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CJ Replay: Political Change through Choral Music

(From the Choral Journal article, "Verdi's Opera Choruses: Songs That Rallied a Nation," by Lila Rhodes)
       Historically, Italian city states have rarely been able to band together, even against foreign enemies. At various times, portions of Italy were held by France, Spain, and the Holy Roman
Empire. When Milan first staged a Verdi opera in 1839, Austria controlled much of northern Italy. Genoa and Turin were feuding, as were Sicily and Naples. Milan and Venice each wanted total independence. Italians had to overcome this political chaos, inherited from medieval times, to win freedom from foreign domination.
       To Verdi, his countrymen's plight was similar to that of the Hebrews enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. In 1841 he set Temistocle Solera's libretto for Nabucco (a singable nickname for Nebuchadnezzar) and armed the slaves with vigorous melodies. The Austrian censors could hardly squelch a Bible story. They passed the libretto, and the manager of La Scala squeezed Nabucco into the 1842 season in early March. At the opera's premiere, the audience showered Verdi with paper and blossoms from the four tiers of balcony and boxes. Nabucco was so successful it played to sold-out houses into late fall. The people of occupied Italy identified with the enslaved Hebrews in Babylon and sang along.
       Verdi abetted the popular appropriation of his chorus by giving it a single melody line. Local opera companies, touring companies, barrel organs, and the populace carried the Hebrews' chorus, "Va, pensiero," down the peninsula. It nearly achieved the status of a national anthem.
       Verdi's success with Nabucco brought him into contact with prominent members of society at Milan's leading salon. There Countess Clarina Maffei entertained not only important writers and philosophers but also members of Young Italy. This secret society of youth, recruited by a Genoese named Giuseppe Mazzini, worked for the unification and liberation of Italy and the betterment of the masses. The patriots of Young Italy appropriated "Va pensiero" and accepted the composer as one of their own. The rebels saw the value of Verdi's work and urged him to write more operas trumpeting the cause of Italy.