Verdi Bicentennial: Two Unforgettable Tunes

Nabucco is a hit in Italy(Photo: La Scala)
Nabucco is a hit in Italy(Photo: La Scala)

Giuseppe Verdi turns 200 this October. He died in 1901. Here are a few seconds from his funeral, as the cortege leaves the Milan Cathedral and passes by the Piazza dalla Scala, on January 31, 1901:

Verdi left 27 operas. Most of them are standard repertoire today. Verdi is the standard. Besides writing operas that are the glory of Italy, Verdi was an Italian patriot. From his youngest days he wasted no opportunity to inflame the Italians against the occupying Austrians and French who had chopped up the Italian peninsula.

Verdi’s greatest ‘hit tune’ is of course ‘La donna e mobile’ from Rigoletto. You know this even if you don’t know you know it. Go look it up.

But it is the chorus Va pensiero that made Giuseppe Verdi and his music the soul of Italy. It comes from his third opera, Nabucco. This is based on the old testament tale of King Nebuchadnezzar, and you can’t spell it either. Toward the end of this opera, Hebrew slaves sit on the river bank and sing of their lost home:

Everyone in Italy knew that the Old Testament  Hebrew slaves stood in for the Italian people, longing for the end of Franco-Austrian occupation. Notice it is a unison hymn, designed for everybody to sing together. It isn’t complicated, it’s sadly tuneful and straightforward. It was accessible to all listeners, even in the part of 1840s Italy where the Italian language had been forbidden.

Va pensiero (Go thoughts, on wings of gold) was warmly applauded at the premiere of Nabucco . But it was the Chorus Immenso Jehovah that really had the public burning. It took a few years, but today it is unusual for the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves not to be encored. It became an unofficial Italian anthem, a tribute to Verdi the patriot, and Verdi the composer.

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