Going to an opera in mid-19th century Italy was a raucous affair. Unlike the symphony and ballet, opera had yet to be pacified — there was none of the reverential silence we now associate with a classical concert. It could almost feel like a piazza: people applauding between songs, chatting during songs and even getting rather merry and violent. During one opera, the audience was divided between those who wanted an encore of one particular scene and those who did not (the concert hall as a kind of battleground was not unique to this event). After the burst of cheering had subsided with defeat of the encore party, a drunken soldier from the boxes demanded an encore nevertheless. As those in the orchestra seats shouted back at him, he started throwing weapons and chairs onto the stage. The audience rushed toward the exits, ladies in the boxes fainted, and after the drunk was finally arrested the theatre was half empty.
In some ways the opera was an escape from a heavily censored society. It was a place where people could gather together and collectively express feelings. But under no circumstance would they have been allowed to express anything like an overt political opinion. It is argued by some music historians, therefore, that any political messages in opera were communicated throughout a subtly coded language that the composer and his audience understood, but that evaded the censors and police. This makes it especially difficult to study the politics of the operas of the time, and has led to a great deal of overly imaginative historical interpretations.
The chief victim of these historical exaggerations is Giuseppe Verdi. His operas are often seen as the backdrop to the Risorgimento (the struggle for Italian unification in the mid-19th century). And his now beloved song, Va, Pensiero (also known as Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves), is seen ahistorically as the hymn to the revolution. The song, we are often told, is about liberating a people oppressed by foreign powers, and that its early audiences reacted with nationalist fervour. Absolute rubbish. There are indeed a number of myths about this song, almost of all them wrong. There is absolutely no evidence to show that the audience piled out onto the street enthusiastically singing the melody, as some have suggested, nor is there any evidence to suggest there was an encore. If there had been an encore, it would have doubtless been prominently reported, as encores were technically illegal. We don’t even have any record of Va, Pensiero being used politically until 1859. In fact, there are few contemporary reports of any patriotic outbursts in any opera. When it comes to Verdi, there are only 15 examples of his music being appropriated for political statements in the 1840s — this strikes me as a miserably low number.
Nevertheless, there were some attempts to politicise opera throughout the Risorgimento. Giuseppe Mazzini, a leader of the nationalist movement, had already theorised about the role opera could play in the movement. He advocated the use of choruses to represent the people, and to remove extravagance from opera and emphasise harmony. These changes largely did occur for whatever reason, but it does not appear that they resonated politically. Mazzini’s Filosfia della Musica, which expounded these revolutionary musical ideas, was from an obscure 1836 Parisian journal, and it was never circulated in Italy until 1848. Nabucco was written in 1843. Thus, it seems highly unlikely that the use of chorus in Va, Pensiero had any political intent.
You may have also heard of the nationalist slogan of the time, ‘Viva Verdi!’ If not, it’s quite ingenious: it both celebrates the operas of Verdi and the King who would lead a united Italy, Vittorio Emanuele Re D‘Italia. However, the slogan wasn’t adopted until 1859. Verdi’s operas, such that they were being used politically, had been reinterpreted somewhat imaginatively to fit a revolutionary narrative. Even then, his supposedly political operas were not his most popular. His most popular opera was actually Ernani, a non-patriotic opera. Some did come to associate Ernani with relatively liberal new Pope, Pius IX, but the opera still remained the most popular even after Pius had stood up in 1848 and opposed nationalism.
Over half a decade later comes the death of Verdi, right on the cusp of a new century. By this time, the struggles of the last century had been romanticised and Verdi’s music really had become a symbol of the Risorgimento. He had two funerals. The first was a small affair, but it was reported that bystanders spontaneously began singing Va, Pensiero, a heart-warming tale if true. At his second funeral — the ostentatious, public one — hundreds of thousands of people were in attendance, and you can guess which song they sang and which slogan they shouted. But it is mistaken to think that Verdi’s operas were intended to be particularly subversive, and indeed it’s all too easy to overstate their influence on making Italy.