Podium: The sadness at the heart of Verdi

From a series of lectures by the professor of music at the University of Pennsylvania
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GIUSEPPE VERDI was born in Italy in the village of Roncole near Busseto in 1813. Verdi's musical education began at an early age, although it is not known exactly when he began formal study. Verdi studied the organ, and by the age of seven he had become an organist at San Michele Arcangelo, the parish church just across from his birthplace.

It was there that he served as an altar boy, and San Michele was the church where - according to the famous myth (or fact) - his mother saved him in 1814 when French troops invaded the territory.

In 1823, Verdi moved to Busseto, a town within walking distance of Roncole. Although a small town, Busseto had a philharmonic society and a music school. Verdi attended the music school run by Antonio Provesi. At the age of 14, he was teaching Provesi's pupils. Verdi composed marches and other types of music under Provesi's guidance.

After finishing the four-year music school in Busseto, Verdi applied for admission to the prestigious Milan Conservatory. As has often been stated, he was rejected for admission.

[Instead,] Verdi studied composition in Milan with Vincenzo Lavigna, a composer and maestro al cembalo at La Scala. Lavigna instructed Verdi in counterpoint and helped him get to know Milan.

After two years, Verdi returned to Busseto as members of the philharmonic campaigned to have him appointed head of the society. Things did not work out, and Verdi returned to Milan at the end of the year, 1834. Two years later he returned again to Busseto. By 1840, his wife and both children were dead, and Verdi was alone and without a job.

Years later, in 1879, Verdi described those dark days to his publisher friend, Giulio Ricordi: "But now there began the most terrible series of misfortunes for me. At the beginning of April my little boy fell ill. He wasted away in the arms of his mother. A few days later my little daughter sickened in her turn, and this child too was taken from us. During the first days of June 1840, the third coffin [his wife's] was carried out of my house."

Verdi was in despair, and he had to complete a comic opera, Un Giorno di Regno. It was not successful, like his first opera, Oberto. He persuaded himself that there was no consolation in his art, and resolved never to compose again.

A member of the management at La Scala, Bartolomeo Merelli, forced a libretto on Verdi. Now, continuing with Verdi's description of the events: "He forced the manuscript [of the libretto] in my hands... I rolled it up, took leave of Merelli, and started back to my lodgings.

"Back home, I threw the manuscript on the table with an almost violent gesture, and remained standing before it. In falling, it had opened of itself; without realising it, my eyes clung to the open page and to one special line: Va, pensiero, sull' ali dorate ["Go, my thoughts on golden wings"].

"I skimmed through the following verses and was so deeply moved by them, the more so since they were almost a paraphrase from the Bible, which I have always loved to read. I read one fragment, I read another... I got up and read the poem not once, but twice, three times, so many times that by morning I can say I knew Solera's libretto by heart from beginning to end."

But of course he did compose the opera, his third. "Va, pensiero" became the famous chorus from Nabucco and with it, the foundation for his fame. Nabucco established Verdi in the front rank of Italian composers and became quite simply the most meaningful opera there was, the opera in which the moods of the Risorgimento were voiced most authentically. The Risorgimento was a period in Italian history when foreign-ruled Italy was yearning to become a united nation.

Nabucco was a biblical story about Jewish captivity, but Italian patriots - according to the myth - heard in the opera - especially in the famous chorus "Va, pensiero" - their own emotions after failing to end the foreign captivity.

In no other Verdi opera does the nation, as a political and religious institution, occupy the stage so continuously; in no other opera do the individual characters so regularly act as symbols of political and religious realities; in no other opera is the musical language so impregnated with the great popular repertories of march music and hymnody.

Verdi composed nine operas in the 1840s, and most had at least one scene that struck a patriotic response. Verdi became a symbol of Italian patriotism and the slogan "Viva Verdi" - Verdi being an acronym for Vittorio Emanuele Re D'Italia - was used to symbolise the favourite among Italians to be king of a united Italy.