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  • The true story behind ‘Va pensiero’, Verdi’s famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves

The true story behind ‘Va pensiero’, Verdi’s famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves

Verdi’s much-loved chorus from the opera Nabucco has achieved an almost mythic status as a politically influential piece – but the truth is a little more complicated than that.

By Roger Parker (Musicologist)

31 May 2016 at 11.37am | 8 Comments

It’s a story most opera lovers will know. Verdi died in Milan in 1901, and the solemn procession that accompanied his funeral was an occasion for communal mourning on the grandest scale. 300,000 gathered in the streets (more than half the entire population of the city), and sang the chorus ‘Va pensiero’, that great lament for a lost homeland that Verdi had written some sixty years earlier in his first operatic triumph, Nabucco. The event supplies one of the most potent and often-repeated stories about music’s power to gather and articulate political sentiment.

Far from spontaneous, however, the rendition on that cold morning in Milan had in fact been carefully planned by the civic authorities. Advertisements in local newspapers had enjoined singers and orchestral players to participate; the resulting musical hordes were conducted by none other than Arturo Toscanini. But soon enough, the civic planning had all been forgotten: the chorus welled up in story as nothing less than the voice of an entire people.

Inventions swirling around ‘Va pensiero’ go back and forward from that funeral rendition. It has become part of opera myth that at Nabucco’s premiere in 1842, the chorus was received as an expression of contemporary Italian feeling about their nation state, then under the yoke of foreign domination – in spite of the fact that there is no evidence the chorus excited patriotic fervour in its early years. Quite when it acquired its patriotic status is not entirely clear, but overwhelmingly this transition occurred after Italian unification in the early 1860s: at a time when the chorus’s gentle nostalgia made it an ideal vehicle for fond reminiscences of an earlier period of action and heroism.

There is plenty of evidence that, in later life, Verdi himself encouraged the chorus’s canonization. The image of Verdi this fostered, as a revolutionary composer whose early choruses had done no less than inspire the struggle for Italian nationhood, then became standard in the early 20th century. It was notably encouraged, and for obvious nationalist reasons, during the Fascist years, and was sustained post-World War II by a continuing celebration of the heroic aspects of Italian nationalism.

A few caveats might be useful here. Verdi was indeed 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. In the wake of the 1848 revolutions he even wrote an overtly patriotic opera to mark the establishment of the Roman republic of 1849 (La battaglia di Legnano).

But, in spite of all this, the making of Verdi as ‘bard of the Risorgimento’ overwhelmingly occurred after unification. It seems likely that the bardic image first surfaced, almost accidentally, as the acrostic 'VIVA VERDI' was briefly in vogue in late 1858 and 1859 (with each letter of the composer's name standing for a letter of a key unification figure's name, future king Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia). This image then emerged decisively in the late 1860s and 1870s, when the new Italian state, economically and politically fragile, was actively in search of national monuments to shore up the tottering state.

Does it matter vitally when Verdi’s reputation as the Bard of Italy’s Risorgimento began? Perhaps it does. The current popular view of Verdi imagines a steady and above all optimistic progress; it is nourished, like so many stories about music and revolution during these years, by a stubbornly heroic picture of the 19th century, one in which history marches in single file towards a positive goal. But is the 19th-century nation state really something to celebrate so uncritically? If such a thought interrupts for a moment the automatic warm glow we experience when we hear (or sing) ‘Va pensiero’, then so much the better.

This is an edited extract from Roger Parker’s article ‘“Va pensiero”: Biography of a Chorus’, available to read in full in The Royal Opera’s programme for Nabucco.

Nabucco runs 6–30 June 2016. Tickets are still available.

The performance on 9 June 2016 will be broadcast live to outdoor screens around the UK for free – find a screening near you.

The production is a co-production with La Scala, MilanLyric Opera of Chicago and Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, and is generously supported by Rolex and The Friends of Covent Garden.

By Roger Parker (Musicologist)

31 May 2016 at 11.37am

This article has been categorised Opera and tagged by Daniele Abbado, Giuseppe Verdi, history, La battaglia di Legnano, Nabucco, Production, programme trail, Va Pensiero, Viva Verdi

This article has 8 comments

  1. Mary Cheetham responded on 2 June 2016 at 7:52pm Reply

    Looks amazing can't wait to see

  2. Martin Peagam responded on 3 June 2016 at 7:55am Reply

    Accepting that the history of Va pensiore is not as straightforward as it might seem - so what's new there, that's the case with all history - it does not detract from the power of the piece to stir emotions and touch some deep-seated feelings.
    I first heard it sang, in the open air, by a choir from Sofia, Bulgaria.

    This was at a time when the country was firmly under totalitarian rule. Whether that rule was socialist or communist was irrelevant - those were just badges stamped on political parties. The fact was that the people were controlled - in work, in play, in life.
    The choir was singing at a music festival - the Teesside Esitedfodd - and my wife and I were helping with organising volunteers to accommodate the members of the choir.

    The choir members had been carefully vetted to travel and participate in the festival. They were being watched carefully throughout the visit by 'choir advisors', who could not sing a note, let alone a verse. When it came to allocating accommodation, the advisers had the final say as to who went with who. They approved any trips and activities we arranged. And whenever they were nearby, the conversations became less spontaneous, the laughter subdued.
    The choir members were at first suspicious and careful in what they said.
    After all, might we be informers?
    But when we gained their trust,
    Not least by arranging activities away from the eyes and ears of their minders – decadent trips to shopping centres, visits to cafes, social gatherings with music and wine, and opportunities for them to mingle, talk, and meet each other.
    And it turned out that these people were wonderful human beings.
    They were warm, proud of their work, their families and their country.
    And they possessed a great sense of humour.
    They shared the same hopes, fears, aspirations as we did. The same desire to find love. The same mistrust of politicians, of any colour. And the same love of music.
    And when they sang Verdi’s masterpiece, it was more than a choral work.
    It was a release valve to the frustration of their daily lives.
    It was a plea for future freedom.
    It was an appeal to everyone who heard it to understand that there is always hope, always the hope of a promised land.
    And it never failed to move audiences to tears.

  3. Kurt Gänzl responded on 3 June 2016 at 8:55am Reply

    I couldn't have put it better myself! Thank you, sir. Reading early reviews of NABUCCO (I have been, and many of them were none too favourable, incidentally) just confirms it. Invented history for political reasons. Not, of course, the first or last time ...

  4. Wallace Greenslade responded on 31 October 2016 at 8:22pm Reply

    Domingo in The Met's revival production of Nabucco in their new season this fall eagerly awaited, James Levine conducting

  5. JANICE ALLEN responded on 9 January 2017 at 1:55pm Reply

    In a recent HD viewing of Nabucco from the Met, the famous chorus is repeated. Does anyone know whether the repeat is in the score, or simply did James Levine choose to "take that liberty" which was so well received.

    • Janis F responded on 10 January 2017 at 4:47am

      I also wondered that when I was at the Saturday HD screening. I looked up the NY Times review from December and it says they repeated it then as well:

      'The audience kept applauding until the lilting, sinuous melody was repeated. It may be just what people need to hear right now.'

      Maybe they always do it. We just felt special on Saturday. Even if it was routine, it was brilliant.

  6. Diana DeSimone responded on 24 March 2017 at 3:48pm Reply

    I heard a 1957 ? performance of this aria
    with the Russian Red Army Choir on you tube which I liked. it had the deep richness of sound I think Verdi may have intended. It has to be muscular. The pale performances are so disappointing. they miss the depth of character that makes the music resonate in its national passion.
    You know it is happening from the opening note. I am not talking about noise. It is
    reaching full expression in the depth of each
    instrument.
    There is something in the Russian temperament that knows this. Neemo Jarvi
    did it in the only recording of the 1812
    overture using a chorus sounding like all of
    Mother Russia.

This article has 2 mentions elsewhere

  1. Va pensiero og Risorgimento:  […] “The true story behind ‘Va pensiero’, Verdi’s famous Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” av Roger Parker “Verdi the revolutionary? Let’s separate facts from fiction“. av Roger Parker i The Guardian “La musica del Cannone: The Role of Verdi and Patriotic Music in the Risorgimento“. i Penn Encore Journal. av Lane Raffaldini Rubin. BBC Culture: How Giuseppe Verdi’s music helped bring Italy together. av Clemncy Burton-Hill. Taylor & Francis online: “The Risorgimento in opera” av Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg. Music & Politics: “Nabucco in Zion: Place, Metaphor and Nationalism in an Israeli Production of Verdi’s Opera” av Rachel Orzech […]
  2. Sunday Morning Opera: Sex, Violence & Politics | The Pink Flamingo:  […] “…Inventions swirling around ‘Va pensiero’ go back and forward from that funeral rendition. It has become part of opera myth that at Nabucco’s premiere in 1842, the chorus was received as an expression of contemporary Italian feeling about their nation state, then under the yoke of foreign domination – in spite of the fact that there is no evidence the chorus excited patriotic fervour in its early years. Quite when it acquired its patriotic status is not entirely clear, but overwhelmingly this transition occurred after Italian unification in the early 1860s: at a time when the chorus’s gentle nostalgia made it an ideal vehicle for fond reminiscences of an earlier period of action and heroism. […]

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