Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: The Right Composer at the Right Time and the Right Place

Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in 1843
Giuseppe Verdi (1813-1901) in 1843

On February 11, 1843 – 176 years ago today – Giuseppe Verdi’s opera I Lombardi alla Prima Crociata (The Lombards of the First Crusade) received its first performance at the Teatro La Scala in Milan. It was the 29-year-old Verdi’s fourth opera. His third opera, the monumentally successful Nabucco (as in Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon) – which had premiered just 11 months before – in March 1842, had put Verdi on the Italian opera map. I Lombardi secured his position on that map; as an unnamed critic wrote in his review of I Lombardi in the Gazzetta di Milano:

“We would just say that if Nabucco created this young man’s reputation, I Lombardi has served to confirm it.”

The “reputation” to which the critic refers was not just Verdi’s standing as a composer, but his growing status as a hero of the Risorgimento, the movement that would eventually see Italy achieve nationhood. Verdi was indeed “the right composer at the right time and the right place” and therein lies a remarkable story.


Risorgimento means, “rising up again”. Verdi lived the bulk of his life during the so-called “Italian Risorgimento”, a period that saw the Italian people “rise up again” to achieve cultural renewal and nationhood. Running from the Italian conquests of Napoleon in 1796 to the unification of Italy in 1870, the Risorgimento was, for Verdi, an essential spiritual influence in his life. 


Between 1800 and 1808, much of the Italian peninsula was invaded and annexed by Napoleonic France. Napoleonic Italy collapsed like an undercooked soufflé in 1813, the year of Verdi’s birth. (An interesting historical tidbit: Verdi was born in the village of Le Roncole, in the Duchy of Parma and Piacenza. At the time of his birth, the Duchy was still part of the French Empire, and as such, Giuseppe Fortunino Francesco Verdi was born a French citizen!)

The Italians themselves had nothing to do with the defeat of Our Little Corsican Friend and as a result, Italy’s fate was left to the allies who did in fact defeat France – Austria, Britain, Prussia, and Russia – who met at the Congress of Vienna in 1815.

The Congress chose to slice up the peninsula like a Pizza Margherita into a hodge-podge of states controlled primarily from abroad. The big winner was Austria, which outright annexed the northern states of Lombardy and Veneto and took control of the rich lands of Tuscany and Modena. 

Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872)
Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872)

Among the very few things the diverse population of the Italian peninsula had in common was their growing mutual hatred for the Austrians. At the same time, “heroes” were emerging: writers and politicians who believed that they’re calling was to build a sense of Italian pride, nationalism, and self-awareness. In doing this, no single individual was more important than Giuseppe Mazzini (1805-1872). (For our information, Verdi’s beard – grown in his late-teens – was a “Mazzini-style” beard, and no Italian looking at Verdi would have failed to recognize Verdi’s furry imitation of and therefore sympathy with this great Italian patriot and revolutionary.)

As a young man, Mazzini had studied literature and philosophy, and he became involved in revolutionary politics in his twenties. While in exile for those activities in Marseilles, he founded a secret society called “Giovine Italia” (“Young Italy”), which campaigned for Italian unity under a republican government. Mazzini was a tireless traveler and revolutionary propagandist. He returned to Italy in 1848, and in 1849 he was one of the leaders of the short-lived “Roman Republic”. When that revolution failed, he fled abroad once again. Back in Italy he was condemned to death in absentia. 

Two other great Italian leaders emerged from the revolutions of 1848 and 1849: Giuseppe Garibaldi and Victor-Emmanuel. Garibaldi, a protégé of Mazzini, proved himself to be a military leader of genius, and would go on to become the most popular of all the Italian heroes of the Risorgimento. Victor-Emmanuel would become the first King of a united Italy, reigning from 1861-1878. 

These, then, are some of the people and events that shaped Verdi’s world, his consciousness and his sense of self. As a resident of Milan, Verdi had to answer – constantly – to the Austrian overlords. And despite the constant attempts by Austrian censors to moderate Verdi’s librettos, the operas he composed in the 1840s became rallying cries for the Risorgimento.

Temistocle Solera (1815-1878)
Temistocle Solera (1815-1878)

For example. Verdi’s opera Nabucco (originally entitled Nabucodonosor) was composed in 1841 and premiered at Milan’s La Scala on March 9, 1842. Based on a libretto by Temistocle Solera (1815-1878), it tells the story of a great and virtuous people – the people of Israel – enslaved by the evil and soulless Babylonians following the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem, circa 500 B.C.E. It didn’t take degrees in quantum mechanics for Italian audiences to realize that the Israelites represented themselves and the Babylonians the Austrians. The climax of the opera is the gorgeous and melancholy “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” entitled “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate“, which means “Go, thought, on golden wings”. “Va, pensiero” became the anthem of the Risorgimento and to this day is considered Italy’s “other” national anthem. To this day, when it is performed in Nabucco audiences weep and go wild and traditionally it is encored on the spot.

I Lombardi – which received its premiere in Milan 176 years ago today – is about the Lombards (that is, the Milanese) of the First Crusade, and their attempt to liberate Jerusalem from the Saracens (a term used by Christian writers to identify Arabs and Muslims). Based on a poem by the Milan-based writer Tomassi Grossi, the libretto for I Lombardi was written as well by Temistocle Solera, who had written the libretto for Nabucco.

Like Nabucco, I Lombardi was a political bombshell. As expected, the members of the La Scala audience – the Lombards of Milan – instantly identified with the Lombards of the opera. The villainous “occupiers” of the Holy Land – the Saracens – were immediately identified with the Austrian occupiers of Lombardy. When at one point the tenor portraying the heroic crusader Arvino sang “La Santa Terra oggi nostra sarà”, (“The Holy Land will be ours today”), the ecstatic La Scala audiences would join the chorus by shouting “Si! Si! Guerra! Guerra!” (“Yes! Yes! To battle! To battle!”).

Eugenio Montazio, writing in La rivista di Firenze in 1847 – just four years after the premiere of I Lombardi – attempted to explain the enthusiasm for the opera displayed by the citizens of Milan:

“The plot, if not so grand as that of Nabucco, was perhaps even more popular, more loaded with passion, and more likely to satisfy the local pride of the Lombards. The libretto offered Verdi a vehicle for showing his listeners new aspects of himself . . . [for it contains] Christian and pagan elements, the love for one’s country, the passions of vengeance and of religion – the most exquisite feelings in human nature.” 

Bartolomeo Morelli (1794-1879
(Bartolomeo Morelli (1794-1879), Director of La Scala from 1829 to 1850 and the man who saved Verdi’s life and career (another story to be told another time!)

I Lombardi was already well into rehearsals when the Austrian authorities finally got around to reacting to its libretto. The police sent a notice to Verdi, the librettist Temistocle Solera, and La Scala director Bartolomeo Merelli that the opera could not be performed unless major changes were made to its libretto. Verdi simply refused, telling Merelli and Solera:

“The rehearsals are well along; the opera is going well; and my position is this: I will not change a word or a note. It will be performed as it is or it will not be performed at all.”

The authorities blinked first, deciding that the risk of canceling the opera just days before its premiere was greater than the risk of not canceling it. And so, the opera went on. The Milanese audience loved it.

And then the Church blew a gasket; here’s why.

At the end of the third act of the opera, a Muslim prince named Oronte is mortally wounded. Just before he dies, Oronte converts to Christianity with the help of Giselda – the daughter of the Christian hero Arvino – and a nameless Christian hermit. Let me say that again: a Christian virgin converts and baptizes a Saracen on the opera stage! The Archbishop of Milan had a cow, claiming that to show baptism (a sacrament) on an opera stage was nothing less than blasphemy! Verdi just shrugged, and probably smiled a bit, too, because he understood correctly that this sort of “institutional outrage” assured that many more rear ends in that many more theater seats

Giuseppe Verdi was not just the greatest composer of Italian language opera during the nineteenth century. His career constitutes one of those all-too-rare confluences of artistic temper, time and place: of a great artist living in extraordinary times, whose work not only mirrors and bears witness to those times, but actively helps to shape them as well. Verdi’s operas were as responsible for creating the preconditions for Italian nationhood as were the writings of Mazzini, the military exploits of Garibaldi, and the political leadership of Victor-Emanuel. 

For lots more on the life and operas of Giuseppe Verdi, I would humbly direct your attention to my 32-lecture Great Courses Survey, The Operas of Verdi

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