"Va, pensiero" (Italian: [ˈva penˈsjɛːro]), also known as the "Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves", is a chorus from the opera Nabucco (1842) by Giuseppe Verdi. It recollects the period of Babylonian captivity after the loss of the First Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE.
The libretto is by Temistocle Solera, inspired by Psalm 137. The opera with its powerful chorus established Verdi as a major composer in 19th-century Italy. The full incipit is "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate", meaning "Go, thought, on wings of gold".
Verdi composed Nabucco at a difficult moment in his life. His wife and small children had all just died of various illnesses. Despite a purported vow to abstain from opera-writing, he had contracted with La Scala to write another opera and the director, Bartolomeo Merelli, forced the libretto into his hands. Returning home, Verdi happened to open the libretto at "Va, pensiero" and seeing the phrase, he heard the words singing. At first rehearsal "the stagehands shouted their approval, then beat on the floor and the sets with their tools to create an even noisier demonstration". As he was subsequently to note, Verdi felt that "this is the opera with which my artistic career really begins. And though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that Nabucco was born under a lucky star".
Upon Verdi's death, along his funeral's cortege in the streets of Milan, bystanders started spontaneous choruses of "Va, pensiero". A month later, when he was reinterred alongside his wife at the Casa di Riposo, a young Arturo Toscanini conducted a choir of eight hundred in the famous hymn.
Role in Italian political history
Some scholars have thought that the chorus was intended to be an anthem for Italian patriots, who were seeking to unify their country and free it from foreign control in the years up to 1861 (the chorus's theme of exiles singing about their homeland, and its lines like O mia patria, si bella e perduta / "O my country, so beautiful, and lost" was thought to have resonated with many Italians). Some modern scholars have rejected this idea, failing to see connections between Verdi's 1840s and 1850s operas and Italian nationalism, with the exception of some of the sentiments expressed in his 1843 opera, I Lombardi.
Other recent research has discussed several of Verdi's works from the 1840s (including Giovanna d'Arco and Attila) emphasising their ostensible political meaning. Work by Philip Gossett on choruses of the 1840s also suggests that recent revisionist approaches to Verdi and the Risorgimento may have gone too far in their thorough dismissal of the political significance of "Va, pensiero".
On 27 January 1981 the journalist and creative writer Giorgio Soavi proposed replacing Italy's national anthem with "Va, pensiero" in a letter published by Indro Montanelli in his daily newspaper Il Giornale. The proposal was widely discussed for some time and then abandoned until 2009, when Senator Umberto Bossi took it up again, but to no effect. However, Bossi's political party, Lega Nord/Padania, has adopted "Va, pensiero" as its official hymn and the chorus is now sung at all party meetings.
In 2011, after conducting "Va, pensiero" during a performance of Nabucco at the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome, Riccardo Muti made a short speech protesting cuts in Italy's arts budget, then asked the audience to sing along in support of culture and patriotism.
Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;
va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l'aure dolci del suolo natal!
Del Giordano le rive saluta,
di Sionne le torri atterrate.
O, mia patria, sì bella e perduta!
O, membranza, sì cara e fatal!
Arpa d'or dei fatidici vati,
perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
ci favella del tempo che fu!
O simile di Sòlima ai fati
traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
o t'ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù!
Fly, my thoughts, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of my native land smell fragrant!
Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion's toppled towers.
Oh, my homeland, so lovely and so lost!
Oh memory, so dear and so dead!
Golden harp of the prophets of old,
why do you now hang silent upon the willow?
Rekindle the memories in our hearts,
and speak of times gone by!
Mindful of the fate of Solomon's temple,
Let me cry out with sad lamentation,
or else may the Lord strengthen me
to bear these sufferings!
- Italian Neoclassical and 19th-century art
- "By the rivers of Babylon", yearnings of the Jewish people in Babylonian captivity
- Phillips-Matz 1993, p. 116, noting a later statement by the composer
- Verdi, "An Autobiographical Sketch" (1879), in Werfel & Stefan 1973, p. 92
- Paul Halsall, "Modern History Sourcebook: Music and Nationalism", August 1997, revised July 1998, Fordham University. Retrieved 23 December 2009
- Parker 2007.
- Francesco Izzo, "Verdi, the Virgin, and the Censor: The Politics of the Cult of Mary in I Lombardi alla prima Crociata and Giovanna d’Arco", Journal of the American Musicological Society, 60 (2007): pp. 557–597.
- Gossett 2005, pp. 339–387.
- "Senator wants to change Italy's national anthem – to opera". The Christian Science Monitor. 24 August 2009.
- "National Anthem"; see also Va' pensiero Padania
- "Riccardo Muti conducts audience during Rome performance". Chicago Sun-Times. 12 March 2011.
- Ἱεροσόλυμα (Hierosólyma > Jerosòlima > Sòlima) was the ancient Greek designation of Jerusalem. See Ἱεροσόλυμα (Strong 2414)
- "What to expect from Nabucco", study guide, Metropolitan Opera, September 2016, p. 25 (and p. 33)
- Gossett, Philip (2005). "Le 'edizioni distrutte' e il significato dei cori operistici nel Risorgimento" ['Edizioni distrutte' and the Significance of Operatic Choruses during the Risorgimento]. Il Saggiatore musicale. 12 (2); also published in Victoria Johnson; Jane F. Fulcher; Thomas Ertman, eds. (2007). Opera and Society in Italy and France from Monteverdi to Bourdieu. Cambridge Studies in Opera. Cambridge University Press. pp. 181ff. ISBN 9781139464055.
- Parker, Roger, "Verdi and Milan", lecture on Verdi's relationship with Milan, including details of Nabucco, given at Gresham College, London, 14 May 2007
- Phillips-Matz, Mary Jane (1993). Verdi: A Biography (1st ed.). Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-313204-4.
- Werfel, Franz; Stefan, Paul (1973). Verdi: The Man in His Letters. Translated by Edward Downes. New York: Vienna House. ISBN 0-8443-0088-8.
- Budden, Julian. The Operas of Verdi, Vol. 1. London: Cassell Ltd, 1973. pp. 89–112. ISBN 0-304-31058-1
- Parker, Roger (ed), "Nabucodonosor": Dramma Lirico in Four Parts by Temistocle Solera (the works of Giuseppe Verdi), Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988 ISBN 978-0-226-85310-9 ISBN 0226853101