Saturday, April 30, 2011

Verdi's Nabucco: Chorus Of The Hebrew Slaves

 "Va, Pensiero" ("Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves") from Giuseppe Verdi's Nabucco: Act III.

This is sung beautifully by the Westminster Choir, directed by John Finlay with the NBC Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Arturo Toscanini. It was recorded for a broadcast on NBC Radio on January 31, 1943, in the midst of the Second World War.

Nabucco (short for Nabucodonosor in Italian, or Nebuchadnezzar in English) is an 1842 opera in four acts by Giuseppe Verdi [1813-1901]. The lyrics of the famous choir chorus were written in Italian by Temistocle Solera [1815–1878], who took inspiration from Psalm 137 of the Hebrew Bible.

It is Verdi’s third opera and the one which is considered to have permanently established his reputation as a composer. Verdi composed Nabucco at a time when much sadness and grief engulfed his life. having personal losses in successive years, all before he turned thirty. First Verdi's two children had died in infancy: Virginia Maria in 1838, and Icilio Romano in 1839; and then his wife, Margherita, had died of encephalitis at age twenty-six in 1840.

Such might explain the haunting power and beauty behind this opera, and in particular the Chorus, "Va, Pensiero," of Act III, which resonates with humanity—a call for freedom in the face of captivity. A freedom that is both corporeal and spiritual.

The setting is 587 BCE in Jerusalem and the defeat of the Israelites and the destruction of the First Temple, by the armies of Nebuchadnezzar. The Isrealites are taken captive, with the result that they have been removed from their centre of gravity, the Temple and Jerusalem.

Despite all this, in the famous Chorus, the Hebrew slaves look forward in their despair to a better future, the hope of all people during a time of crisis. Below are the original Italian lyrics. I know there are various other versions, particularly to suit modern sensibilities. But it's always good to view the original.

Va' Pensiero

Va, pensiero
Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;
Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l'aure dolci del suolo natal!
Del Giordano le rive saluta,
di Sionne le torri atterrate…
Oh mia Patria sì bella e perduta!
O membranza sì cara e fatal!
Arpa d'or dei fatidici vati,
perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
ci favella del tempo che fu!
O simile di Solima ai fati,
traggi un suono di crudo lamento;
o t'ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù!

English Translation:

Fly, thoughts, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild,
the sweet air of our native land smells fragrant!
Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion's toppled towers.
Oh, my country so lovely and lost!
Oh, memory so dear and despairing!
Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why do you hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our heart's memories and speak of times gone by!
Mindful of the fate of Jerusalem,
either sound a song of sad lamentation,
or else let the Lord give us the strength to bear our sufferings!

There is another wonderful version from the Metropolitan opera in New York City, in a 2002 production, which you can view here. Both are among the best versions. I would like to know if you have heard better versions, or which ones you prefer.

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