Verdi - How a Musical Genius Saved His Career

It is 1840, and Giuseppe Verdi is on the verge of giving-up his musical career.

It’s been a tough year. After taking his two children, death has also claimed Verdi’s beloved wife Margherita. His second opera, “King for a Day,” is dead-on-arrival at La Scala (Milan’s famous opera house).

Emotionally upset, and in the throes of depression, Verdi makes a decision. He will do something else to earn a living. He’s finished with composing music.

Then ... an unexpected encounter gives Verdi a second chance.

On a Milan street, the composer sees Bartolomeo Merelli (known as La Scala’s impresario). He has the words to a new opera which he’d like Verdi to examine.

Uninterested in writing music for any new libretto, Verdi declines the invitation. Even so, he takes the work - called Nabucco (“Nebuchadnezzar”) - home with him. Maybe he’ll look at it later.

During a sleepless night, Verdi reaches for the manuscript. He opens the pages to Part 3 and sees these words:

Va pensiero, sull' ali dorate (Italian for “Fly, thought, on wings of gold”).

Intrigued by the beautiful words, Verdi reconsiders his plan to stop writing music. In 1841, he composes a score for Nabucco which makes him world-famous.

Setting aside the emotional impact of the melodious music itself, Verdi’s opera appears at an opportune time. The story line - of the Hebrew people trying to break the bondage of their Babylonian captivity - resonates with the Italian people (who want their own nation).

Va, Pensiero - the aria which aroused Verdi’s interest in Temistocle Solera’s libretto - becomes Italy’s unofficial national anthem soon after Nabucco’s premiere at La Scala. People in Italy find parallels between the opera’s story and their own predicament (as they seek freedom from Austrian control).

What are the words to Va, Pensiero?

In Italian:

Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate;
Va, ti posa sui clivi, sui colli,
ove olezzano tepide e molli
l'aure dolci del suolo natal!
Del Giordano le rive saluta,
di Sionne le torri atterrate…
Oh mia Patria sì bella e perduta!
O membranza sì cara e fatal!
Arpa d'or dei fatidici vati,
perché muta dal salice pendi?
Le memorie nel petto raccendi,
ci favella del tempo che fu!
O simile di Solima ai fati,
traggi un suono di crudo lamento;
o t'ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù!

The lyrics, in English translation:

Fly, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!
Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion's toppled towers...
Oh, my country so lovely and lost!
Oh, remembrance so dear and so fraught with despair!
Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom's memories,
and speak of times gone by!
Mindful of the fate of Jerusalem,
either give forth an air of sad lamentation,
or else let the Lord imbue us
with fortitude to bear our sufferings!

Verdi tells us a story about an early rehearsal of Va Pensiero, when he first realizes the music is resonating with its listeners:

... the 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 after I had dragged on in poverty and disappointment for a long time at Busseto, and had been laughed at by all the publishers, and shown the door by all the impresarios. I had lost all real confidence and courage, but through sheer obstinacy, I succeeded in getting Nabucco [...] rehearsed at La Scala, in Milan.

The artists were singing as badly as they knew how, and the orchestra seemed to be bent only on drowning the noise of the workmen who were busy making alterations in the building. Presently the chorus began to sing, as carelessly as before, the 'Va pensiero,' but before they had got through half-a-dozen bars the theatre was as still as a church.

The men had left off their work, one by one, and there they were, sitting about on ladders and scaffolding, listening! When the number was finished they broke into 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. (Interview with Annie Vivanti, first published in London's The Daily Graphic, 14 January 1893; the text here is from the version reprinted in MARCELLO CONATI, Interviews & Encounters with Verdi, translated by Richard Stokes [Ithaca, 1984], pp. 237-238. Quoted by Roger Parker in Arpa D'or Dei Fatidici Vati: The Verdian Patriotic Chorus in the 1840s, at pp. 36-37.)

At the end of Verdi’s 81-year life, in 1901, a huge crowd gathers for his funeral procession. The people join a choir to sing “Va Pensiero,” the still-popular song which reignited a musical genius’ career.

In this video clip, we see a 2005 performance of Va Pensiero by the Metropolitan Opera. The audience, stunned by the bravura performance, is treated with an immediate encore.

See, also:

Giuseppe Verdi - Popular Composer

Verdi - Lynne Dawson Sings at Princess Diana's Funeral

Verdi - Dies Irae Conducted by von Karajan

Verdi - Va, Pensiero by Pavarotti and Zucchero


0 Question or Comment?
click to read or comment
2 Questions 2 Ponder
click to read and respond
0 It's Awesome!
vote for your favorite

Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5197stories and lessons created

Original Release: Sep 23, 2014

Updated Last Revision: Nov 04, 2016

Media Credits

Clip from Nabucco, performed in 2005 by the Metropolitan Opera conducted by James Levine, online via YouTube.  Copyright, Metropolitan Opera, all rights reserved.  Clip provided here as fair use for educational purposes and to acquaint new viewers with the production.


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Verdi - How a Musical Genius Saved His Career" AwesomeStories.com. Sep 23, 2014. May 28, 2020.
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Awesome Stories Silver or Gold Membership Required
Show tooltips