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“Va, Pensiero” Ensnared in Politics

"O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost!"

By Ivan Huber

This is the story of two national anthems proposed for Italy. One was “Va, pensiero,” often called “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” from Verdi’s opera Nabucco or, as we would call him in English, Nebuchadnezzar.

Note that this is not the Italian national anthem. It was generally “agreed” that the actual anthem is “Fratelli d’Italia” (Brothers of Italy), or by another name honoring the author of the verses, “Inno di Mameli” (Mameli’s Hymn). Least known is its official name, “Il Canto degli Italiani” (The Chant of the Italians). Though Italy was not unified as a country until 1861 (or 1871, the latter date includes the Papal States) there arose a variety of initiatives in the legislature to enshrine this song as the national anthem. But this did not actually happen until 2012. You can find the words in Wikipedia. It is a typical European anthem glorifying the people of their country and trampling its enemies. For another example, see the lyrics of the even bloodier French anthem, “La Marseillaise.” You can just imagine soldiers singing the bellicose words as they march against their country’s adversaries.

The second contender for the Italian national anthem is “Va, pensiero” from the third act of Nabucco (1842). To 19th century Italians, trying to free their country from foreign occupation, phrases such as “O my country so beautiful and lost,” reminded them of exiles singing about their homeland. Indeed, the chorus is based on Psalm 137, “By the rivers of Babylon.” The first line of the chorus, “Hasten, thought, on wings of gold” is the prelude to an achingly lovely description of the land they have left behind. Please see text in Italian and English below and find a version on YouTube to listen to while you follow the words.

In January 1981, Giorgio Soavi, the Italian journalist and author, proposed replacing Italy's national anthem with "Va, pensiero" in a letter published in an Italian newspaper. Some years later, the then President of Italy seconded the idea. I attended a meeting in New Jersey at which this was discussed by Italian citizens and soundly defeated when a vote was taken. Nevertheless, the proposal was widely discussed but then abandoned until 2009, when Senator Umberto Bossi revived it with no success. But his political party, The Northern League for the Independence of Padania, adopted "Va, pensiero" as its official hymn and the chorus is now sung at all party meetings. The Program of the Northern League stands for at least the autonomy of northern Italy for which the name Padania has been proposed. Many northern Italians believe that too much of their tax euros go to support the south of the country. Thus, central and southern Italians, not surprisingly, bear a resentment toward “Va, pensiero.”.

A final note on choral anthems. The "Ode to Joy" from the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony has been adapted as the anthem of the European Union.

 “Va, pensiero” in Original Italian  “Va, pensiero” English Translation
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! 
 Hasten thought on golden wings.
Hasten and rest on the densely wooded hills,
where warm and fragrant and soft
are the gentle breezes of our native land!
The banks of the Jordan we greet
and the towers of Zion.
O, my homeland, so beautiful and lost!
O memories, so dear and yet so deadly!
Golden harp of our prophets,
why do you hang silently on the willow?
Rekindle the memories of our hearts,
and speak of the times gone by!
Or, like the fateful Solomon,
draw a lament of raw sound;
or permit the Lord to inspire us
to endure our suffering!
Author: Thomas Lady
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