How NABUCCO turned Verdi into Italy's Musical Conscience
Verdi’s Nabucco is perhaps best known for “Va, pensiero (The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves),” which attained both musical and political significance when the opera premiered in 1842.
At the point in the opera when “Va, pensiero” is sung, the Hebrews are being held captive in Babylon. The Babylonians have threatened to kill them, which sparks an argument between the High Priest of Baal, Abigaille and King Nabucco. Taking a moment of respite from their forced labor along the banks of the river, the Hebrew exiles bid their plaintive thoughts to fly “on golden wings” toward their beloved homeland. Legend has it that those early audiences demanded an encore of “Va, pensiero” at Teatro alla Scala in Milan.
“Va pensiero” became the Italians' song of liberation, for, in the oppressed Hebrews, they found a symbol of their own longing for Risorgimento (resurgence or reunification) and an end to Austrian rule.
The chorus became the underground revolutionary song for the Liberal Party, and the composer's name became V.E.R.D.I., a slogan meaning Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia (Victor Emmanuel King of Italy), a reference to the sole native dynasty in Italy and the focus of nationalist hopes for unity. The phrase was scrolled on walls and spoken in public gatherings as a buzz-word openly expressing defiance of the occupying foreign powers.
“Va, pensiero (Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves)”
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, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!
Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion's toppled towers...
Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!
Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!
Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom's memories,
and speak to us of times gone by!
Mindful of the fate of Jerusalem,
give forth a sound of crude lamentation,
or may the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices
which may instill virtue to suffering.