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Timeline: Viva Verdi

U.S. Public Domain
In 1859, a slogan began to appear on walls in Naples, "Viva Verdi!" This phrase is an acronym for "Long Live Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy."

A month after Giuseppe Verdi’s death in January of 1901, there was a public procession as his remains were delivered to the “House of Rest” in Milan. Around 300,000 mourners gathered to pay tribute to an opera composer and to hear a rousing version of “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco sung by a choir of 820 voices lead by legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini. Verdi’s music had struck a chord in all of Italy, becoming the soundtrack for a political movement called the Risorgimento.

Rising Again! That was the desire in the hearts of many citizens in Italy in the early 19th century.  For hundreds of years, Italy had been broken up into smaller city-states, many dominated by foreign powers. After the French Revolution and the Napoleonic wars, there arose a growing movement for the Italian peninsula to unify as one, shake off the oppression of Austria and become its own kingdom. Verdi’s operas were seen as anthems of this political desire.

Giuseppe Verdi’s support of this movement is well documented. In 1848, as revolution began to rise in Milan and Tuscany, Verdi declared that now was the time for “the music of the cannon!” The next year he composed the opera The Battle of Legnano. The final chorus of this politically motivated work declares, “Italy rises again robed in glory, Unconquered and a queen she shall be as once she was!”

Around the time of the second Italian Independence War of 1859 a slogan began to appear like graffiti on walls in Naples and quickly spread throughout Italy, "Viva Verdi." This phrase is actually an acronym for Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia, "Long Live Victor Emmanuel King of Italy." Verdi’s very name was commandeered for the cause.

Verdi even held political office, serving on the new provincial council, the Parliament of the Kingdom of Italy and as an appointed member of the Italian Senate. But it is his music and the stories — told through his operas — that have made the political and social statements. In La Traviata a lowly prostitute proves more moral than the nobles. In Rigoletto, the main character is a hunchbacked court jester, not the noble Duke. In Nabucco, the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” has become an anthem for oppressed people around the world.

Credit US-PD
The opening vocal line of "Va, pensiero" or "The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves" from Verdi's Nabucco.

Verdi’s music and legacy demonstrates a powerful intersection of politics and art. It’s no wonder that so many of his fellow Italian citizens celebrated his life, chanted his name and sung his chorus of love to his homeland.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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