The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves

“Va, pensiero” is the chorus that appears in Giuseppe Verdi’s famous opera Nabucco which was first presented in 1842. In English the chorus is known as “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.” The chorus is based on Psalm 137:1-6:

By the rivers of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our harps. For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How could we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.

Nabucco is based on the life of Nabucodonosor, the king of Babylon at the times the people of Israel were in exile. His name appears in English as Nebuchadnezzar. The opera deals with the destruction of the temple in 587 and the situation of the people of Israel during their captivity in Babylon.

Costume sketch for Nabucco for the original production in 1842. Credit: Wikipedia.

Nabucco “follows the plight of the Jews as they are assaulted, conquered and subsequently exiled from their homeland by the Babylonian King Nabucco (in English, Nebuchadnezzar II). The historical events are used as background for a romantic and political plot. The best-known number from the opera is the ‘Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves’, a chorus which is regularly given an encore in many opera houses when performed today.”

The article on “Va, pensiero” in Wikipedia describes the impact that the chorus has on Verdi’s life:

Verdi composed Nabucco at a difficult moment in his life. His wife and small children had all just died. He had contracted with La Scala to write another opera and the director forced the libretto [by Temistocle Solera] into his hands. Returning home, Verdi happened to open the libretto at “Va, pensiero” and seeing the phrase, he heard the words singing. At first rehearsal “the stagehands shouted their approval, then beat on the floor and the sets with their tools to create an even noisier demonstration”. As he was subsequently to note, Verdi felt that “this is the opera with which my artistic career really begins. And though I had many difficulties to fight against, it is certain that Nabucco was born under a lucky star.”

Upon Verdi’s death, along his funeral’s cortege in the streets of Milan, bystanders started spontaneous choruses of “Va, pensiero…”. A month later, when he was reinterred alongside his wife at the “Casa di Riposo”, a young Arturo Toscanini conducted a choir of eight hundred in the famous hymn.

Below are the lyrics of “Va, pensiero” with an English translation. In the video below, “Va, pensiero” is sung in Italian with English subtitles. If you have never heard “Va, pensiero” or if you have never seen the video, I encourage you to take a few minutes, relax and enjoy “The Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves.”

The Lyrics

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[10] ai fati
traggi un suono di crudo lamento,
o t’ispiri il Signore un concento
che ne infonda al patire virtù.[11]

Go, thought, on wings of gold;
go settle upon the slopes and the hills,
where, soft and mild, the sweet airs
of our native land smell fragrant!

Greet the banks of the Jordan
and Zion’s toppled towers…
Oh, my country, so beautiful and lost!
Oh, remembrance, so dear and so fatal!

Golden harp of the prophetic seers,
why dost thou hang mute upon the willow?
Rekindle our bosom’s memories,
and speak to us of times gone by!

Oh you akin to the fate of Jerusalem,
give forth a sound of crude lamentation,
oh may the Lord inspire you a harmony of voices
which may instill virtue to suffering.

The Video

Enjoy!

Claude F. Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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