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Verdi, a political observer of his time

Myth and reality

By Charlotte Ginot-Slacik 09 May 2019

© Andrea Messana / OnP

Verdi, a political observer of his time
For us Italians speaking about Verdi is like speaking about our father… Massimo Mila, 1951

How does Verdi’s political activism manifest itself in his work? How does the composer’s view of the world take root in a work as sombre and fatalistic as La Forza del destino, or in the operatic paradigm that is Don Carlos? Musicologist Charlotte Ginot examines the question by exploring the paths that connect music and history.  

The character of Leonora, “not only a romantic reference but one of social liberation, a catalyst (…) a theatrical tradition in which the woman represents rupture, struggle, emancipation.” Thus did composer Luigi Nono evoke La Forza del destino in 1975. That Marxist analysis reflects political perceptions of Verdi. Nono’s words match the images of Luchino Visconti which, from Senso (1954) to The Leopard (1963), steadfastly bind the composer to the process of Risorgimento. These are reinforced by the analyses of 20th century Verdi musicologists. Through a series of political portraits Verdi’s commitment appears retrospectively as a premonitory gesture for Italian artists engaged in the renewal of a society long afflicted by fascism (1922-1944).
And yet… In Verdi’s view the politician defies superficial linear analysis. Politics appear in Simon Boccanegra (1857-1881) in the evocation of the ideal monarch, namely, the former corsair who became the doge of Venice. Politics again in his evocation of oppressed national entities (the famous “Va pensiero” » from Nabucco and “O signore dal tetto natio” in I Lombardi), be it the Hebrews under the yoke of the Egyptians or the indigenous Amerindians rising up against the Spanish… Politics again in the complex evocation of the relationship between the Church and the State in Don Carlos. But is all that enough to justify the “Verdi myth” which posits the composer as the catalyst of national aspirations? Nothing could be less evident.
When Verdi began to compose La Forza del destino, his patriotic sympathies were no longer a mystery. “If I could, I would have liked to have been an ordinary soldier like you, but all I can be is a tribune” he wrote to Piave his librettist in March 1848, during the height of the insurrection in Milan. Nevertheless, he was careful not to clamber onto the barricades—unlike Richard Wagner sentenced to death in absentia for his participation in the Dresden uprising.
Between 1848 and 1860, the composer did not play a major role in the slow process of Italian unification, despite the famous acrostic Viva VERdI—Viva Vittorio Emanuele Red’Italia (Long live Victor Emanuel, King of Italy). Rather than identifying Verdi with the unity of the country, those words primarily conveyed the notion that in Italy opera remained the art of national aspirations. As early as 1828, Heinrich Heine noted that “Words are forbidden to poor enslaved Italy and she can only express the feelings of her heart through music.” Yet the association of the operatic stage with patriotism was not specific to Verdi; it emerged as early as the era of Rossini and Bellini. Indeed, Norma (1831) depicts the Gauls’ struggle to rid themselves of the Roman invader: “Oh, under the ignoble yoke of the Tiber, I too shudder and yearn to take up arms (…). Let us conceal our indignation in our hearts so that Rome believes it is extinguished! The day will come when it will awaken, and it will burn, more terrible than ever”. And while Bellini called for a revolt, Verdi, during the same period, was composing a cantata in honour of the Austrian emperor Ferdinand I…
However, by 1859 the political context had changed. Personified by the charismatic figure of Cavour the quest for national unity finally pushed Verdi to become actively involved in politics. In June, the composer started a fund to support the wounded of the war against Austria. “The victories achieved so far by our brave brothers have not been without a great deal of bloodshed, and therefore, not without causing the ultimate grief for thousands of families! At moments such as this, all those who have an Italian heart must support, according to their own means, the cause for which we fight.” The war ultimately ended in a compromise: the Austrians retained Venetia, however, numerous provinces on the peninsula were able to unite with the Piedmont of Victor-Emmanuel. Verdi was disconsolate: “Where, then is this independence for Italy that we were promised? What is the meaning of the Milan proclamation? That Venetia is not Italy? Such a result after so many victories! So much bloodshed for nothing! It’s maddening!”.
Fascinated by Camillo Paolo Filippo Benso, the Count of Cavour, whom he met at the time, he was persuaded to lend his support to the new government. He was elected as a deputy and for a while gave up music, signing one of his letters: “A deputy from central Italy who for many years was stupid enough to spend his time composing music…”. The composer expressed his desire to write a national anthem for Italy and in the year that La Forza del destino premiered, he wrote Inno delle nazioni, to a text by the librettist Arrigo Boito which celebrated Italy’s rediscovered glory among the concert of European nations.
On June 6, 1861, Cavour died in Turin; on October 26, the kingdom of Italy was proclaimed. On November 10 1862, La Forza del destino had its premiere in Saint Petersburg. Verdi turned his back on politics. Moreover, his contribution to the life of the nation can be summed up by a failed attempt to reorganise the operas and conservatories. “Italy has been made, now it remains to make the Italians” (Massimo d’Azeglio). In 1867, Don Carlos painted a disillusioned picture of the exercise of power: The political ambitions of Philip II clashed with the religious dogma of his inquisitor. A devouring figure, capable of condemning his own son to death, the emperor also appeared to be a sovereign overwhelmed by the solitude of power.
Verdi, “father” of modern Italy? Beyond the comforting myth promoted throughout the following century, his work undeniably bears witness to the political contradictions of a nascent Italy.

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