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The Opera Quarterly 21.1 (2005) 109-132

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Verdi, Politics, and "Va, pensiero"

The Scholars Squabble

Giuseppe Verdi, in his eighty-eighth year, died at 2:50 A.M. on 27 January 1901. Five days earlier, on the evening of 21 January, as he sat on the edge of his bed in the Grand Hotel in Milan, buttoning his waistcoat, he had had a stroke, falling backward senseless, his right side paralyzed. He never recovered consciousness.

For five days the world waited. On the second day, on the world's far side, the San Francisco Chronicle reported at length on his condition and reviewed his life and career. Outside the hotel in Milan, the city put straw in the streets to quiet the horses' hooves and carriages, and groups of anxious people kept watch. Inside friends gathered in the bedroom and suite, and sent word out to those in the hall and lobby. The hotel draped itself in black. Telegrams poured in. An artist drew deathbed sketches. And through it all Verdi lay motionless, except for the rise and fall of his chest.

Preparations were started for a great public funeral. With music, of course.

And then the plans were canceled. Verdi's handwritten will, starting without any declaration of faith or preamble, toward its end stated: "I do not wish my death to be announced with the usual formalities"— tolling of bells, draping of balconies in black, and posting throughout the city black-rimmed notices of death. Further he directed that his funeral should be "very modest, either at dawn or at the time of the Ave Maria in the evening, and without music and singing." Consternation! But so it was done.

At six thirty on a damp, foggy morning, his coffin, borne on a simple hearse and preceded by a single crucifix, was transported to Milan's city cemetery, the Cimiterio Monumentale. A silent crowd lined the streets, and some of its members entered the cemetery, where they joined another small group and were kept at a distance from the open grave. The service [End Page 109] was swift, and Verdi was buried, as he had requested, beside his wife and "without music and singing."

Yet those watching from a distance, on seeing the coffin lowered into the ground, began to weep, and in their emotion they forgot, or thought he would not mind, or could no longer resist what welled up inside them. So those by the grave, as they turned to go, heard a sort of chorale begin softly, the lament from his opera Nabucco, sung now for Verdi himself: "Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate."1

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Example 1
Nabucco: Act 3, scene 2, on the banks of the Euphrates

In the opera, this is the lament of the enslaved Hebrews, held captive in Babylon, as they recall Jerusalem and their lost homeland. It is based on Psalm 137: "By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered thee, O Sion." As rephrased for the opera, it reads, translated literally:

Go, thought, on golden wings;
Go, rest yourself on the slopes and hills
Where, soft and warm, murmur
The sweet breezes of our native soil.
Greet the banks of the Jordan,
The fallen towers of Zion...
Oh, my country so beautiful and lost
Oh, memory so dear and fatal!
Golden harp of the prophetic bards
Why do you hang mute on the willow?
Rekindle memories in our breast,
Speak to us of the time that was!
Oh, as with the fates of Solomon
You make a sigh of cruel lament.
Oh, may the Lord inspire you to a song
That infuses suffering with strength.

So, without music, at least not officially, Verdi was laid to rest in the city cemetery in Milan.

But lo! A month later there was an opportunity for a second funeral. As one of his last projects, Verdi had built at his expense, and funded with bonds and the royalties from his operas, a retirement home for, as he specified: "Italian citizens...


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