As we struggle with what’s happening all around us, from time to time we need a little inspiration. I recommend listening to two choral pieces. Both are pretty remarkable and speak to us – it seems to me – in our current situation.
In the first, the Met Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, perform “Va, pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco in a video assembled from individual takes and shown during the Met’s At-Home Gala on April 25, 2020 (edited by Pete Scalzitti). It is from Verdi’s opera Nabucco.
As for the chorale itself, also known as the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves,” it comes from the story of the plight of the Jews after the destruction of the Temple and their exile into slavery in Babylon. They lament what they’ve lost and yearn for their return to their homeland.
“Va, pensiero” is incredibly popular, and audiences always want to sing along (Italian audiences often do, since it became almost a “national” anthem during the Risorgimento period of the 19th century, when Italians longed for a nation-state of their own). It fact, the piece is so emotional that many times when Nabucco is performed the audience goes wild (as it did the night we heard it at the Met last time) and the entire chorus and orchestra have to do an encore! An amazing experience.
The words help us to understand why this choral piece is so inspiring. Here’s what’s sung 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.
O, 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 Sòlima ai fati
traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
o t’ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù!
Here’s the English:
Fly, my thoughts, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of my native land smell fragrant!
Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion’s toppled towers.
Oh, my homeland, so lovely and so lost!
Oh memory, so dear and so dead!
Golden harp of the prophets of old,
why do you now hang silent upon the willow?
Rekindle the memories in our hearts,
and speak of times gone by!
Mindful of the fate of Solomon’s temple,
Let me cry out with sad lamentation,
or else may the Lord strengthen me
to bear these sufferings!
In the second piece, more than 100 opera singers unite virtually in a song of hope and solidarity for a performance of “Light Shall Lift Us: Opera Singers Unite in Song.” Created by the Pulitzer Prize-winning team of composer Paul Moravec and librettist/lyricist Mark Campbell, it is truly inspiring. Of “Light Shall Lift Us,” composer Moravec has this to say:
Librettist Mark Campbell and I are profoundly grateful to the more than 100 amazing artists who came together for this performance. Through the redemptive beauty of music, we hope to bring some light into the world at this arduous time. We want to remind folks that in this pandemic, everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. These eminent artists are still just as essential as they were when this ordeal began and they will be needed even more when we emerge together on the other side.
For me, both of these performances – different though they may be – provide comfort at a time when it is sorely lacking in our day-to-day lives. I think if you listen to these two beautiful choral works, you, too, may find comfort.