An immortal song of freedom

Ernest F. Imhoff

April 23, 1993|By Ernest F. Imhoff

ITALIANS PACK a good bit of their history and their national psyche into the 51 measures of music that comprise Verdi's chorus "Va, pensiero" from "Nabucco," which the Baltimore Opera Company will perform starting tomorrow night at the Lyric Theater.

The "Va, pensiero" chorus, a moving threnody that open Act III, is a poignant prayer in which the biblical Hebrew people lament their plight as slaves of Assyrian oppression. They yearn for freedom, and for the hills and cities of their lost homeland on the Jordan River, crying out for strength to endure their suffering. The slow, solemn music, in the stately but brilliant key of F Sharp Major, is magnificent.

The poem to which Verdi set his music is just 16 lines long and the whole piece takes less than five minutes. The action of the opera takes place during the years of Jewish captivity in Babylon. The opera begins as the Assyrians defeat the Israelites and lead them off into slavery.

The Assyrian King Nebuchadnezzar ("Nabucco" in Italian) is struck down by madness, however, and his daughters, Fenena and Abigail, vie for the throne. Eventually, Nabucco recovers his senses, converts to Judaism and allows the Israelites to return to Zion.

Verdi composed this great drama not only for the Jews of the Old Testament but for the Italians of his own day, who chafed under Austrian rule in the 1840s. Its eternal theme of longing for liberty is as timely today for the Balkans or South Africa as it doubtless will be tomorrow for some other land cursed by tyranny.

But for me, "Va, pensiero" means above all Verdi, the composer of 26 operas brimming with dramatic excitement and beautiful melodies. He was a patriot, a passionate opponent of censorship, an artist who wrote thousands of letters for the sake of his music, a conductor who rehearsed exasperated musicians dozens of times to get it right.

He was also an avid reader who kept Shakespeare by his bedside, a gentleman farmer who was never as poor a child as he pretended, and a deeply compassionate professional whose last bequest was a retirement home for other musicians -- still in business today as Casa Verdi.

I've had a lifelong fascination with Verdi, and one of my strongest emotional links to him is through Arturo Toscanini and "Va, pensiero."

My father had a collection of Toscanini records when the great conductor led the NBC Orchestra in the mid-1940s. We also heard Toscanini play in New York. I first heard "Va, pensiero" on records or at one of those concerts. Then it was just a piece of music, but with the passing of time it has become much more.

My father told me Toscanini had played cello at the premiere of Verdi's "Otello" in 1887 and that he had led the huge choir which xTC sang at Verdi's state funeral in 1901.

Toscanini died in 1957, and my father died in 1977. I still have Toscanini's 1943 recording of "Va, pensiero". That record is a link to both my father and Toscanini, and through them, to Verdi.

In "Va, pensiero" Verdi's chorus speaks passionately as one, describing the composer's love of a people as well as the characters portrayed. The piece illustrates Verdi's love of freedom and also his sentimental attachment to a great tradition Italian opera. It forms the centerpiece of "Nabucco," a work which, though rarely heard today, was the opera that first brought Verdi fame.

During the BOC's four performances of "Nabucco," the audience will be asked to sing along after the chorus introduces the theme. Tom Hall, the BOC's chorus director, will rehearse the audience during intermission in the theater lobby. When curtain goes back up, the 45-member chorus will sing the piece, then descend into the aisles and repeat it with the audience. The notes and words will be printed in the program notes and on the surtitle screen above the stage.

This actually isn't as hokey as it may sound. From the time of "Nabucco's" premier, Italian audiences have often sung "Va, pensiero" encores. The Austrians tried to ban these patriotic outbursts, yet many times performances couldn't proceed until the crowds had vented their emotion. They did it through this sad, beautiful music of longing.

Verdi, who was considered a living national treasure in his lifetime, wanted no music at his funeral. The Italians gave him two funerals. Both times, mourners disregarded his wishes and sang "Va, pensiero," whose lines included the lament:

"Golden harp of the prophets,

Why do you hang mute upon the willow?"

Ernest F. Imhoff is the The Baltimore Sun reader representative.

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