Italia and Germania (Friedrich Overbeck, 1828): allegorical figures of the two countries — neither of which was at that time a unified nation — meet in friendship.
The German-speaking lands were fertile ground for Romanticism, in part because of cultural resistance to all things French in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars. To speak of “German Romanticism” is practically redundant.
Nevertheless, Romanticism also swept through the Italian states. The primary musical output in Italy during the nineteenth century was opera, and composers of opera began taking up Romantic themes of the wild, the uncanny, the extreme, and the supernatural. Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor (1835), for instance, based on a novel by Sir Walter Scott, features a cursed family and girl who sees a ghost, goes mad, and murders her husband on their wedding night.
Vincenzo Bellini used simple, lyrical, soaring melodies with a more minimal accompaniment. In the famous aria “Casta diva” (chaste goddess) from his 1831 opera Norma, you may notice similarities between the soprano’s vocal line and Chopin’s piano writing. There is a certain freedom, a certain impression of spontaneity, suggested by the rising and falling scales, turns, and ornaments. More than anything, the ebb and flow of the melodic line is an accurate representation of the inner life of the protagonist.
Giuseppe Verdi is considered by many to be the greatest composer of Italian opera in any century. His ability to use music to portray dramatic conflict and reveal the passions and weaknesses of human nature makes him akin to Shakespeare.
Here is the great African American soprano Leontyne Price singing the beautiful aria “O patria mia” from the 1871 opera Aida. Aida is an Ethiopian princess who has been taken captive and is now a slave in Egypt. Aida is secretly in love with the Egyptian general, the enemy of her people.
A translation of the text:
Oh my homeland, I will never see you again!
No more! never see you again!
Oh blue skies and gentle breezes of my village
Where the calm morning shone
O green hills and perfumed shores
O my homeland, I will never see you again!
No more! no, no, never again, never again!
Oh cool valleys, and blessed refuge
What a promise to me by my love
Now that the dream of love has vanished
O my homeland, I will not see you again.
Throughout his operas, Verdi uses driving, aggressive rhythms and dance-like forms. The famous aria “La donna è mobile” (Women are fickle), from his first big hit, the 1851 Rigoletto, is a rambunctious waltz with a heavily-accented downbeat.
In his scandalous 1853 opera La traviata, about a courtesan (i.e. a high-class prostitute), he uses waltz forms to emphasize the brittleness and emptiness of his heroine Violetta’s life in Paris going from dance to dance, party to party, and man to man. “I must always be free to fly from pleasure to pleasure,” she sings.
The Italian states in the nineteenth century.
Verdi was an Italian patriot. He believed in the creation of a strong, unified Italy, which did not happen until 1861. Some of his operas were censored by the Austrians for making strong statements against political oppression. The chorus “Va, pensiero” (Fly, my thoughts), from his 1841 opera Nabucco, shows the Hebrew slaves in Babylonian captivity singing a gloss on the text of the 137th psalm, “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion.” This song became a battle cry of Italian nationalism.
Verdi slipped into deep depression [following the deaths of his wife and two children] until a winter’s day in 1841 when a colleague insisted he consider creating an opera based on a work by the poet Temistocle Solera. Accounts say that when Verdi carelessly tossed the manuscript on his desk, a fateful moment occurred. Years later, Verdi recalled “how the book opened in falling, and without knowing how, I gazed at the page that lay before me and read this line: Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate [“Go thought, on golden wings”] and I could not get it out of my head.”
Solera’s manuscript recounted the hardship the Jewish people suffered under the despotic rule of the Babylonian tyrant Nebuchadrezzar, Nabucco in Italian, who conquered Jerusalem and exiled the Hebrews to Babylon. Many of his Italian compatriots would understand the symbolism: the Jews were the Italians, and Nebuchadrezzar, the Austrian Empire’s tyranny. As a fervent patriot and staunch supporter of the liberal ideals sweeping Europe, Verdi thrust his sorrow aside and poured his artistic potential into breaking the oppressor’s yoke through music.
Verdi’s name also appeared in nationalist graffiti: “Viva VERDI” stood for “Viva Vittorio Emmanuele, Re d’Italia” — Long live Vittoria Emmanuele, King of Italy, the exiled king under whom the nationalists hoped to unite Italy. Verdi himself became a senator in the first Italian parliament.
The king in exile, Vittorio Emmanuele, leading the troops at the Battle of Solferino in 1859, one of the most important battles of the Italian War for Independence, which freed large portions of northern Italy from Austrian rule.
In spite of his overt nationalism, Verdi’s music also contains the inward-looking nostalgia of the Romantic’s poignant longing for a mystical homeland. Here, Leontyne Price sings Aïda’s first act aria, “Ritorna vincitor!” in which Aïda, secretly in love with the Egyptian general Radames, has cheered for the victory of Egypt in its war against Ethiopia, her homeland. Her heart is torn between her love for Radames and her love for her people.