Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Celebrating Verdi’s 200th — Life and Operas of Verdi: Nabucco

We understand a “eureka moment” as being a revelatory, paradigm-shifting realization that has the power to change EVERYTHING.

The word “eureka” comes from the ancient Greek word εὕρηκα, which means “I have found it!” The ancient Greco-dude credited with coining the exclamation “eureka!” was the mathematician, astronomer, physicist, engineer, inventor and Jeopardy!-freak Archimedes (circa 287 BCE – circa 212 BCE). Archimedes purportedly shrieked “EUREKA” when, having stepped into his bath and noticed that the water level rose, he realized that the volume of water he displaced was equal to the volume of his body that was submerged in the water. A nanosecond (or two) later, he then realized that he had solved what had long been considered an unsolvable problem: how to accurately measure the volume of an irregular object. According to legend, Archimedes was so excited by his “eureka moment” that he jumped out of the tub and ran naked through the streets of his native city of Syracuse, there on the southeastern coast of Sicily. We suspect he would have thought twice about doing so had he made his discovery during a winter’s evening in Medicine Hat, Alberta.

I trust we’ve all had a “eureka moment”. Mine occurred in June of 1973 when, as a nineteen year-old tourist I drove up the California coast through San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge. It was a warm, crystal-clear day, and the view – of San Francisco, the Bay, and the mountains of Marin Country and the East Bay – made an impression I remember to this day. It was my “eureka moment”, and I swore to myself that I was going to come back and stay. That I did, five years later, and I have never left.

Giuseppe Verdi’s singular “eureka moment” occurred sometime during the first week of March in 1842, during a rehearsal of his third opera, Nabucco (which means “Nebuchadnezzar”, as in the ancient Babylonian king). Verdi composed the opera under the most extreme emotional duress. In a 22 month period between 1838 and 1840 Verdi lost both of his children and his wife Margherita to disease. Crazed with grief, he swore he’d never compose again. But somehow, Bartolomeo Merelli – the director of Milan’s storied opera house La Scala – convinced Verdi to compose Nabucco. And so, remembered Verdi:

“I went back home with Nabucco in my pocket. One day, one line; one day, another; now one note, then a phrase. Little by little, the opera was composed.”

Verdi finished Nabucco in early October of 1841. Merelli scheduled its premiere for March 9, 1842. A remarkable event took place during the rehearsals, and Verdi later claimed that it was at that moment that his success as an opera composer began. I quote Verdi:

“The [common] people have always been my best friends, from the very beginning. It was a handful of carpenters who gave me my first real assurance of success.

[It was during a rehearsal.] The [choristers] were singing as badly as they knew how, and the orchestra seemed bent only on drowning out the noise of the workmen who were making alterations in the building. Presently, the chorus began to sing, as carelessly as before, ‘Va Pensiero’, but before they had gotten through half-a-dozen bars the theater was as still as a church.”

Verdi continues. “The [carpenters] had stopped working one by one, and there they were, sitting about on the ladders and scaffolding, listening! When the number was finished, they broke out in the noisiest applause I have ever heard, crying, ‘Bravo, bravo, viva il maestro!’ and beating on the woodwork with their tools. Then I knew what the future had in store for me.”

It was, for Verdi, his “eureka moment”. Nabucco was indeed a triumph and it marked, in fact, the true beginning of his phenomenal career.

Hear more about Nabucco and the circumstances surrounding its creation in this excerpt from Lecture Four of my The Great Courses survey, “The Life and Operas of Verdi.”

Hear ‘Va Pensiero’ replete with an encore: