If you are listening to a classical radio station, you are very much aware that this is Verdi’s bicentennial. Giuseppe Verdi was born in 1813 and died in 1901. He and Wagner are regarded as the giants of the operatic world.
Together with my daughter Christina, who is a student in Philadelphia, we went to see Verdi’s Nabucco. During our time together, she asked me when I started to enjoy Verdi’s operatic work, specifically Nabucco. The surprising answer is that I became acquainted with Verdi’s music, not when I lived in Italy for close to two years, but through our Romanian Baptist Churches. The choirs of the Romanian Baptist Churches both in Romania and abroad have adopted the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” as one of their favorite songs. (Interestingly, for the performance in Philadelphia, the role of Nabucco (Nebuchadnezzar) is performed by a Romanian baritone, Sebastian Catana)
In the life of Verdi, Nabucco, the story of the Hebrew slaves in Babylon, is what brought his career back from despair. His first opera, Oberto, Conte di San Bonifacio, was received very well. His second, Un Giorno di Regno, was a disaster. He was distraught and decided not to write any more operas until he received the libretto Nabucco. Verdi was deeply moved by the Biblical story and Nabucco premiered in 1842. It is this opera that launched him as one of the greatest opera composers and freed him to write 16 more operas in 11 years. When he died, the over two hundred thousand who gathered in the streets of Milano softly sang “Va, Pensiero”, known in English as the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”.
“Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” in its rich narrative became a song of protest and reflection against communism. As the Hebrew slaves were singing of God’s presence and deliverance in the midst of their suffering, so the Romanian Christians were singing operatic music at their conventions.
However, in the 19th century Italy, “Va, Pensiero” became the song of unifying various states of Italy into what is known today as Italy. When the opera was performed, the signs of VV would appear, which could stand for Viva Verdi (Long Live Verdi), but often meant Viva Vittorio (Long Live Vittorio, the first King of unified Italy), or later VERDI became identified with Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia (Victor Emmanule King of Italy).
The story of the Hebrew slaves is a tragic one. Verdi wrote this opera in a difficult time in his life – his wife and two of his children died. In a difficult time of oppression, Christians have learned this song which became song of resistance and triumph. God uses our difficult times as well as our good times to create things that will benefit and bless other people long after the authors, the painters, and the composers are gone. Work to do your best – to bless people today and perhaps God will take some of your work and bless people in the future centuries.