Issue 251 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published April 2001 Copyright © Socialist Review


The people's opera

The Italian composer Verdi was the inspiration of Italian nationalism,
says Sabby Sagall
Giuseppe Verdi
Giuseppe Verdi

This year marks the centenary of the death of Giuseppe Verdi, who together with Mozart and Wagner makes up the trio of Europe's greatest operatic composers. Born into a family of northern Italian rural innkeepers, Verdi was proud of his humble origins. When King Victor Emanuel wanted to ennoble him, he replied, 'I am a peasant.' Verdi wanted his music to speak to the masses, not to a privileged elite.

In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars Italy was divided into a patchwork of kingdoms and duchies. Verdi was a radical, a fervent adherent of liberal nationalism, and in the course of a 50-year career gave brilliant musical expression to Italian nationalist aspirations. Indeed, he was widely perceived as a figurehead for the unification movement (the Risorgimento) and became a member of the first national parliament in 1861. Verdi was also staunchly anti-clerical and a republican, though he compromised on the latter by agreeing with those who argued that the best prospect for unification lay in accepting Victor Emanuel, the liberal King of Piedmont, as the monarch of a united Italy.

In his lifetime Verdi was an immensely popular figure. 'Viva Verdi' became a national rallying cry, his name being an acronym of 'Vittorio Emanuele Re d'Italia' (King of Italy). Musically, Verdi is part of the European Romantic movement. In opposition to the classical convention, the emphasis was now on the expressive content of music at the expense of traditional form, with the composer giving free rein to ideas, feelings or fantasies. As a romantic, Verdi's operas reveal a rich emotionalism and a complexity of vocal and instrumental writing. But Verdi is also heir to the Italian musical tradition. In the 19th century, against the background of growing movements for national liberation and unification, interest developed in national or folk music. An aspect of Romanticism was the rise of national schools of music which inspired the various independence movements. There are thus clear affinities between Chopin and Polish nationalism, Wagner and German nationalism, Verdi and Italian nationalism, and so on. Moreover, in the years leading up to 1848, opera in Italy became a focus of dissent, with opera houses flashpoints for political unrest. In Verdi's early phase, the late 1830s and 1840s, many of his operas can be interpreted as allegories for the Italian struggle against the Austrians and other foreign oppressors. Of these early works, the most famous is Nabucco (1842), about the captivity of the Jews in Babylon. Its chorus of the Hebrew slaves, 'Va Pensiero', became virtually the anthem of the national movement. Buoyed by the enormous success of Nabucco, Verdi wrote 13 operas in eight years, several of which profoundly stirred popular nationalist consciousness. In 1847 a near riot was sparked off by a performance of I Lombardi.

A massive revolutionary wave swept across Europe in 1848. Verdi was in Paris when the revolution broke out in Milan, and he hurried home on receiving the news. The Battle of Legnano, his most openly patriotic opera, opened in Rome in January 1849 after the Pope had been expelled, with a republic about to be proclaimed. But in Italy, as elsewhere, the national uprisings were defeated, throwing Verdi into despair. He retreated from politics to compose operas whose settings were more private.

In the years 1849-53, he composed operas such as Rigoletto, Il Trovatore and La Traviata, all of them famous for arias and choruses gloriously rich in drama and melody. Rigoletto (1851) reveals Verdi's maturity, being a masterpiece of powerful characterisation and unforgettable music. It contains, in addition, a strong element of class hatred, pitting, as it does, the tragic jester against the hedonistic duke who has seduced his daughter. La Traviata (1853), usually regarded as Verdi's most sentimental opera, is in fact a forceful indictment of bourgeois hypocrisy. Violetta, a courtesan, seeks respectability through marriage to her lover, Alfredo, whose father, however, persuades her to give him up. Violetta emerges on the one hand as a victim of conventional morality, but also, crucially, as a heroine morally superior to her detractors. In the 1850s Verdi embarked on a further change of direction. Up to now he had composed operas that were compact, swiftly moving. In this new, late-middle period his operas were on a larger scale, in keeping with the tradition of 'grand opera' which examined historical themes, frequently with a strong political element. Verdi thus returns to political questions, but ones that are interwoven with personal conflicts, striking a balance with great conviction. Italian nationalism was approaching its moment of fruition and Verdi sought to deal with the new problems it faced. Of the six operas of the years 1853-71, the best known are A Masked Ball (1859), The Force of Destiny (1862), Don Carlos (1867) and Aida (1871).

An important issue that runs through these works is the question of government--what kind is desirable for modern nation states. Verdi presents us with a range of possible rulers. King Gustavus (Masked Ball) has vision and magnanimity. Verdi was clearly hoping that the future unified kingdom would overcome the vestiges of feudal barbarism and usher in a new era of civilised democracy. Philip II (Don Carlos) and Ramfis (the Egyptian high priest in Aida) are harsh rulers whose unforgiving nature results in destruction. Of these works, Don Carlos is perhaps Verdi's classic treatment of politics and personal life. The four leading characters, Philip II, his son Don Carlos, Queen Elisabeth de Valois, and the liberal Marquis of Posa have both public and private lives.

In each there rages a conflict between political obligations and personal feelings. The revolt of the Netherlands against Spanish rule is seen as the point of departure for the modern struggle for freedom, whether national, religious or individual. It also contains Verdi's most unreserved condemnation of the Catholic church. Verdi's popularity was such that 200,000 attended his funeral.

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