As part of the Year of Italian Culture (l'anno della cultura italiana), Italy is celebrating the 200th birthday of Giuseppe Verdi--fondly nicknamed “Peppino”--the Michelangelo of Italian opera. In more than thirty operas, this maestro of maestri gave “Italians” a unifying language and helped meld the patchwork of independent states and occupied territories into a unified nation.
The son of a poor tavern-owner in Emilia-Romagna, this musical prodigy became the village organist at age 12 . As a young man, he fell in love with the daughter of his first patron, married, had two children, and wrote two operas (one cheered and one booed at Milan's prestigious Teatro alla Scala. Then, in the span of three tragic years, Verdi’s children and cherished wife died. He swore never to compose again.
One night an impresario in Milan shoved a rejected libretto into Verdi’s hands. Alone in his room, he threw the manuscript onto a table. “Without my knowing why,” he later recalled, “I found myself staring at the paper in front of me and saw these verses: “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate.” (Go, thought, on golden wings.) He was so intrigued by the phrase from the biblical story of Egypt’s Hebrew slaves that he couldn’t sleep.
The libretto became the opera Nabucco, which premiered in 1842. Its poignant chorus, “Va, pensiero,” the lament of the enslaved captives longing for their homeland, became an unofficial anthem for Il Risorgimento, the resurgence, a nationalistic movement that was sweeping the fragmented peninsula.
“The tune made him, then and for all time, the singer of his people’s liberty,” wrote an early biographer. The day after Nabucco opened, people were singing the song in the streets. As nationalism grew, its advocates shouted, “Viva V.E.R.D.I.!”—not only in homage to the composer, but as an abbreviation for “Victor Emmanuel Re D’Italia,” the Piedmont king who promised to liberate Italy from its foreign occupiers.
Attila, one of Verdi’s lesser works, included a line that stirred millions of patriotic souls: “You may have the universe, if I may have Italy.” An Italian friend puts her own spin on this phrase: “You may have the universe, if I may have Verdi.” I understand why.
Verdi insisted on strong situations, strong emotions, strong contrasts, and the strong language he called parole sceniche, dramatic words “that carve out a situation or a character.” What were le parole sceniche of his life? Croce (torment), for sure, caused by crushing losses. Delizia (delight) in a half-century-long relationship with the soprano Giuseppina Strepponi that scandalized his hometown. Vendetta? Verdi’s operas vibrate with hate-fueled vengeance, and he held fierce grudges for decades.
Verdi’s genius glowed long and bright. He composed Otello at 74 and Falstaff at 80. On January 21, 1901, at age 88, Verdi, whose music seemed as vital as air to generations of Italians, died. At the cemetery, Toscanini led a chorus of more than 900 singers in “Va, Pensiero.” Without prompting, the entire crowd joined in the chorus that had helped forge a nation. To listen to this stirring tune, click below.
Words and Expressions from Verdi operas
croce e delizia -- cross (torment) and delight, from La Traviata
sempre libera – always free, from La Traviata
Libiamo né lieti calici che la bellezza infiora – Let’s drink to the happy goblets which beauty embellishes, from La Traviata
la bella mano candida – a beautiful white hand, from Rigoletto
Dianne Hales is the author of La Bella Lingua, My Love Affair with Italian, the World's Most Enchanting Language.