Viva Verdi?

As Italy approaches its 150th birthday, Verdi’s ability to stir nationalist sentiment has apparently become problematic.

Patrick West

Patrick West

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It is widely understood that musicians can help to create nations. Jean Sibelius is accredited with helping to arouse Finnish nationalism in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The works of Richard Wagner were employed to establish German National Socialism in the 1920s. And the European Union has been under the impression for some years now that if it plays ‘Ode to Joy’ from Beethoven’s ninth symphony enough times we will all one day want to live in a delightful European super-state.

Perhaps the musician to have the greatest effect in generating nationalist sentiment was Giuseppe Verdi, whose operas were taken up by Italian monarchists and agitators for Il Risorgimento (The Resurgence) with great enthusiasm in the mid-nineteenth century. The composer has been given much credit for bringing about the unification of Italy in 1861, and his legacy is worth bearing in mind as that country ‘celebrates’ its 150th birthday on 17 March.

I was reminded of Verdi by a recent (and reasonable yet inevitably experimental) production of Otello by the Birmingham Opera Company, which aired on BBC2 a couple of weeks ago. The Welsh National Opera put on a performance of Il trovatore in Cardiff last month, and I am pleased that BBC Radio 3 this week broadcast a production of La forza del destino – of which a section from the overture is probably more widely known in the UK as That Music From The Old Stella Artois Advert.

You can see why Verdi appeals to a global audience, and why he chimed with Italian nationalists in the nineteenth century. Despite the themes of his operas being staples of the genre – love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge, consumption, stabbings, suicide and murder – the music has an essential vitality, glory and melodrama that lends itself perfectly to nationalism. This is why when you watch the football World Cup, every national anthem from the South American countries sounds like a Verdi rip-off – and why you will hear the Dutch fans chanting the ‘Triumphal March’ from Aida. Put simply, it’s exciting and overwhelming music. Aida works for the same reason that Sibelius’s Finlandia does: it makes you feel a small part of something big, which is also how nationalism works.

In truth, much of his work did not promote Italian nationalism quite to the degree to which apologists of Italian nationalism protested. Rather those with their own anti-Austrian, pan-Italian agendas latched on to its emotive power and interpreted the operas as they so desired. Nabucco had been such a triumph in Milan in 1842 that the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’ became an unofficial second national anthem of Italy. As a consequence, operas that followed, such as Rigoletto and Un Ballo in Maschera, were presumed inflammatory enough to have their entire scores scrutinised by the Austrian censors. ‘Viva Verdi!’, the multitudes would chant at the conclusion to his operas, and by the late 1850s this refrain had become acronymic code for ‘Viva Emanuele Re D’Italia’. After the preeminent composer Gioacchino Rossini died in 1868, Verdi came to be seen, for better or worse, as the musical embodiment of a new Italy.

The question is: does Italy need Giuseppe Verdi today? Or should it? National anniversaries tend to evoke three responses. Well, they do in the UK anyway. The first is mindless patriotism, the second is mindless self-flagellation, and the third – an ambiguous position – is to call into question the entire authenticity and immutability of the nation state (in the UK this takes the form of whole ‘but we eat chicken tikka masala’, ‘what does it actually mean to be British today?’ snorefest). As far as I can detect, in Italy there has been something of a corresponding reaction. The broadly centre-right Corrie della Sera newspaper has its own ‘150’ celebration section replete with commemorative red, white and green ribbon. La Stampa has asked what there is actually to celebrate. And Italy’s answer to William Wallace, Umberto Bossi of the secessionist Northern League, has been annoying people again by arguing that March 17 should not be a public holiday, because it’s a waste of money.

To be sure, this anniversary comes at an unfortunate time. The well-documented cost of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s years of cronyism, financial mismanagement and personal misbehaviour has, I suspect, not made it easy for Italians to decide how they feel about their country. When you have an otherwise sensible and erudite figure such as Umberto Eco comparing Berlusconi to Hitler then you know things are in a bad way.

The British historian David Gilmour certainly thinks the Italians shouldn’t be celebrating. In his recent book, The Pursuit of Italy: A History of a Land, its Regions and their Peoples, he invokes the old ‘imagined communities’ hypothesis: he portrays Giuseppe Mazzini as a useless dreamer, Garibaldi as the cruel hammer of the Sicilians and Verdi himself as far from patriotic. The Catholic Church alongside many of the people of Italy, especially in Venice, did not want unification. And only one in 40 people actually spoke Italian in 1861. The alleged artifice that is Italy is illustrated by a famous quote made by Italian nationalist Massimo d’Azeglio from 1861: ‘We have made Italy. Now we must make Italians.’ Gilmour writes that the inveterate tensions between northerners and southerners suggest Italians have yet to be made.

Of course, all nation states are artificial, and nationalism a construct. But the propensity for tribalism is innate to the human condition – it just differs over time and space in the way it manifests itself. I’m sure that if you abolished nationalism, some other form of group affiliation would just take its place. So pointing out that the state of Italy is ‘artificial’ is an irrelevant statement.

Nationalism is like music: its not logical, but it can be stirring (observe the rendition of ‘La Marseillaise’ before the beginning of a rugby international, or in the film Casablanca, for instance). And when it comes down to it, if I was Italian and had to have any musician’s work represent me, I would choose Verdi over Beethoven every time.

Patrick West is spiked’s music columnist. Read his blog here.

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