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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)
Richard Taruskin
The Popular Style

fig. 11-3 Interior view of Teatro alla Scala, Milan, ca. 1830; painting by Ladislaus Rupp.

The most striking effect in the early Verdi operas, and the one most obviously allied to the mood of Risorgimento, was the big choral number sung—crudely or sublimely, according to the ear of the beholder—in unison. As a symbol of solidarity and of concerted action it could be read as political allegory no matter what the actual dramatic context. The prototype was “Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate” (“Go, my thought, on golden wings”), the chorus of Hebrew slaves in the third act of Nabucco (short for Nabucodonosor, “Nebuchadnezzar,” 1842), Verdi's third opera and the one that first made him a national figure (Ex. 11-1). Its text, by Temistocle Solera (1815–78), a poet and occasional composer of herculean physique, already known for his booming verses, paraphrases the famous 137th Psalm (“By the waters of Babylon …”). It was an inspired interpolation, precisely for the sake of tinta, into what was otherwise a love triangle—a prince of Jerusalem vs. two rival princesses of Bablyon—set against a background of biblical warfare.

The Popular StyleThe Popular Style

ex. 11-1 Giuseppe Verdi, Nabucco, “Va, pensiero”

Rossini, struck by the originality of its conception, called “Va, pensiero” “a grand aria sung by sopranos, contraltos, tenors and basses.”14 Indeed the melody was as ornate as a Bellinian cantabile, the noble opening section of a bel canto aria, but its format was the one identified in chapter 1 with the concluding section, the square-cut cabaletta: four phrases cast as A A′ B A′, where A is “open” (ending on a half cadence) and A′ is “closed” (ending on a full cadence). Variants of this scheme can be found as early as the fixed forms of medieval danced poetry, and it is still commonly used in popular songs and show tunes (the “32-bar chorus”). It was a “demotic” (common) or “vernacular” (indigenous) type that served folk and street music as well as opera. Arias cast in such a popular form all the more easily traveled back to the street and into the oral tradition, helped on its way by the ubiquitous organ-grinders and street singers who populated the thoroughfares of nineteenth-century Italian cities and disseminated theatrical hits just as radio and jukeboxes would later do.

“Va, pensiero” was certainly translated “back” into folklore in this way. It was sung by the throngs surrounding Verdi's horse-drawn hearse on the day of his burial, led by the augmented chorus of La Scala (the Milan opera house where Nabucco had its premiere almost sixty years before), under the baton of the young Arturo Toscanini (1867–1957), who though only a conductor rather than a composer inherited Verdi's mantle as national emblem and musical ambassador to the world. By then the chorus had become an emblem not only of Verdi (as Italy's “national” composer-laureate) but of the Italian patria itself.

Much of this significance was read back on the chorus from the perspective of the united Italy of the 1860s, in which Verdi had been honored with a personal seat in the new national parliament. Two legends in particular had sprung up around it: first, that the original audience of 1842, in a patriotic delirium, had compelled an “encore” (or bis) despite La Scala's normally rigid house rule against acknowledging requests for repetition; and second, that the cries of Viva Verdi! (“Long live Verdi”) that rent the air on that occasion were a code for Viva V. E. R. D. I.—“Long live Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d'Italia” (Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy).

The Popular Style

fig. 11-4 VIVA V.E.R.D.I.! (engraving at Isituto di Studi Verdiani, Parma). During the war of 1859 between Sardinia and Austria over the northern Italian territories that included Milan and Venice, Verdi's name became a rallying cry as an acronym for Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d'Italia, who was supported by Italian patriots like Count Camillo Cavour (and Verdi). The defeat of Austria paved the way for the first united (northern) Italian state, proclaimed in 1861, in which Verdi was an honorary senator. (It took another decade for the whole Italian peninsula to be united under Victor Emmanuel.)

As to the first legend, Roger Parker has ascertained on the basis of contemporary documents that there was indeed an encore that night—but of another number, not “Va, pensiero”; and as to the second, the use of Verdi's name as an acronym for the king of united Italy only started up on the very eve of unification, when demonstrations in support of Victor Emmanuel's claim to the throne were no longer politically risky.15 In 1842, when the Austrians ruled Milan, and when an acclamation there to an Italian king would have invited reprisals, nobody made them (at least not via Verdi). The growth of the Verdi myth proceeded in stages corresponding to those of the Risorgimento itself.

But while less dramatic, that correspondence in myth is still evidence of the connection between the composer and the cause, and still points to the Verdi tinta as a catalyst to political militancy and eventual action. In any case, the success of the patriotic unison chorus in Nabucco stimulated Verdi himself to further action. His next two operas (the first of them again to a libretto by Solera) also made a point of incorporating a similar choral set piece. Audiences were demanding them.

Ex. 11-1, since it shows only the first stanza of “Va, pensiero,” stops short of the blazing middle section, in which the chorus suddenly opens out, rabble-rousingly, into chordal harmony, fortissimo. Also fairly subdued is Ex. 11-2a, which shows the first stanza of the chorus of pilgrims and crusaders, the analogous item in I Lombardi alla prima crociata (The Lombards on the First Crusade, 1843), in which the Lombards, medieval denizens of Milan and its environs, dying of thirst in the desert near Jerusalem, recall their beloved homeland (that is, the exact territory in which the opera, written for La Scala, was being performed at its premiere).

Not so gentle is the unison chorus in Ernani (1844), which bursts like a bombshell and leads directly to decisive stage action. Its parent play, Victor Hugo's Hernani (1830), a self-avowed manifesto of ‘liberalism,” was politically risky, depicting as it did an attempt on the life of a future Holy Roman Emperor by a character (the Spanish bandit Hernani) who, as the romantic lead, is portrayed very sympathetically. The chorus, “Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia” (“Let the Lion of Castile awake!”), is the conspirators’ battle hymn, easily transferable to the patriots of Venice (also traditionally symbolized by a lion!), the site of the first performance, then struggling to free itself from the descendants of the same Holy Roman Emperor. This chorus was an especially clear instance of opera as a spur (or at least a testimonial) to aggression (Ex. 11-2b).

Its form, slightly more complex than those already in evidence, illustrates the way the basic “popular” AA′BA′ model could be expanded for the sake of enhanced dramatic scale. The “B” phrase is augmented into a full-fledged middle section in the dominant with an AA′BA 〈double prime〉 format of its own (here necessarily labeled BB′CB 〈double prime〉 because of the prior use of A), balanced at the end by a full reprise of the initial AA′, plus a concluding tag. The “C” strain, veering into G major (♭VI), provides a traditional harmonic far-out point that enhances scale in another dimension, so to speak. The result was at once popular and grand—grand in a sense that had formerly connoted regal pomp, not popular triumph. The combination, as much a political as a musical novelty, sounded a new note in European music, and a momentous one.

The Popular Style

ex. 11-2a Giuseppe Verdi, I Lombardi, “O signore, dal tetto natio”

The Popular Style

ex. 11-2b Giuseppe Verdi, Ernani, “Si ridesti il Leon di Castiglia”


(14) Quoted in Carlo Gatti, Verdi, Vol. I (Milan: Alpes, 1931), p. 107.

(15) R. Parker, Leonora's Last Act: Essays in Verdian Discourse (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 33.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 19 Jan. 2021. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011004.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II). In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011004.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 11 Artist, Politician, Farmer (Class of 1813, II)." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 19 Jan. 2021, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-011004.xml