, fresh off singing the theme tune for From Russia with Love, to do a song called “I Love the Little Things” — to which my only comment is “yes, there is little I love about this song”. Behind them in third place was Monaco’s “Où sont-elles passes”, a very average crooner ballad (written by the guy who’d later do “Love Story”) that mistakes sensitivity for relationship intrigue; the only point where it threatens to get interesting is when singer Romauld raises his voice a little bit. And that’s about it.

I know I’ve been rough on this year’s selection, but then again it is slightly frustrating to see so many traditional pop songs when the British Invasion was also happening. There are a few good ones in the ’64 crop though: “Non ho l’eta” was my third place, and above it was Austria, with Udo Jürgens’ lament about impermanence “Warum nur, warum?”. The juries only awarded him sixth place, but don’t worry if you’re a Jürgens fan, we’ll see him again. And then there are the Iberian entries: halfway through the Contest, a protestor crashed the stage imploring people to “boycott Franco and Salazar”; as Chris West wryly notes, it must have worked because the two songs received exactly ONE point between them. Shame, because they’re both brilliant: Portugal’s “Oração” is an intense, yearning cri de coeur from a man trying to salve his heartbreak through faith and prayer (not that I relate to it at all, oh no). But the most beautiful composition of the year is undeniably Spain’s, with Los TNT’s take on the Righteous Brothers: I started out thinking that “Caracola” was just another novelty hit, albeit an interesting one with a watery theme; then they blazed into the chorus and just kept on getting more exuberant, and I realised that I’d been deceived — and it was the most glorious sensation I’d had with a Eurovision song yet. A confident, joyful, and all-round brilliant closer.

1stItaly, “Non ho l’eta”Spain, “Caracola”
2ndUnited Kingdom, “I Love the Little ThingsAustria, “Warum nur, warum?
3rdMonaco, “Où sont-elles passéesItaly, “Non ho l’eta”

Next time

A massive pervert helps the 60s finally gatecrash Eurovision.

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