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Verdi & his Music for the King of Naples

 Giuseppe Verdi
VerdiGiuseppe Verdi's life and art were dedicated to the cause of Italian unity. One of his early operas, Nabucco, contains the well-known choral hymn, "Va pensiero sull'ali dorate," so much in tune with the sentiments of pan-Italian nationalism, that it became the unofficial anthem of early Italian unity. Verdi's  relationship with the southern Kingdom of Naples (or the Kingdom of the Two Siciles), with the king, Ferdinand II, and with the royal censors was mixed, to say the least. In 1848, the San Carlo theater in Naples played Nabucco,  but later rejected Verdi's Gustavo III, a true story with a regicidal theme and even rejected the watered-down result since known as Un Ballo in Maschera

Thus, it comes as a surprise to read that Neapolitan musicologist Roberto de Simone has recently uncovered a patriotic hymn from 1848 entitled La Patria, composed by Giuseppe Verdi and dedicated to none other than King Ferdinand of Naples! The year 1848—one year after the publication of The Communist Manifesto—was one of widespread revolution throughout Italy and Europe, movements in name of constitutional government and, even more—revolution. Naples had the reputation by the 1850s of being reactionary; it was an absolute monarchy ruled by an autocrat who once claimed to have no understanding of what a "united Italy" might even mean; his kingdom, he said, "started at sea water [Sicily] and ended at holy water [the Vatican States]." How does it figure that the great Italian patriot, Verdi, would dedicate a piece of music to one who seemed to stand in the way of Italian unity?

Ferdinand II of Naples
Ferd II of NaplesThe year 1848 revealed Ferdinand to be either indecisive or two-faced. In January, a revolt in Sicily broke out, and he quickly granted a constitution to the island. Shortly, thereafter, a massive wave of popular revolution swept the northern Italian Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia (which was ruled by Austria). The Austrian army retreated and volunteers from all over Italy flocked to get in on what seemed like a unification whose time had come.  The Savoy king of Sardinia and Piedmont  (the eventual rulers of united Italy) moved to invade and help drive out the Austrians. Ferdinand of Naples sent an army of 12,000 troops.

That seems amazing, but less so if one considers how things might have gone: the unification of Italy might not have needed Garibaldi and the violent overthrow of the south in 1861. A Bourbon-assisted defeat of the Austrians and subsequent unification a decade earlier might have led to an Italian confederation with the Bourbon king a strong player and perhaps even on the throne of the whole nation. Things didn't work out that way, however; the Austrians under General Radetsky struck back efficiently against the popular revolutionaries; and the Savoy army faltered. With that handwriting on the wall, Ferdinand withdrew his army from the north in May of 1848. Then, the King/Granter of Constitutions and Potential Helper of Unification showed the other side of his personality. He revoked the Sicilian Constitution, and brutally put-down the subsequent revolt in Palermo, earning himself the name of the "Bomber King".

In any event, when Verdi wrote his Patria, perhaps Ferdinand seemed to be the only potential real king going. He was the ruler of the south, an ancient kingdom more powerful than any single power in the north (and possibly more powerful than all of them combined). He was a strong figure, certainly more so than the Piedmont monarch, Charles Albert. So Verdi recycled some music from his opera Ernani (1844) and dedicated it to Ferdinand II; it was a good ploy to further Italian unity and perhaps fill the king's head with visions of a glorious future. The frontispiece of the music found by De Simone at the Naples Conservatory shows it to be printed by Girard, Naples, 1848. La Patria, words by Michele Cucciniello, music by "Gius. Verdi", and full of every monarchist's favorite cry, "Viva il Re!"

update (Jan 2009):

Alas, as much as I rather enjoy the quirky notion that Verdi wrote music to move the king of the Two Sicilies to sally forth in the name of Italian unity, there is another possibility. David Rosen, Professor emeritus of Music at Cornell University, has written me a kind note cautioning against simply jumping on the band-wagon (my pun, not his!); that is, just because it says “music by Gius. Verdi” on the cover, that does not necessarily mean that Verdi authorized it, approved it, or had anything to do with publishing it, much less that he sat down together with a Neapolitan librettist to compose praise to the king. Indeed, there are at least a few reasons why it is more likely that the wordsmith, Cucciniello, simply took Verdi’s melody without asking, wrote his own words to it, and published it. For one, Verdi hated occasional music, and even if he had written a piece, he would not likely—if he had really wanted to inspire the king—have tried to pawn off a recycled four-year-old piece of music.

Also, the debate about whether or not Verdi purposely composed a piece for Ferdinand is not as recent as the newspaper item I cite (above) makes it seem. "La Patria" is discussed in Cecil Hopkinson's A Bibliography of the Works of Giuseppe Verdi, a reference work from 1973, and there is apparently a mention of the piece in a journal as far back as 1913. It may just be a “rediscovery” on De Simone’s part. It was not clear in the original newspaper article that De Simone—a more than competent musicologist with a solid reputation—was enthusiastically accepting the claim that Verdi had composed for the king. I suspect that he was not making that case (but I don't know). In any event, current opinion on the subject seems to weigh on the side of—in modern terms—"infringement of copyright." It isn't plagiarism since the publisher rightly credited Verdi with the music, but it would be —if this is what happened—the unauthorized use of another's "intellectual property." ("Unauthorized" means that you, the publisher, did not obtain the "right to copy.") (Go ahead, sue me! Civil suits in modern Italy last for decades. This is 1848. The first war of Italian unification is about to start. There is turmoil in the streets of Europe! The Communist Manifesto has just been published, but it says nothing about ©; and the Berne Copyright Convention won't be here for another 36 years. Lots of luck.)

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