No piece of classical music evokes stronger images of Italian nationalistic fervour than Va pensiero (the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves) from Verdi's 1842 opera Nabucco, undoubtedly the best known of the composer's "patriotic" choruses. For more than a century this piece has been treated by Italians with the mixture of condescension and throaty awe that marks a true national monument, and yet there is no evidence to support the idea that Verdi intended it as a rallying call of Italian nationalism, or indeed that it was received as such until long after Italian reunification, in 1861.
In an extended Sunday Feature to mark the start of Radio 3's Verdi 200 coverage, and taking as a starting point Verdi's funeral in 1901, at which some 300,000 people gathered to pay their respects, Professor Roger Parker traces the complex reception history of Verdi's so-called "Risorgimento" operas and asks what it can tell us about the function of opera in Italian society in the 19th century, its role in the cultural nation-building that took place after 1861, and indeed Verdi himself. Why is it that Verdi's music has been appropriated by radically different groups, from the Fascist regime in the 1940s to the Lega Nord (the North League for the Independence of Padania) today, and what can this tell us about the fragile state of modern Italy?
With contributions from conductor Sir Mark Elder, director Graham Vick, musicologists Emanuele Senici and Susan Rutherford, Milan-based novelist and commentator Tim Parks, and Lucy Riall, a specialist in the Risorgimento.
Producer Emma Bloxham.