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It's difficult to describe the immense love and admiration held by the Italian people for Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901). If he had only composed his twenty-six operas, he would be remembered as one of the greatest operatic geniuses of all time.
But he did so much more. He was an instrumental figure in the struggle for a unified Italian state. In fact, the slogan "Viva VERDI" became an acronym for Viva Vittorio Emanuele, Re D'Italia (Long Live Victor Emmanuel, King of Italy), referring to Victor Emmanuel II, who would become the first King of a united Italy in 1861.
His early operas, especially those whose subject matters deal with a suppressed people - Nabucco, Attila, I Lombardi, Giovanna d'Arco - embodied the struggle for many Italians during the Risorgimento period. His heroic arias and stirring choruses, with their fervent Nationalism, spoke to the souls of the Italian people, encouraging them not to lose hope in their struggle for freedom from foreign rule.
The Verdi chorus that most embodies this sentiment is "Va Pensiero" from his third opera, Nabucco. In this chorus, the Hebrews (who are being held captive in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar) sing longingly of their lost homeland. To this day, the chorus holds a very special place in the hearts of the Italian people. Here is a clip from a recent performance of Nabucco in Rome, where the conductor Riccardo Muti stops the performance, turns to speak with the audience, and asks them to sing along with a reprise of "Va Pensiero". One can feel the deep emotion felt by all in the theater that evening:
Another dream of Verdi's was to build a retirement home for professional musicians, which he did late in life - the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, better known as Casa Verdi:
This remains a fully-funded home for retired musicians, and was a great source of pride for Verdi.
The word "opera" in Italian has two meanings, which are opera (as in a music theater composition) and work (as in a completed work or achievement). When asked late in life to name his greatest opera, Verdi said it was the Casa di Riposo per Musicisti. What a mensch!
Verdi came from a very humble farming background in Busseto, and often referred to himself as a farmer who composed. He asked to have a common funeral and burial, with no pomp and circumstance. His request was honored at his death in 1901. His remains, and those of his wife Giuseppina Strepponi, were eventually moved to a small chapel within Casa Verdi:
Visiting Casa Verdi, and seeing Verdi's final resting place, was very moving. There is an inscription above his grave, which reads: PIANSE ED AMO PER TUTTI