Knowing what we do about the extraordinary artistic career of Giuseppe Verdi, it is difficult to imagine the emotional state of the not-so-young composer in 1842. Verdi was 29, an age by which Rossini, Donizetti, and Bellini had already established enormous reputations (Rossini had written Il barbiere di Siviglia at the age of 24). Verdi came from a tiny village. His musical training was adequate, but hardly exceptional. A wealthy local patron, whose daughter he later married, helped him undertake further study in Milan, but he was already too old to attend the Conservatory. Private lessons and regular attendance at La Scala allowed him to develop his compositional skills and his knowledge of contemporary Italian opera, but the best he could reasonably have expected was a career as a local music master in Busseto.
Force of will brought him a first opportunity to compose a serious opera for La Scala, Oberto, in 1839, which had a discrete success. Meanwhile, between August 1838 and June 1840 his wife and both their infant children died, leaving Verdi in September 1840 to face alone the total failure of his second opera, a comedy, Un giorno di regno. He never forgave the Milanese public their reception of that work.
Many legends surround the next year and a half of Verdi's life: his vows to abandon musical composition, the mysterious interactions between the composer and the impresario of La Scala, the growing affection and esteem between Verdi and the prima donna, Giuseppina Strepponi, who was to create the role of Abigaille in Nabucco and was to remain at the composer's side for more than 50 years. Then there is the libretto by Temistocle Solera thrust into Verdi's overcoat, thrown carelessly on the kitchen table, springing open by chance to the words "Va pensiero sull'ale dorati." It is a period, in fact, for which we have almost no documentation, but this wealth of anecdotes fills the gap. The only certainty is that Verdi did indeed set to music Solera's Nabucco, which had its premiere at La Scala on March 9, 1842, marking the composer's coming of age, the first triumph of a life in the theater that would continue through the 1890s.
It is difficult for us to imagine what this opera meant and how it must have sounded to the Milanese public at that time. What political meaning did Nabucco seem to convey in 1842, for example? Contemporary reviews don't even mention the famous chorus of Hebrew slaves, the chorus that to later audiences have represented everything from the sublime (the formation of an Italian state, Verdi's funeral, and the reopening of La Scala after World War II) to the ridiculous (commercials for air travel and spaghetti). Yet that choral melody, sung in unison, whose text paraphrases Psalm 137, "By the waters of Babylon," soon etched its way into the Italian spirit. And when the words invoke golden harps hanging silently on the willow, Verdi offers up the most sublime harmonies.
Did Milanese audiences in 1842 really understand the plight of the Hebrew slaves under Egyptian domination to be a metaphor for their own subjugation to the Austrian authorities? There is a fascinating change in Verdi's own, autograph manuscript of Nabucco that supports this hypothesis. It affects not "Va, pensiero," but rather the final, unaccompanied ensemble for the victorious Hebrews, in which they praise Jehovah. In its middle section, the text has always been sung as:
"Tu spandi un'iride? / Tutto è ridente. / Tu vibri il fulmine? / L'uom più non è." ("You spread a rainbow? Everything is joyous. You launch a thunderbolt? Man is no more.")
But the setting of "Everything is joyous" is about the most unjoyful phrase imaginable. During work on the critical edition of Nabucco, edited by Roger Parker (and contributed to by this writer), this mystery was unraveled. Those were not the words that Verdi originally set. His text:
"Spesso al tuo popolo" / "Donasti il pianto" / "Ma i ceppi hai franto" / "Se in te fidò." ("Often your people turned to you in tears; but you broke the chains of those who had faith in you.")
These words, so much more appropriate for the music, are obliterated in Verdi's manuscript, with a violence that suggests more than a simple artistic decision. The vision of God breaking the chains of a captive people was apparently more than the political traffic could bear: whether censored by the Austrians or omitted by Verdi and Solera themselves to avoid trouble, the text was modified.
But it was not only the political implications of the opera that may have seemed very different to 1842 audiences. The music itself was heard in ways quite unlike what we can easily recapture. There was no Ernani against which to measure the patriotic choruses; there was no Lady Macbeth against which to understand the fierce Abigaille; there were none of the great Verdian father-daughter duets (Aida and Amonasro, Rigoletto and Gilda, Germont and Violetta) against which to hear the interaction of Nabucco and Abigaille. The context of Nabucco was not the operas Verdi was going to write in future years, but rather the bel canto style of Bellini and Donizetti and the massive choral dramas of the French Grand Opera tradition, particularly those of Rossini.
There is no mistaking the bel canto quality of much solo vocal music in Nabucco, but Verdi's links to that tradition go further. By 1850 he had constructed the persona of an artist implacable in his demands that his music be performed exactly as he wrote it. But when La Scala informed him that, for a revival in the fall of 1842, the role of Fenena was to be sung by a soprano, Amalia Zecchini, rather than a mezzo-soprano, as at the premiere, Verdi himself altered the prayer Fenena sings as she is brought in to be executed. It is not just the higher register that is striking, but the ornamentation, which gives the music a notable bel canto quality. If Verdi was prepared to ornament melodic lines in this way, should modern performers also be adding ornamentation?
Audiences in 1842 had no doubt whatsoever about Verdi's model for his presentation of the Hebrews in Nabucco: Rossini's Moïse (1827), which recounted the Exodus story, was well known to them. To take a single example, Nabucco opens with contrasting choral passages: one in a minor key in which the Hebrews lament their fate; one in the parallel major in which they pray for God's protection. Moïse begins precisely the same way. When we think about how Verdi's early operas establish a new choral presence in Italian opera, we need to recognize that contemporary audiences knew very well the context from which that innovation emerged.
We cannot cancel more than 150 years of history when we listen to Nabucco today. Yet it is important to imagine what the opera must have meant to Verdi and to those who heard it for the first time. Making that effort helps us perceive it not as a precursor of the glories that were to come, not as "early Verdi," in short, but as the remarkable statement of a maturing composer, with both strong links to the preceding generations and an ever-growing confidence in the power of his own artistic voice.
Philip Gossett, a professor at the University of Chicago, is general editor of The Works of Giuseppe Verdi, and author of Divas and Scholars: Performing Italian Opera. In 2004 he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the first musicologist to be so honored.