Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Verdi and the art of politics

By Aussiegirl

With so many celebrities sticking their noses into politics it is perhaps worthwhile to take a look back in history and see that the notion of artists getting involved in the politics of their day is hardly new. What is different of course, is that today's crop of "celebrities" are hardly artists, hardly serious people (although they take themselves very seriously), and hardly informed on the subjects. What they do possess is what passes for fame in the 20th and 21st centuries -- celebrity and fame, or infamy as the case may be.

Let us take the example of the great 19th century opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. (1813 - 1901)

As any reader of Ultima Thule knows, I am a big fan of Verdi, the man as well as his art. Indeed, if it was said that Verdi almost worshipped at the feet of Manzoni (author of I Promessi Sposi, (The
Betrothed) -- Italy's finest novel), then it can be said that I worship at the feet of Verdi, (and Beethoven, of course). They were both giants, not only of their art, but masters of
their own bottomless humanity. Each one overcame enormous tragedies and hardships, and still found solace and expression in the boundless art they shared with a grateful world. We shall never see their like again. Somehow the 19th Century saw a flowering of that sort of art -- literature, art, music, etc. -- while the 20th century has been an exclusively scientific -- and by extension, chaotically political

As a young man, Verdi, who was just starting out his career as a composer in Milan, lost his two young children, a son and daughter, and finally his wife to disease and death. Alone, bereft, grief-stricken and virtually penniless he nearly succumbed to the great blackness of depression that enfolded him. There's a marvelous story about how Ricordi, the owner of the Ricordi musical publishing company, seeing the distraught and dishevelled Verdi one day while walking in the street, pressed into his hand a libretto that had already been rejected by several known opera composers. He felt the subject matter suited Verdi and he implored him to take a look at it. But Verdi had sworn not to compose after his losses and he demurred. But Ricordi persisted and reportedly tucked the libretto into the composer's pocket over his protestations and urged him to take a look.

Years later Verdi himself reported the following events. Following his encounter with Ricordi, he arrived in his cold, unheated flat, throwing the manuscript dispiritedly on the table with little intention of starting an opera. At that moment the pages fell open at the lines to the nostalgic chorus of the Hebrew slaves in act 3 -- "Va, pensiero, sul alli dorate" -- (Fly my thoughts on wings of gold), and later the words speak of "our poor homeland, so defeated and betrayed."

Somehow these words arrested Verdi's attention, and suggested to his musical mind
the first strains of the melody that was to become the virtual second Italian national anthem. In this opera, which became known as "Nabucco", Verdi saw the plight of his own people, the Italians, who at the time were living under Austrian rule. The sentiments of nostalgia and weeping that begin the chorus, give way to a rising emotion of a will to defy and to gain liberation that roused the patriotic feelings of Verdi.

When the opera was finally premiered, it caused an immediate sensation, particularly "Va, Pensiero", which was so wildly received that the audience demanded encore after encore. Verdi had rightly realized that the audience would understand that hidden in the story of the Hebrew nation and their enslavement under Nebuchadnezzar (Nabbuco) they would see their own story. He intended the piece to be a call to arms. As a matter of fact, the Austrian military, who were always in attendance at such public concerts, were so concerned by the audience's reaction that they temporarily forbade further performances.

From the very beginning, Verdi was a master of staging and dramatics in addition to being a gifted composer. That is why composing opera suited him so. In the singing of "Va Pensiero", the chorus lined up and marched to the front of the stage, addressing their words directly to the audience. And the effect was electrifying. There was near pandemonium in the hall, with cries for independence and demands for encores of the chorus. Within days, Verdi's name was on everyone's lips. He had become an overnight sensation. Restaurants named dishes after him. Ties and other articles of clothing bore his name, and the melodies of Nabucco and especially "Va, Pensiero" were heard everywhere on the streets, from the warblings of sidewalk vendors to organ grinders who churned out the popular tunes on their wheezy instruments. And perhaps most fateful for Verdi was the fact that the soprano role was being sung by the leading soprano of her day, Verdi's future companion and eventual second wife, Guiseppina Strepponi, probably one of the wisest and most intelligent wives a composer ever had, and a great artist in her own right.

In fact, Verdi became so identified with the cause of Italy's independence that some years later his name was used as a kind of defiant graffitti. All over Italy the mysterious initials V.E.R.D.I. made their appearance on walls and monuments. Overtly only Verdi's name -- but standing for Victor Emanuel Re d'Italia -- Victor Emanual, King of Italy. Many years later Verdi even served a term as a people's deputy in the Italian parliament, but admitting that he had little head for politics he spent most of his time drawing caricatures of the various speakers, or jotting down lines of melody that ran through his head.

Throughout his career, especially the early years, his operas often featured patriotic themes that reflected his own feelings and aspirations for a free and independent Italy. It is only with the final few masterpieces like Otello and Falstaff that Verdi completely abandoned these themes and concentrated exclusively on the story and psychology of the characters.

Now THERE's how art and politics used to mix. Let's not forget Beethoven's famous renunciation of Napoleon when he scratched out the dedication to Bonaparte in his Eroica Symphony -- but that's a story for another day.


At 7:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Aussiegirl, I've been away for a while, so the first thing I did when I got back was to read UT...and what a cornucopia of great articles you had produced in my absence! It took me hours to catch up on all that you had poured into your great blog: articles on politics, art, literature, and science -- keep those science articles coming! This post about Verdi and Nabucco was particularly interesting since we share Verdi and Beethoven as the absolute summit of musical genius, two gifts granted to us mortals so that we could share in their closeness to the divine spark that inheres in us all. But back to your blog. I loved your post of a few weeks back on Verdi's Requiem -- what interesting insights you had on this transcendent music! Which brings me to another feature of UT that I enjoy...the illustrations that often accompany your posts. For example, the marvelous portrait of the eternally young and vital Verdi that started off the Requiem post. And I really like the beautiful picture of the Nabucco edition that you found for this article, with the little insert of a sweet older Verdi. So now that I'm back, I shall be tuning in to UT the first thing every day...which brings me to my final observation, that what I appreciate most about your blog is the passion in everything you write about...not to forget your wit and genuine funniness, but your passion really is paramount. Maybe it's your Slavic background, maybe it's hearing all the tales of your parents' terrible times during and after WWII -- at any rate, whether it's the Islamic threat to Western Civilization or equal threats from The Enemy Within, even when it comes to literature and music, your passion shows through. Keep up this great blog!

At 7:44 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

After Pindar's marvelous comments, I think the only thing left to say about your post today is BRAVO!!!

At 7:53 PM, Blogger Aussiegirl said...

Gee -- thanks guys! (blush) Glad you enjoyed the piece. And Piano Girl -- since I got a bravo -- do I also get to wear a Rolex watch like in those radio ads about Yo-Yo Ma?

Thanks, Pindar -- and welcome back -- your comments are always welcome and highly valued, even when you don't shamelessly flatter me! :-)

At 5:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

If I had a Rolex, I'd be delighted to share it with you. Unfortunately, I don't think my salary this year would afford me the luxury of even a cheap imitation from a vendor on the street corner in DC!


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