Music for a Revolution – C. 1860: The natural role of opera and composer Verdi during the age of the Risorgimento

by Giovanni BIETTI

As many scholars have pointed out, before being politically united, Italy had already been musically unified by opera. Nothing could be truer: it is enough to scroll through the list of the main theatres active in the first half of the 19th century (La Scala in Milan, La Fenice in Venice, San Carlo in Naples, just to mention the three most famous ones, but also the Roman theatres, such as Valle, Argentina, or the now closed Apollo Theatre, as well as the opera houses of Bologna, Florence, Genoa, and so on) to realize that operas circulated throughout the Italian peninsula, constantly crossing the borders between the various States.

Opera is actually a typical, peculiar, Italian cultural phenomenon. No wonder that “national operas” always developed in the various European countries in opposition to the ubiquitous Italian opera: Schumann, for example, used to dedicate a daily prayer to the birth of German opera, and hurled cutting remarks at the “levity” and virtuosity of Italian musicians, against the German solidity and solemnity. Italian opera spread not only thanks to its captivating, beautiful melodies, but also because, since the first half of the 18th century, many Italian composers emigrated abroad in search of fortune. So it clearly had a strong national style and identity.

However, the “Italian unification” performed by opera is actually more articulated and profound. Apart from its musical style, opera had in fact a precise linguistic, literary style. The knowledge and diffusion of the Italian language therefore passed as much through the opera librettos by Felice Romani, Francesco Maria Piave or Salvatore Cammarano, as through the poetry and prose by Manzoni and Leopardi. As a “mirror of the world”, theatre was universally available for all social classes (the structure itself of the Italian-style theatre was intended to allow different social classes to simultaneously enjoy the show: the bourgeoisie from the stalls, the nobles from the boxes and the proletarians from the galleries), but it could obviously reach wider audiences, and in a much more immediate way, thanks to the music. It is not surprising that opera librettos often shared the same plain, rhythmically uniform metrics as the poetry of the Risorgimento by Manzoni: six-syllable, octosyllable, decasyllable. It is perfectly possible to sing, for example, the beginning of Manzoni’s poem March 1821 on the chorus of Va’ pensiero sull’ali dorate [“Fly, thought, on golden wings”]: Soffermati sull’arida sponda, volti i guardi al varcato Ticino, tutti assorti nel novo destino, certi in cor dell’antica virtù…Lingering on the dry bank looking back to the Ticino river all absorbed in the new destiny with their ancient virtue in their heartIn the same way, Dagli atri muscosi, daifori cadenti  [“From overgrown courtyards, from derelict forums”] perfectly fits with the notes of Fratelli d’Italia  [“Brothers of Italy”].

The language of Melodrama is obviously highly stylized, and sometimes quite unrealistic, so much so that it has often been mocked and derided in a variety of satirical plays. In opera librettos, for example, we find temple instead of church, consort instead of husband, accents instead of words; if a character is out of the country, it is said that he is in a foreign soil, and so on. As Luigi Dallapiccola noted, “opera is very likely to sound ridiculous, we have known that for a long time, but we have also known (and even for a longer time) that, in some cases, in art as well as in life, this is the risk that needs to be taken in order to achieve the sublimity of style”. That is what happens in the operas composed by Rossini, Bellini and Verdi. Otherwise it wouldn’t be possible to explain the popularity, the sense of belonging, the attachment Italians felt for Melodrama in the first half of the 19th century. Due to their style and the universal sentiments conveyed through their music, the great opera composers became the symbol of the fight against foreign oppression. As proved by a number of anecdotes, the ideals and events of the Risorgimento are strictly interwoven with opera: from the case of the Bandiera brothers, who followed the platoon that was about to execute them singing an aria from Mercadante’s Donna Caritea, to that of Garibaldi, who, before leaving from Quarto, stirred the souls of the Thousand by singing opera arias.

This strict relationship is perfectly embodied by Giuseppe Verdi, who is regarded as the Italian national composer and the emblem par excellence of the Risorgimento, so much so that his name was used as an acronym to secretly praise Victor Emanuel (“Viva Verdi ”, i.e. “Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re d’Italia, which means “Long Live Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy”). As soon as he knew about the Five Days of Milan, Verdi rushed back to Italy from Paris, saying that the hour had come for Italy to be a “free, united, republican country”. In 1848, prompted by Mazzini, Verdi also composed the music for the hymn of Mameli, Sound the Trumpet, which he hoped would became “the Marseillaise of the Italians”. Lastly, Verdi composed the one opera that, for its theme, the tone of its libretto, the mode of representation, is regarded as the very opera of the Risorgimento, The Battle of Legnano.  First staged in January 1849, in the Republican Rome that had temporarily chased the Pope, this opera, more than other masterpieces, definitively established Verdi’s fame: every time it was staged, such was the enthusiasm that the entire last act had to be repeated.

After the failure of the Republican ideals in 1849, Verdi wrote one last opera that somehow recalled the spirit of the Risorgimento: The Sicilian Vespers, which was staged in 1855 in Paris, far from the Restoration climate that was pervading Italy.

The authorities were perfectly aware that Melodrama talked to the heart of the Italians. It is not surprising that, in the 1850s, censorship became stricter than ever. Even such a poet as Giuseppe Gioacchino Belli, who, in his Sonnets, was perfectly – and secretly – aware of the conditions of the Roman people, in 1852 made a harsh criticism of Rigoletto, claiming that “the rotten drama by Victor Hugo couldn’t help but produce such a filthy forgery”, and suggested that “such a ugly word as revenge, which sounds very bad, especially today and in the mouth of the plebs” be removed from the text every time it was repeated (which happens quite often in Rigoletto, as any opera lover knows).

Nine years later, Italy paid the debt of gratitude to its greatest composer, recognizing and the role played by his music in awakening the conscience of the Italians: on the 6th of February 1861, Verdi was in fact elected in the first Italian Parliament, at Cavour’s insistence. This way, the active power of music in the Italian political and social life was officially recognized. We all wish this power might still continue to live today, after 150 years.

About the Author


Giovanni Bietti is a composer, musicologist and pianist. He works as an Art Consultant for the National Academy of Santa Cecilia in Rome. His compositions have been played at the Edinburgh International Festival, the Konzerthaus of Berlin, the Kuhmo International Chamber Music Festival (Finland) and the National Academy of Santa Cecilia, by interpreters such as violinist Thomas Zehetmair and pianist Boris Berezhovskij. He taught Composition at the Conservatory “V. Bellini” of Catania, and Ethnomusicology at the University “Carlo Bo” of Urbino. He is widely reputed as one of the best lecturers of music, and has brought his “Lecture-Concert” formula to the most important Italian music institutions. He hosts very successful programmes on Rai-Radiotre and is the promoter of the “Music Lectures” held at the Auditorium of Rome, which attract large audiences of music lovers. As a musicologist, he published essays and score revisions for Ricordi, Longanesi, Skira, the National Academy of Santa Cecilia and the main Italian musicology magazines. He worked for Philips Classics Records for over ten years.