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In recent years, we seem to have had little but bad news from Italy: the drastic cuts to cultural organizations, the crumbling infrastructure, and so on. To counter such tales of woe, those prone to nostalgia resort to inspiring stories of Italy’s heroic past, often with stirring musical memories in the background. The composer of choice for this revolutionary soundtrack is almost always Giuseppe Verdi — Italians still occasionally call him “The vate del Risorgimento,” the bard of Italy’s great struggle for nationhood in the 19th century. For many, such evocations offer a comforting parable about the enduring power of music — in particular of those early Verdi choruses that supposedly led people to the barricades in the revolutionary 1840s. At a time when “classical” music is ever more beleaguered, here surely is a story to rally the faithful.

The idea of music as a political force has of course been with us for a very long time. But Verdi’s involvement with the story of Italian nationalism is nevertheless exceptional. That Chorus of Hebrew Slaves (“Va, pensiero”) from his first great success, Nabucco (1842), is a case in point, and has long been nourished by an extraordinary accumulation of extra-musical significance. Italians, and others sentimental about Italy, continue to treat it with the throaty awe that marks a true national monument, and their attitude has a very long history. More than a century ago, at Verdi’s burial service in 1901, the many thousands of mourners who collected in the streets might have honored their greatest composer with any number of his popular melodies. In the event, though, they were enjoined to sing “Va, pensiero” (it is good to bear in mind that this was a pre-planned, state-sponsored rendering, accompanied by a massive orchestra and conducted by none other than Arturo Toscanini).

Riccardo Muti leads the CSO in Italian opera’s greatest masterpieces, including the chorus “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco, in concerts June 22-25.

A color lithograph of an illustration depicting Verdi’s funeral procession in 1901, by Achille Beltrame, as published in La Domenica del Corriere. | Credit: Bridgeman Images

The reason this piece was chosen is generally supposed to stem from its very first appearance in the opera house. Time and again, both before and after this funeral rendition, the parable has been rehearsed: Verdi and his librettist may in 1842 overtly have given voice to biblical Hebrew slaves lamenting the loss of their homeland, but they were in fact in secret dialogue with their audience. As if honoring the place of music in the Age of Revolutions, “everyone” knew that the real purpose of the chorus was as an expression of poignantly contemporary Italian feeling, at the “loss” of their homeland, then under the yoke of foreign domination.

We have long known that, in later life, Verdi himself encouraged this canonization of “Va, pensiero.” In an autobiographical sketch published in the late 1870s, he was at pains to mark the chorus as an epiphany in his struggle for professional recognition: an earlier operatic failure had, he said, made him decide to renounce composition; a libretto was forced on him by an impresario; he threw it down in a rage and — miraculously — the pages fell open to reveal the words of the chorus, inspiring him to take up his pen anew. The journey from such flowery autobiographical reminiscences to the mass rendition at Verdi’s burial in 1901 was short indeed, and strewn with a thousand easy anecdotes. The image of Verdi as a “revolutionary” composer then became standard in the early 20th century; it was particularly encouraged during the Fascist years (the state-sponsored Verdi celebrations in 1941 were a high point), and sustained postwar by a continuing adherence to the heroic aspects of Italian nationalism.

In the last years of our recently departed century, revisions to this long-standing position finally emerged. Contrary to popular view, the canonization of “Va, pensiero,” although a powerful thing, cannot be firmly connected to its earliest years. Indeed, in the period up to the formation of the Italian state in 1860 (the period, that is, in which most of Verdi’s operas were created and first performed), there is at best sporadic evidence that any of his operas were received as patriotic statements. True, in the late 1840s, his music was occasionally caught up in patriotic demonstrations, but it was no more prone to do so than that of several other composers.

The most remarkable negative evidence, however, comes from revolutionary Milan, in which so much of Verdi’s early activity was centered. In March 1848, and for a few months following, the Milanese drove the Austrian occupiers out of their city. Artistic events in the wake of this insurrection were surprisingly plentiful: several theaters started up with patriotic plays; the first opera appeared in late April; Verdi’s publisher Ricordi advertised a long series of patriotic hymns, including one by Rossini; Milan experienced a period of heady freedom; musical endeavors were for the most part geared unequivocally to the political situation. But during the entire time, there was virtually no mention of Verdi. The composer, supposed to have inspired the masses to the barricades — the very artistic symbol of the Risorgimento — was somehow ignored in the press of events. But not for long. By August, the Austrians were back in Milan. La Scala reopened at the end of the year. In the midst of an extreme clampdown on any behavior that could lead to further civil unrest, the authorities staged revivals of three of Verdi’s most popular operas; two others (one of them Nabucco) followed soon after. It seems impossible that any of these works had been actively associated with the failed revolution or its buildup.

Garibaldi’s soldiers wave the tricolor, in support of a unified Italy. | Photo: Wikimedia

A few caveats here. No one, not even the most strenuous revisionist, has doubted the existence of a relationship (in the most general terms) between Verdi and Italy’s political aspirations and achievements. He was Italy’s most popular opera composer at a time when opera was Italy’s most important form of cultural activity. It would be strange indeed if his operas were not in some way involved in Italy’s great revolution. Nor has anyone attempted to deny that Verdi himself was, at times at least, a decided patriot, passionately in support of the 1848 revolutions. In the wake of 1848, he even wrote an overtly patriotic opera (La battaglia di Legnano) that marked the establishment of the Roman republic of 1849. Despite of all this, the making of Verdi as “bard of the Risorgimento” overwhelmingly occurred after unification. The bardic image first surfaced, almost accidentally, with a brief vogue for the acronym VIVA VERDI (long live Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia) in late 1858 and 1859; it then assumed something like its present shape in the late 1860s and ’70s, when the new Italian state was actively in search of national monuments.

Of course, while Verdi’s “political” reputation was solidifying during this later period, Verdi the composer continued to evolve. Although on occasions (particularly in parts of Macbeth, Il trovatore and I vespri siciliani), he returned to the grand choral style of Nabucco, for the most part, he preferred to indulge his interest in personal confrontations and the plight of the individual within society. What is more, the pace of his production inexorably slowed as he increasingly felt that the musical world was changing too fast, and along paths he had no desire to follow. Fulminate as he might, he could do little to diminish a new Italian fascination for other European operatic styles (first the French, then — worse — the German) that invaded the birthplace of opera just as it achieved nationhood.

Time and again, from behind the walls of his villa and farmlands, Verdi trumpeted forth his distress at these foreign imports. In an ironic letter to a friend, shortly after the premiere of his last opera, Falstaff (1893), he wrote:

At present I’m extremely busy putting the finishing touches to an opera in 12 acts plus prelude and an overture as long as Beethoven’s nine symphonies all joined up together; there’s also a prelude to each act with all the violins, violas, cellos and basses playing together a melody in octaves, not in the manner of Traviata or Rigoletto, etc., etc., but with a modern melody, one of those beautiful ones that has neither beginning nor end and remains suspended in the air like Mohammed’s tomb.

The intermezzos to both Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut — two perfect illustrations of just what Verdi is lampooning here — have such “modern” melodies, ones that appeal to the listener with a directness that the aging Verdi found distressing, and both also have many sideways glances at the idiom of the latest French and (in Puccini’s case) German operas. Standing between the two styles is Arrigo Boito, who, as a young man firmly of the post-Verdi generation, wrote a radical French- and German-influenced opera, Mefistofele, to prove it. But then, partly regretting the extravagances of his youth, he forged a moving rapprochement with Verdi, serving as librettist of the great man’s last two operas, Otello and Falstaff.

Roger Parker is a professor of music at King’s College London and co-general editor of the Donizetti critical edition. His latest book, written with Carolyn Abbate, is A History of Opera (Norton, 2012).

TOP: A statute of Verdi graces the plaza in front of his namesake theater in his hometown of Bussetto, Italy. | Photo: Wikimedia