Music and Politics: Verdi’s “Va, Pensiero” as an Educational Tool

by Sophia Magro

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The high school choral classroom’s potential is not only to be a place for honing musical ability, working in a community environment, and discovering the close relationship between hard work and fun; it can also be a starting point for students to learn to listen to music in a thoughtful way and to understand how and why music has influenced listeners throughout history.  An effective method of employing this higher standard of thoughtfulness, criticism, and synthesis is to create an integrated syllabus that combines the standard rehearsal of music and honing of vocal technique with an interactive and interdisciplinary study of the meaning of music in Western culture.  To this end, I am proposing a unit that focuses on the political uses of music throughout history.  As a demonstration of this integrated syllabus, I am including two sample lessons.  The first is an introductory investigation in which students are asked to use their own background knowledge to start thinking about the politics of music in modern society.  By connecting current popular songs to the political beliefs of their composers, students will be able to draw on background knowledge and prepare to learn about the cultural influences of previous generations of composers. The second is an introduction to the concept of nationalism in Western music through Verdi’s opera Nabucco, specifically the chorus “Va, Pensiero.”  Through guided listening, score study, and discussion of Italian history, students will examine how Verdi used an allegorical libretto, incorporated traditional Italian opera styles, and overcame censorship to successfully politicize his opera in nineteenth-century Italy.  Finally, students will investigate how the public’s use of Verdi’s music may have differed from his own intentions.

According to the National Association for Music Education, incorporating academic studies in the music classroom gives students the ability to “understand and enrich their environment” and “gain a broad historical and cultural perspective.”[1]  The prescribed Content Standards 8 and 9 reflect this educational goal.  High school students, according to Content Standard 8, should be able to “explain ways in which the principles and subject matter of various disciplines outside the arts are interrelated with those of music.”[2]  This standard can be achieved by encouraging students to think about the ways in which political movements and ideas influence the subject matter, attitude, and compositional methods of composers throughout history.  Content Standard 9 asks students to understand music “in relation to history and culture” by identifying the functions musicians have served throughout Western history.  By investigating the roles that composers play, whether consciously or not, students have the opportunity to understand the functionality of music beyond entertainment value and the implications of music consumption and production. These standards can all be addressed in a study of nineteenth-century nationalism centered on an investigation of Verdi’s opera Nabucco.  After being presented with the concept of nationalism, students can study Verdi’s libretto, most specifically the text of the chorus “Va, Pensiero,” to understand how nationalism can be expressed musically.  Nabucco tells the story of a Babylonian king who enslaves the Hebrew people.  Just as the Hebrews yearn for their freedom and their homeland, the Italians during the Risorgimento yearned for freedom from foreign rulers and the ability to reclaim their own land and culture.[3]  After the French Revolution, the idea of nationhood spread to the rest of Europe, fomenting new interest in Italian unification.[4]  By interpreting Verdi’s libretto choice allegorically, students can understand why Nabucco was so immediately popular in Italy.  A close look at the text of “Va, Pensiero” especially illustrates themes of longing for the past and love for one’s homeland, such as in the phrases “O mia Patria sì bella e perduta! [Oh my homeland, so beautiful and lost!]” and “ci favella del tempo che fu! [speak of the times gone by!].”[5] In addition to his use of a patriotic text, Verdi’s work reflected the political attitudes of his time by incorporating a historical Italian opera tradition:  a prominent chorus.  By examining how Italian opera composers have used the chorus throughout history, students will understand the significance of Verdi’s central chorus.  Early opera composers frequently employed the ensemble as a means of commenting on the plot or as representatives of a fictional community.  This usage can be seen in Monteverdi’s 1607 opera L’Orfeo, where in Act II the chorus laments the death of Orfeo’s bride, Euridice.[6]  By the Romantic period in which Verdi was working, the most prominent Italian opera composers like Rossini and Bellini were using the chorus primarily as an accompaniment for a solo singer.  Therefore, Verdi’s “Va, Pensiero” radically departs from the practice of his time and makes his opera even more “Italian,” a feat which was difficult to achieve due to the Italian origins of all opera.  This view will help students to understand why “Va, Pensiero” was interpreted by contemporary audiences as a call for unity and Italian pride. Students can further their understanding of the relationship between politics and music by studying the compositional methods of Verdi.  The Italian government heavily censored operatic librettos in an attempt to stamp out any revolutionary ideas and Verdi was regularly fighting to have his operas approved for performance.  John Anthony Davis describes how censors and police were present to ensure that “nothing untoward might be seen or heard on the stage” at opera houses.[7]  Verdi himself expressed his frustration with censorship in a letter, saying that he is about to lose his mind and complaining of the “displeasure and damage” that the ordeal is causing him.[8]  Through interaction with primary sources such as Verdi’s letters, students can make connections between politics and the process of creating music and make inferences about Verdi’s compositional choices. The remaining question for students is to ask what it means for Verdi to have acted as a musician, politician, and symbol for change.  “Va, Pensiero” shot Verdi into the public eye not only as a composer but as a leader of the Italians who longed for change.  Verdi’s biographer Jacopo Caponi wrote that Verdi’s operas could cause “a revolution in the theater” through his depiction of the unhappiness of the nation of Italy.[9]  And yet, Verdi expressed frustration with the idea of nationalism in music and did not cite politics as a reason for his choice of the Nabucco libretto.[10]  Students who face difficult topics like Verdi’s intentions are critically thinking about how music is a part of the lives of consumers, composers, and performers of music throughout history.  By stepping back and looking at the cultural context of a work like Verdi’s “Va, Pensiero,” as well as modern music with which they are familiar, students do more than value music for its aesthetic; they have the opportunity to contribute to their own society through an understanding of and synthetic approach to music, politics, and history.


Lesson Plan

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Unit: Politics, Conflict, and Vocal Music in the High School Choral Classroom Essential Question How can politics play a role in the creation and consumption of music? Unit Content Objectives Students will (a) be able to recognize the use of music in our daily experience and describe why music serves that purpose, specifically in terms of its political uses.  Students will (b) connect the composers and performers of music to the respective political roles they perform.  Finally, students will (c) explain how the principles of other disciplines, such as history and politics, can be interrelated to music. Unit Lesson 1:  Recognizing Current Experiences with Political Music Resources and Materials

  1. Lyric sheets of selected songs from
  2. Primary source readings such as interviews, news articles, and reviews

Daily Assessment of Content Objectives Students will be required to give a short (2-3 minutes) group presentation on the song they are assigned.  Students will be expected to summarize the meaning of the song and the political message it is trying to convey.  Students will connect this meaning to relevant historical events by examining documents related to the political and/or social movements at the time of composition of their assigned song. Lesson Sequence 5 minutes:  Introduction of presentation guidelines, group assignments, and questions about expectations.  Packets will be handed out for the following pieces:

  1. “Same Love” by Macklemore
  2. “Born this Way” by Lady Gaga
  3. “Fortunate Son” by Creedence Clearwater Revival
  4. “Imagine” by John Lennon
  5. “Battle” by Colbie Caillat
  6. “Pumped up Kicks” by Foster the People

15 minutes:  Group work time. 15 minutes:  Presentation time.  Each of the six groups will have between 2-3 minutes to share what they learned about their assigned song. 5 minutes:  Warm-up 10 minutes:  Rehearsal of “Born this Way” Notes This introductory lesson is intended to help students draw on their current experiences in music consumption.  Students will be able to make connections to music that is a part of their daily life and reflect on how it has influenced their own beliefs, tastes, and interests.  This lesson will serve as a first step into an understanding of the social and political aspects of music throughout Western history. Unit Lesson 2:  Nationalism and Verdi’s “Va, Pensiero” Resources and Materials

  1. Nationalistic source readings, Verdi’s views on Nabucco [included in PowerPoint below]
  2. Take-home worksheet [also included in PowerPoint]

Daily Assessment of Content Objectives Students will reflect on music that they believe expresses their own nationality.  Students will be assigned homework questions about Verdi and write about the discrepancy between Verdi’s own political interests and the political uses of his music. Lesson Sequence 35 minutes: Powerpoint

Nationalism and Verdi’s “Va, Pensiero”
Nationalism and Verdi’s “Va, Pensiero”
Nationalism and Verdi’s “Va, Pensiero”
What is Nationalism?
What is Nationalism?

na·tion·al·ism

noun \ˈnash-nə-ˌli-zəm, ˈna-shə-nə-ˌli-zəm\

: a feeling that people have of being loyal to and proud of their country often with the belief that it is better and more important than other countries

: a desire by a large group of people (such as people who share the same culture, history, language, etc.) to form a separate and independent nation of their own

Source: Merriam-Webster. “Nationalism.” Accessed May 12, 2014.  http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nationalism.

Verdi & the Risorgimento
Verdi & the Risorgimento

Giuseppe Verdi, 1813-1901: Italian Romantic Opera Composer

the Risorgimento: 19th-century movement toward Italian unification and independence

How did nationalism play a role in this movement?

Nabucco, 1841, tells the story of a Babylonian King and his two daughters.  He has captured the Israelites and keeps them as slaves.

Verdi & the Risorgimento
Verdi & the Risorgimento
Verdi & the Risorgimento

“Verdi began … to instigate political action with his music.  Foreigners will never begin to understand the influence exerted, for a certain period, by the ardent, blazing melodies that Verdi conceived when the situations [in an opera], or even isolated lines of verse, recalled the unhappy state of Italy, or her memories, or her hopes.  The public saw allusions everywhere, but Verdi found them first and shaped them to his inspired music, which often ended by causing a revolution in the theater.” — Jacopo Caponi, 1881

Source:  Gossett, Philip, William Ashbrook, Julian Budden, Friedrich Lippmann, Andrew Porter, and Mosco Carner.  The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera. New York: Norton, 1983.

“Viva V.E.R.D.I!”
“Viva V.E.R.D.I!”

Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia (“Long live Vittorio Emanuele, king of Italy”)

“Viva V.E.R.D.I!”
Verdi & the Risorgimento
Verdi & the Risorgimento

“In falling, it [the libretto of Nabucco] had opened itself; without my realizing it, my eyes clung to the open page and to one special line:

Va, pensiero, sull’ ali dorate.

I skimmed through the following verses and was deeply moved by them … since they were almost a paraphrase of the Bible, which I have always loved to read.” — Giuseppe Verdi, 1879

Source: Werfel, Franz and Paul Stefan, ed., Edward Downes, trans. Verdi: The Man in His Letters. New York: L. B. Fischer Publishing Corp.,  1942.

Verdi & Censorship
Verdi & Censorship

“In a world where other means of communication—the press and informal public assembly—were banned, the theater offered urban, educated Italians the opportunity to be entertained and to congregate lawfully in a public place. The heavy reliance of the authorities on censors and police to ensure that nothing untoward might be seen or heard on the stage did not seem to dull the enthusiasm of the audiences, at least initially.”  — John Anthony Davis, 2006

Source: Davis, John A.  “Opera and Absolutism in Restoration Italy, 1815-1860,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36.4 (2006): 569-594.

Verdi & Censorship
Verdi & Censorship

“The letter with the decree banning “La Maledizione” was so unexpected it almost made me lose my mind…The decree refusing it drives me to desperation…the displeasure and damage I suffer from this ban are greater than I have words to tell.” — Giuseppe Verdi, December 5, 1850

Source: Werfel, Franz and Paul Stefan, ed., Edward Downes, trans. Verdi: The Man in His Letters. New York: L. B. Fischer Publishing Corp.,  1942.

Verdi & Censorship
“Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco
“Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco

Hasten thoughts on golden wings.
Hasten and rest on the densely wooded hills,
where warm and fragrant and soft
are the gentle breezes of our native land!
The banks of the Jordan we greet
and the towers of Zion.
O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost!
O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!
Golden harp of our prophets,
why do you hang silently on the willow?
Rekindle the memories of our hearts,
and speak of the times gone by!
Or, like the fateful Solomon,
draw a lament of raw sound;
or permit the Lord to inspire us
to endure our suffering!

Source: Yusypovych, Myron. “”Va, Pensiero” Lyrics with an English Translation.” Accessed April 23, 2014.http://www.yusypovych.com/eng/Va-pensiero-English-translation/.

Primary Theme of “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco
Primary Theme of “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco
Primary Theme of “Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco
“Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco

When does the main theme return? Follow along in the form diagram.
How does Verdi contrast unison singing and harmonized singing?  What effect does this have?
What role is the chorus serving?  Are they commenting on, accompanying, or participating in the drama?

“Va, Pensiero” from Nabucco
Homework
Homework

Answer the following questions on a piece of paper with a partner or on your own to be handed in tomorrow:

1. Summarize three ways in which nationalism can be seen in Verdi’s “Va, Pensiero.”

2.  Do you think that it matters whether Verdi intended his opera to be nationalistic or not?  Why or why not?

3.  Provide an example of a current American song or piece of music which demonstrates nationalism and explain why you chose it.

5 minutes: Warm-up 10 minutes: Rehearsal of “Va, Pensiero” Notes This lesson focuses on the concept of nationalism.  Verdi’s opera Nabucco serves as a tool for students to view how a specific political movement can be reflected in an indirect way.  This lecture also gives students an opportunity to reflect on American nationalism today in a take-home assignment and discuss how they believe that it is communicated musically.  Finally, students will consider the question of intentionality in art and the difference between intent and interpretation.  Taking time to investigate the meanings of the music they are performing will give students potential for a more involved rehearsal process and an educated performance.


[1] Frances S. Ponick, ed., The School Music Program: A New Vision (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007), 21.

[2] Ibid., 25.
[3] Nicholas Doumanis, Italy: Inventing the Nation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 46.
[4] Ibid., 26-27.
[5] “”Va, Pensiero” Lyrics with an English Translation,” Myron Yusypovych, accessed April 23, 2014, http://www.yusypovych.com/eng/Va-pensiero-English-translation/.
[6] Claudio Monteverdi Tutte le opere di Claudio Monteverdi 11, G. Francesco Malipiero, ed., L’Orfeo (Vienna: Universal Edition, 1929), 64-65.
[7] John Anthony Davis, “Opera and Absolutism in Restoration Italy, 1815-1860,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36.4 (2006): 572.
[8] Giuseppe Verdi to C. D. Marzari, December 5, 1850, in Verdi: The Man in His Letters, ed. Franz Werfel and Paul Stefan, Edward Downes, trans., (New York: L. B. Fischer Publishing Corp., 1942), 158-159.
[9] Philip Gossett et al., The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera (New York:  W. W. Norton & Company, 1983), 203.
[10] Werfel and Stefan, Letters, 89, 349.

Bibliography

Davis, John A.  “Opera and Absolutism in Restoration Italy, 1815-1860,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 36.4 (2006): 569-594. Doumanis, Nicholas.  Italy: Inventing the Nation.  New York: Oxford University Press. 2001. Gossett, Philip, William Ashbrook, Julian Budden, Friedrich Lippmann, Andrew Porter, and Mosco Carner.  The New Grove Masters of Italian Opera. New York: Norton, 1983. Monteverdi, Claudio. Tutte le opere di Claudio Monteverdi 11. G. Francesco Malipiero, ed. L’Orfeo. Vienna: Universal Edition, 1929. Ponick, Frances S., ed. The School Music Program: A New Vision. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2007. Verdi, Giuseppe.  Coro di Schiavi Ebrei.  Nabucco.  Chor und Orchester der Deutschen Oper Berlin; Giuseppe Sinopoli, conductor.  Hamburg: Deutsche Grammophon, 1983. —–. Nabucodonosor. Milan: G. Ricordi, n.d. [1841]. Werfel, Franz and Paul Stefan, ed., Edward Downes, trans. Verdi: The Man in His Letters. New York: L. B. Fischer Publishing Corp.,  1942. Yusypovych, Myron. “”Va, Pensiero” Lyrics with an English Translation.” Accessed April 23, 2014. http://www.yusypovych.com/eng/Va-pensiero-English-translation/.

Images taken from the following sites:

http://www.scuolapiancavallo.it/SITO/sez_ricerche/sito%20risorgimento/index.htm http://www.sbchoral.org/2013/07/verdis-greatest-hits-with-santa-barbara-symphony/ http://www.seattleoperablog.com/p/spotlight-on-opera-2.html http://www.amazon.com/GIUSEPPE-F-VERDI-AUTOGRAPH-CO-SIGNED/dp/B00936M5GY