Verdi's Nabucco: By the Rivers of Babylon
Aria Code S3 Ep 14
from Verdi’s Nabucco
BURFORD: It looks backwards to the experience of the Hebrews, and looks forward to future liberation. In that sense it speaks to the idea of a country that is both beautiful but lost.
GIDDENS: From WQXR and the Metropolitan Opera, this is Aria Code. I'm Rhiannon Giddens.
RUTTENBERG: I think this story has resonance in every single human being fleeing for safety and trying to enter the United States as an asylum seeker.
GIDDENS: Every episode, we jump into a single aria and explore the world beneath its surface. Today, we’re doing something a little different -- it’s a deepsea dive into the chorus “Va, pensiero” from Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi.
HAKAKIAN: It’s the power of nostalgia. It’s the power of yearning and longing, and it’s also the hold that the past can have.
So when I was young, me and my sister were obsessed with the musical Godspell, in particular the song “On the Willows.” [sings] “On the willows, there we hung up our lyres for our captors there required of us songs and our tormentors, mirth.” The music is from Steven Schwarz, but the words are from the Old Testament -- Psalm 137, to be exact. It starts, “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept, as we remembered Zion.”
Now one of the most famous interpretations of Psalm 137 comes from Verdi’s opera Nabucco: it’s the “Va, pensiero” chorus, or the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.
In the opera, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar (or Nabucco in Italian) seizes Jerusalem, destroys the temple, and then enslaves the Israelites in Babylon.
While all that’s going down, there’s also a love triangle and a fateful lightning bolt and soldiers dressed in disguise because this is opera, after all. But at its heart, Nabucco, and especially the “Va, pensiero” chorus still resonates loud and clear today. It’s the story of everyone who’s been forced into exile, shut out from their homeland; of refugees who are still trying to find their voice in a strange land; and the power of memory and community.
Normally, this is where I introduce a singer from the Metropolitan Opera, but since this is an ensemble number, you’re gonna hear from the man who’s been working with the Met’s incredible chorus for the last 15 years: Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo.
PALUMBO: I was thinking about the times I’ve done this piece and I can remember almost all of them. And I end up usually just standing still and listening from the wings. And every time I’ve done it I sense something special and sense the privilege of being able to do what I do.
Next up, Mark Burford, a musicologist and music professor at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.
BURFORD: One of the things that drew me to music is how certain moments in our life can be almost indexed by the music we heard at the time, by our ability to sing and kind of mark a moment.
Third, Rabbi and author Danya Ruttenberg. She’s the Scholar in Residence at the National Council of Jewish Women.
RUTTENBERG: The still small voice deep inside me that I believe is our radio station from God started saying, “Rabbinical school.” And I said, “What? No.” And it said, “Rabbinical school!” And so eventually I gave in. And now I’m a rabbi.
And finally, Roya Hakakian -- an Iranian Jewish writer whose family was exiled from Iran following the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah and created the Islamic Republic. They lived as refugees in Europe for a year before immigrating to the United States. Now, much of Roya’s work centers on this experience.
HAKAKIAN: I've spent most of my life in America now, and Iran in many ways is a distant and bygone place but that one year as a refugee is still a cornerstone of who I am.
Alright, we’re off to the banks of the Euphrates river to hear the love and longing of the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.
BURFORD: Well Nabucco emerges at a pivotal moment in Verdi's career. He was still a young composer. He was in his late thirties.
PALUMBO: Verdi had some success with his very earliest of operas.
BURFORD: And he signed a contract with La Scala, which was run by the impresario Bartolomeo Merelli. And unfortunately the first opera he wrote under the new deal bombed.
PALUMBO: It was a huge disaster.
BURFORD: And he'd also experienced pretty significant recent personal tragedy; his wife had died. Two of his children had died.
And he decided to give up opera composing entirely. And Merelli tried to lure him back into composing, with the libretto of Nabucco, which had been written by Temistocle Solera.
PALUMBO: One story says he threw it in the corner and it sat there for months. And another story says that it landed on a table with the libretto open to the text of “Va, pensiero,” and that Verdi could not get this poem out of his head.
BURFORD: So he was finally convinced to take on the project.
PALUMBO: And then this opera turned out to be an enormous success when it was first performed.
HAKAKIAN: I was born and raised in Iran in a wonderful street, which was called the Alley of the Distinguished, in Tehran. The alley was really home to a variety of different, religious and ethnic minorities. So my family is Jewish, but across the street, we had neighbors who were Armenian Christians, you know, neighbors who were Baha’i Iranians, and Zoroastrians, and we had a lot of Shiite Muslims on the block too. So it was a quite an eclectic community of people on that little alley.
BURFORD: Nabucco is based on the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple of Solomon, in 587 BC and the taking of the Hebrews into captivity by the Babylonians.
RUTTENBERG: The Babylonian empire was one of the very, very large ancient empires and how they became so big was by running around and conquering more and more territory.
BURFORD: The Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar conquers Jerusalem and declares himself “God,” is struck down by a lightning bolt as an act of divine retribution and then recovers this throne. after converting to Jerusalem. So that's the basic story, but I think a key subplot is the plight of the Hebrew people.
RUTTENBERG: The Jewish people from 70 CE until the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, were in a state of exile. And you can look at Jewish history through the lens of the crusades, and pogroms and exiles and more exiles and holocausts. We were extremely vulnerable and suffered tremendously.
HAKAKIAN: So, the Iranian revolution at the time in 1979, while it was unfolding, looked like a revolution with all the right reasons, for greater freedom, a democracy, greater civil liberties. But in retrospect, it was the opening to an extremist theocratic rule that came into Iran.
Just a few months before the revolution became victorious. I opened the front door of our home and I saw a slogan painted in black on the wall across the way that said, “Jews get out.” And there was a symbol next to it, which I had never seen. So I went inside and I showed the symbol to my father and said, “What is that?” And he just said, “Let's shut the door,” and then he explained that it was a swastika. And so the revolution itself blanketed the nation with a dark cloud that it has yet to lift.
RUTTENBERG: So the Babylonians came into what we now call the land of Israel, and basically destroyed Jerusalem, destroyed the first ancient Jerusalem temple, basically laid everything to waste. Just bodies piled everywhere and babies dying at their mother's breast because everyone's starving. It’s a time of complete abject suffering and pain.
HAKAKIAN: After the revolution, martial law was in place for months and months. And then when all that lifted, there was suddenly a new regime that had resolved to go capture its new enemies. So suddenly you would step out of the house and see that your neighbors across the way are being rounded up and sometimes you never saw them again. And so it became part of the daily life that you saw people get arrested and disappear. And simultaneously with all this, that was going on internally, a war broke out between Iran and its southern neighbor Iraq. And so there was also daily bombings and shortages of food. We used to stand in line for basic daily needs, like eggs and milk and bread. It was a terrifying sight.
And so in 1984 my mother and I left Iran.
BURFORD: The tradition of choral singing really flourishes in the 19th century, whether it's congregational song or public singing or a large mass choruses, that's really what we start to first get these choral institutions. So it's not a coincidence that I think Verdi’s operas often feature choruses, but Nabucco in particular, I think is unique because the chorus really is a prominent character in the opera. And I think what's significant is that they often are singing in unison.
PALUMBO: All the voice parts are singing the same text with the same rhythm, with one melody that is not harmonized within the chorus.
BURFORD: Almost as if the collective articulates its aspirations as a solitary voice.
PALUMBO: Usually an opera chorus consists of singers who have had serious musical training. A lot of people who wanted to have a solo career or did have a solo career. And so the problem for a chorus master is getting all of the voices to blend, to sound like one voice composed of, let's say, 100 different individual colors from singers.
HAKAKIAN: For a period of a year, we lived alongside other refugees from Iran, mostly Jewish, in Europe, namely in Austria. A group of strangers, I had never known, met or chosen for that matter to live with, and suddenly we were thrown together twelve women in a two bedroom apartment, and we moved together all the time. We woke up together because once one of us was up, everybody else was up too, the quarters were very small. We cooked together. We had to, we had a very small stove and, we came home and we slept together because we had two or three beds and we had to share. So I went from being an individual, to suddenly becoming this unwanted community of people. And clearly the foremost expression of the refugee experience is that loss of individuality, loss of selfhood.
PALUMBO: The Hebrews are in exile in Babylonia and they are on the banks of the Euphrates river. And they are thinking about their homeland.
BURFORD: The chorus “Va, pensiero,” is really about that moment. It’s in some ways it's more of a tableau than it is a scene where the Hebrews are stationary. They're sitting there delivering this text based on Psalm 137.
And this is a text from the Bible in which the Hebrews in Babylonian captivity are sitting by the river and weeping, remembering Zion, remembering Jerusalem.
RUTTENBERG: [Reading in Hebrew] “By the rivers of Babylon. There, we sat, sat and wept as we thought of Zion.”
BURFORD: It's expressing a desire to remember a past prior to captivity.
So “Va, pensiero” actually begins, with an orchestral introduction. And it's an odd introduction because it kind of keeps us guessing about what kind of musical number we're being set up for. It opens with this kind of tentative dialogue between upward, sweeping strings and winds kind of responding pecking in harmony.
And then we get a brief trilling flute line that suggests a kind of a nostalgic reverie.
But this tender flute moment is kind of abruptly interrupted by this sudden stormy turn to the minor with these three big sustained chords, played by the blaring brass, and rising and falling arpeggios by the bass instruments. So it's almost like a Sturm und Drang kind of storm and stress moment that we get.
HAKAKIAN: Once I moved to the United States, in 1985, my misery was just compounded because I was even farther away from the homeland that I didn't want to part with.
So now I was in a brand new country, where a whole new language was being spoken, and everything was coming at me as just these uninterrupted yarns of speech. And yet again, I you know, uh, very articulate teenager, became deaf and dumb again. So I practically didn't speak for about a year.
BURFORD: But then the flutes along with the clarinets kind of restore order and calm the brass, with a slow trill, that kind of steers us back to the major and sets up the beginning of the main tune with this meandering line, that kind of feels like an extended upbeat before a bar of silence.
And then we hear the tune.
PALUMBO: Basically what they say is “Va, pensiero, sull'ali dorate,” meaning “Go fly this thought on golden wings,” and it just is such a beautiful first line. It does make sense maybe that the poem just haunted Verdi’s dreams for a while and finally forced him to compose again because that, that opening line just is so, moving just by itself, and Verdi, somehow found music to make it even more special.
BURFORD: So the chorus is singing in unison, doubled by the strings and the woodwinds, and the tune is actually very modest, it's very singable, it's almost all scales and arpeggios. So it has this very lilting manner. It’s supported by this oom-pa-pa accompaniment that suggests the river lapping gently against the shore as the Hebrews sit by the river.
Verdi adds to the simplicity of a line with these subtle swells and dynamics that seem to convey the Hebrews feeling these momentary surges in emotion, almost like pangs of longing before they recomposed themselves.
HAKAKIAN: I had no illusions about what had gone wrong in, in the homeland. I had no illusions about the difficult circumstances in which Iran was steeped. I had no illusions that it was impossible to return, and yet I wished to return. It seems irrational, but that is, I think part of not simply the emotional, but also the intellectual predicament of being an exile. Not only you have these attachments to the place, but in addition, there is a sense of a moral commitment to that place that made you, that you feel, or at least I did, that now that it is in trouble, it should not be left alone. So what good a citizen am I, if I just run away when, when the country falls into trouble. So all of that was really, uh, like a bad soup that was swirling in my head all the time.
RUTTENBERG: I think the story has resonance in every single human being trying to come to our doors, you know, every migrant fleeing for safety and trying to enter the United States, as an asylum seeker. Every single human being is created in the divine image and is deserving of care and love and dignity full stop.
PALUMBO: The melody has to sound seamless, somehow we have to find a way to get a hundred people to shape that delicate melody in exactly the same way.
Then “Ove olezzano tepide” the word “olezzano,” is such a beautiful Italianate word. So “olezzano--on the hills were soft and mild the air of my native land smells so fragrant.”
“My thought, please greet the banks of the Jordan. And the toppled towers of Zion.”
Now he has all sorts of portamenti marked in, in this piece. “Portamento,” is a way of connecting notes, so that there's actually a fibrous quality between the two pitches. It's usually done for reasons of expressing the text.
BURFORD: Verdi writes this big slur up to the words in the final lines, “O mia patria,” “Oh my country.”
PALUMBO: “My country, so beautiful and lost.”
BURFORD: So he really stages that particular moment in the text, which of course is in some ways the most important moment.
PALUMBO: It's the reason why this chorus has been proposed as the national Anthem of Italy, because it is so easy to take this aria and translate it into the unification attempts back in the 1800s of Italy to try to come together as one country. So this became really an anthem for that, this absolute yearning for the homeland of just a simple “O mia patria.”
HAKAKIAN: For Iranians poetry is not just an art form, it is really a way of national communication. And it was what kept my father and his community of peers afloat for a very long time, and they would get together, and they would all recite their own poems to each other. And the overwhelming majority of these poems were about their longing for Iran. You know, nostalgia became a way of making life fun for them, you know, the more they wrote poetry, the better Iran started to look, you know, waters were clearer, food was tastier, air was fresher. And one day my mother even showed me a wound on her arm and said, you know, “I had this wound about two weeks ago and it's not healing. And I think my wounds used to heal much faster when we were in Iran.” And I thought “Really?” You know, wounds healed faster in Iran. But, it's the power of nostalgia. It's the power of yearning and longing. And it's, uh, also the hold that the past can have, uh, over one's imagination and, it was a spell that they were all under.
BURFORD: The second half of the chorus is where the Hebrews are taking that line really directly from Psalm 137, where they say, “Golden harp of the prophetic bards, why do you hang mute on the willows?”
RUTTENBERG: “There on the poplars we hung up our lyres. For our captors asked us there for songs, our tormentors for amusement said, ‘sing us the songs of Zion.’”
PALUMBO: And what happens here? For the first time, the chorus sings this beautiful rich, rich harmony with the basses going down the octave and the tenors and the women up, in a higher tessitura to give this brilliant sound on the word “d’or,” which means “golden.”
It's very interesting that he's writing about the harp of gold and yet the orchestration does not use the harp because, I think rather than the harp color, he's after the gold color at this point.
BURFORD: The brass reenter at that point, it kind of reminds us of that minor mode interruption in the introduction, but we're in major, we're in a new key, C-sharp major. And most importantly, we're hearing the chorus sing in harmony for the first time for “Golden harp of the prophetic bard,” resolute and heroic almost as if the threat is turned on its head and becomes a moment of resistance.
RUTTENBERG: And they said, “How can we sing a song of God on alien soil?” The Jews literally hang up their instruments on the trees and say, “No. We're not going to be singing songs of divine praise here for you. I do not think so.” So what they are doing is refusing their captors.
PALUMBO: That outburst about the harp of gold is followed by very soft, disconnected, little, little tiny, short notes “Rekindle the memories in our hearts and speak of times gone by.”
RUTTENBERG: For Jews, memory, and memory of Jerusalem in diaspora is a central re-occurring theme. [Hebrew]. “If I forget new Jerusalem let my right hand wither, like just let my body break off. If I forget you. That's how important it is for my memory to stay focused on you.” That's the core message here.
HAKAKIAN: For an exile, for a refugee, for an immigrant, remembering the Homeland and the past is vital. Not only for sentimental reasons, but if you have been driven out of that Homeland, then remembering is also about justice, because none of us should be driven out of the home where we have been born and raised.
So memory serves a dual purpose. Its first purpose is obviously you want to stay close to the past, through keeping the images intact. But secondarily, because you want to keep every detail of the truth in your mind, because if, and when there is justice to be served, you have to be present to present the evidence. And the evidence is all the memories, all the images, all the recollections that you can offer.
PALUMBO: And then the chorus comes back to unison, unison C-sharp.
BURFORD: The flute is back though now it sounds almost like a bird flying free above the rest of the orchestra and chorus, almost as if a condition of freedom that exists even amid captivity.
PALUMBO: And then there is another huge portamento to the next phrase. “The Lord strengthened me to bear these sufferings.” And the crescendo builds to the word “Signore,” “Lord.”
BURFORD: And for the final return of the main melody Verdi really pulls out all the stops and the kind of more restrained meditative accompaniment in the first half of the chorus has now become the whole orchestra, almost as if to communicate the final line, which calls for a song infused with suffering but also strength.
PALUMBO: And in the score it's marked that the orchestra plays under the long note chunk chunk chunk, chunk chunk chunk chunk chunk chunk chunk chunk. Diminuendo, diminuendo down to nothing. And the tail of that note is still audible sometimes even past the orchestra, just a wisp of sound.
It's such a beautifully unified chorus. And it's so powerful in the theater and that's why the, the encore tradition has developed with this piece. The audience is, has almost been trained to demand an encore of it.
BURFORD: Psalm 137 has been set musically so many times and so many ways, and I think one of the reasons why composers and even political activists have returned to this Psalm is because it looks backwards to the experience of the Hebrews and looks forward to future liberation. And in that sense, it speaks to the idea of a country that is both beautiful, but lost, memories that are both precious and painful, songs that communicate both suffering and strength.
PALUMBO: I find as a choral director, approaching a piece that we've done many times, it's in a way coming back to, to an old friend. And it’s a piece that when you start rehearsing, everybody just sort of smiles and feels at home in a way.
Sometimes you'll hear in the audience, a murmur of someone singing along with the chorus in this moment. And it makes me so proud of what I do that that it’s able to reach listeners to that degree. And again we just go back to Verdi and the genius of this man and I think this piece is just one of the one of the most amazing moments not just in choral music but in all music.
RUTTENBERG: Music is a deep and powerful and critical part of the Jewish tradition and I find such a profound experience of the interconnectedness of all things while singing in a room full of people, where everybody's just putting their full heart into it and letting go. And you know, it doesn't matter if anybody in the room is able to sing on key, honestly, because that's not what it’s about. It's about where their heart is, and it can be such a powerful transcendent experience, the experience of, of losing yourself and feeling found at the same time.
HAKAKIAN: So this is a passage from my most recent book, A Beginner's Guide to America for the Immigrant and the Curious:
There's only one way for your first night in America to end, for all nights, lead to darkness, but many ways for your first morning to begin.You might be lying in bed in the twilight of wakefulness, eavesdropping on the breaking day, your ears take in the muffled voices of the neighbors, your ears taken the muffled voices of the neighbors. The unfamiliar echoes will first startle, then quickly sadden you.
Your eyes linger on the lump of keys to your old home. You packed them, not because they were necessary, but because you did not have the heart to leave them behind. You understand that the past is past, but you keep the keys because they can still open the gates of memory. Your old house might have been bombed, or sold, or razed altogether, but its key remains. In your Homeland you will soon be forgotten, but your keys are your history, evidence of your old existence.
END OF DECODE
Writer Roya Hakakian, Met Opera chorus master Donald Palumbo, rabbi Danya Ruttenberg, and musicologist Mark Burford...
...decoding the “Va, pensiero” chorus from Verdi’s Nabucco. You’ll hear a performance by the Met Opera Chorus after the break.
The ancient Israelites are being held captive in Babylon. They take a break from forced labor, sit down by the banks of the Euphrates river, and sing about their homeland, Jerusalem. Here’s the Metropolitan Opera Chorus singing “Va, pensiero” -- the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.
Now let me tell you, I’ve got a good friend in the Met Opera chorus, and they are the unsung heroes of the Met. Who wouldn’t want to hear an encore of that? That was “Va, pensiero,” the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, from Verdi’s Nabucco.
Next time we’re back with an aria from the Met premiere of the opera Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terence Blanchard -- the first opera by a Black composer ever to be produced at the Met.
Aria Code is a co-production of WQXR and The Metropolitan Opera. The show is produced and scored by Merrin Lazyan. Max Fine is our assistant producer, Helena de Groot is our editor, and Matt Abramovitz is our Executive Producer. Mixing and sound design by Matt Boynton and Ania Grzesik from Ultraviolet Audio, and original music by Hannis Brown. This project is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Arts. On the web at arts.gov.
I’m Rhiannon Giddens. See you next time.
GIDDENS: All I can hear is the preacher from the Simpsons, “And now our service continues on page 438 with Psalm 137, and let us read together.” Don’t worry, I’m not going to do that...