This guest post is published as part of our blog series related to the American Musicological Society conference from November 1–4 in San Antonio.
By Mary Ann Smart, author of Waiting for Verdi: Opera and Political Opinion in Nineteenth-Century Italy, 1815–1848
I am haunted by a voice, as everyone who cares deeply about opera probably is from time to time. Or rather I’m haunted by voices in the plural—bits of melody and jolts of emotion that play obsessively through my head until they’re displaced by something else. These interior voices are most audible early in the morning. One day recently it was Lady Gaga, the moment where she breaks through into her high register at the beginning of the chorus in “Shallow” from A Star is Born.
SZA and Taylor Swift are also frequent early morning companions, thanks to the time I spend in the car with a teenager. But today I’m hearing the voice in the below video: a quavering alto, unaccompanied, singing the words “Ecco mi giunta a morte” (“Here I am facing death”) to a melody that seems oddly delicate and precise, right down to the tidy little melisma on the word “death.”
We don’t know this singer’s name. She was recorded, along with the small chorus of women— “peasants,” the album cover tells us—who join in later in the track, in a village near Bologna around 1966. That was the year of Pet Sounds, of Blonde on Blonde, and Revolver but these voices hail from a different era. Committed to vinyl to preserve a dying tradition, they sing a song that was new a hundred years earlier in a style that sounds much older than that. The melody is by Verdi, borrowed from his 1851 opera Rigoletto, made new—or perhaps taken out of time altogether–when stripped of the orchestra and the lushness of the operatic voice. Verdi’s tune is fitted with new words in the voice of the revolutionary leader Ugo Bassi, who was executed by the occupying Austrians in 1849. The new lyrics capture Bassi’s thoughts as he faces martyrdom. It’s not obvious why this melody should be paired with these words: in the opera (see below) the tune is sung by a young woman who is trying to rationalize the sexual assault she has just experienced by thinking back to the innocent pleasure of her first meeting with the man. The operatic situation and the political events commemorated in this remix have in common only tragedy, loss, resignation.
Why this tune? Who first made the connection between the revolutionary martyr and Verdi’s Gilda, and how soon after the opera’s première was this lament devised? Was anyone connecting the martyred Bassi with Verdi’s victimized soprano, or was this just a popular tune that fit the rhythms of the new lyrics? These are the kinds of questions that fascinate me and that energize my research–speculating about how bits of music can attract and shed meaning as the surroundings change, trying to understand how intense political statements can be formed from the bits and pieces of music that are in the air at the time.
Ugo Bassi’s lament is one model of political leadership that inspired Italians as they were fighting to create an autonomous nation in the nineteenth century, but opera provided many more examples. One of those was Mary, Queen of Scots, who became the subject for a number of operas in the 1830s and 40s. Mary too was seen as a martyr, and composers revisited the story of the power struggle between her and her cousin Elizabeth I as a cautionary tale about the excesses of absolutist rule and the kind of leadership Italy did not want to perpetuate. Despite the serious import of the emotional situations they treat, Ugo Bassi’s lament and the fiery encounter between Mary and Elizabeth (see below) in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda share a melodic surface that is immediately engaging, easy to fall in love with and easy to recall, whether deliberately or through the subliminal soundtracks that play in our heads. It might seem like a contradiction that music that takes on such weighty political matters is quite simply so pretty, but in Italy in the nineteenth century, as in many other places and times, the alchemy of combining a great voice with a catchy tune and an urgent political idea can spark feelings, thoughts, and eventually also lead to action. In other words, the voice that haunts you early in the morning might also be the voice that will prompt change.