THE CHORUS FROM VERDI’S NABUCCO
This is one of the most beautiful choruses in Italian opera. It is also one of the most difficult to understand.
The story takes place in the year 587 B.C. Act one is set in the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem. The Jews have taken refuge there but not for long because soon they will be taken prisoner by Nabucco (King Nebuchadnezzar II) and marched off in slavery to Babylon. Act three finds them in Babylon and they sing this chorus while sitting on the banks of the Euphrates River.
The chorus is full of mourning for their lost fatherland (“mia patria sì bella e perduta”) and resolve to muster up the courage needed to endure their harsh life and maybe even revolt. They wish to hear inspiring stories of the old days (“il tempo che fu”/the time that was, e.g. the glorious days of King David and Solomon when Israel was powerful and warlike).
When Verdi wrote this chorus Italy was suffering under the Austrians and in light of this the words take on a whole new meaning: the Italians who are occupied by the Austrians are in a similar position to the Jews who are enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar. They have a choice: they can do nothing and wallow in their misery or they can muster up the courage to fight and overthrow their overlords. This is all part of the famous “Risorgimento”, the revival, rebirth, and flourishing of Italy. Two traumatic events in Verdi’s personal life probably inform the incredible energy and existential revolt that one senses in this chorus: his wife had died recently of encephalitis (she was only twenty-six) and his most recent opera, Un Giorno di Regno, had flopped. Fortunately, Nabucco was a huge success.
What makes this passage so difficult is the unusual language (clivi, Sionne, membranza, fatidici, vati, Solima, concento); the inversions (5-6, 13-14); and the use of the pronoun “ne” in verse 16. “Ne” has the same meaning as “ci” which is much more common. Both mean something like “for us”, “to our benefit”, etc. Technically they are known as datives of advantage or datives of interest. I explain them in depth in both my books on operatic Italian (Italian for the Opera, pp. 53-54; Operatic Italian, pp. 163-166). See my website: http://www.godwinbooks.com
For anyone teaching operatic Italian, this chorus would provide a good review of the imperative (or command mood): Va (Go!); posati: alight on; saluta: greet; raccendi: light again; favella: tell; traggi: harsh; infondi: imbue, inform, inspire.
Mastering the sixteen verses of this chorus takes time and effort but by studying it in depth one’s understanding and enjoyment are greatly increased.
1. Va, pensiero, sulle ali dorate!
(il pensiero: thought; l’ala: the wing; dorato: golden)
Interlinear translation: Go (my) thought, on the wings golden!
In normal English: Go, my thought, on golden wings!
2. Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli
(posarti: to alight on–a reflexive verb; il clivo: slope; il colle: hill)
Go, alight on the slopes, on the hills
3. ove olezzano tepide e molli
(olezzare: to give off a pleasant scent, to perfume; molle: soft)
where perfume pleasant and soft
4. l’aure dolci del suolo natal.
(l’aura: the breeze; il suolo: the earth, soil, land)
the sweet breezes of our native land.
Combining verses 2 to 4: Go and alight upon the slopes and hills of
our native land where sweet breezes give off a scent both soft and pleasant.
5. Del Giordano le rive saluta,
(the Jordan River; la riva: the bank, e.g., of a river).
Greet the banks of the Jordan
6. di Sionne le torri atterrate.
(Sionne: Zion i.e. Jerusalem; la torre: the tower; atterrato: knocked down,
destroyed. This is the past participle of atterrare, used here as an adjective.
(and greet) the wrecked towers of Jerusalem (Sionne).
7. O mia patria sì bella e perduta!
Oh my fatherland, so beautiful and lost!
8. O membranza sì cara e fatal’!
(la membranza: memory, recollection ; fatal: “che reca danno irrimediabile,
sciagura” i.e. “that which brings irreparable harm, misfortune”—Zingarelli’s
Dizionario. Some words in Italian don’t translate directly and easily.
Oh, recollection so dear and disastrous!
9. Arpa d’or dei fatidici vati,
(fatidico: prophetic; il vate: the poet. This probably refers to the prophets of the Old
Golden harp of the prophetic poets,
10. perché muta dal salice pendi?
(il salice: willow tree; pendere: to hang)
Why do you hang mute from the willow tree?
11. Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
(il petto: the breast, chest; raccendere: to light again, rekindle)
Rekindle memories in our breast;
12. Ci favella del tempo che fu!
(favellare: to narrate, tell; fu: simple past of essere, to be)
Tell us of the time which (once) was.
(Verses 13 to 16 are addressed to the harp)
13. O, simile di Solima ai fati,
“O”: either (O…o: either…or); Solima: Jerusalem; il fato: fate, destiny, fortunes..
Either similar of Jerusalem the destiny
Either similar to the destiny of Jerusalem (i.e. destroyed)
14. traggi un suono di crudo lamento
(trarre: to bring forth; il suono: the sound; crudo: harsh
Bring forth a sound of harsh lamentation
13-14 paraphrased: Either bring forth (play for us) a sound of harsh lamentation
in keeping with Jerusalem’s unhappy fate (or)
15. o t’ispiri il Signore un concento
–o: or; il concento: harmony or, by extension, a concerted objective.
Or may the Lord inspire you with harmonies
16. che ne infonda al patire virtù!
(infondere: to imbue with; patire: to suffer; la virtù: virtue and/or
martial courage; “ne”=“ci”, a dative of advantage: in us
or may the Lord inspire you with harmonies (‘concento’) that will
imbue us with courage through suffering.’
13-16: Either bring forth a sound of harsh lamentation, one which is in keeping with the
sad fate of Jerusalem or may the Lord inspire you with harmonies (‘concento’) which will imbue us through suffering with courage. (In short: Play a dirge full of grief or inspire us with the courage to fight.)
1. Go, (my) thought, on golden wings!
2. Go, light upon the slopes and the hills
3. Where the sweet breezes of our birthland
4. Give off a scent tepid and soft.
5. Greet the banks of the Jordan and
6. The ruined towers of Sion.
7. Oh, my fatherland so beautiful and lost!
8. Oh, memory so dear and fatal!
9. Golden harp of the prophetic poets,
10. Why do you hang mute from the willow tree?
11. Rekindle memories again in our breast;
12. Tell us of the old days (the time that was).
13. You whose fate is similar to Jerusalem’s,
14. Either bring (us) a sound of harsh lamentation
15. Or may the Lord inspire you with a ‘harmonious message’
16. Which might, through (our) suffering, imbue us with courage!