“The material in the archive is of interest to the whole world.”
While Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti are initially the most important composers in Ricordi’s portfolio, alongside such then-popular authors as Vaccaj and Mercadante, Giuseppe Verdi’s entry into the opera world opens a new chapter in the history of opera and of the publisher, starting in 1839. The “Verdi era” extends beyond the time of Giovanni and Tito I up through the time of Giulio Ricordi, and is undoubtedly the most important part of the publishing company’s history. The archive has autographs and libretti, letters, the costume and set designs of numerous premieres, and an almost complete documentation of signed contracts.
The story of the success of Verdi’s early operas coincides with the history of Italian unification, the Risorgimento. There have been a vast amount of studies of this part of Europe’s history of nation-building in the context of Verdi’s operas, but the questions posed about the issues raised have not been conclusively clarified, and the study of the documents constantly sheds new light on apparently resolved problems.
For example, the famous prisoners’ chorus Va’ pensiero, sulle ali dorate — “Fly, thought, on golden wings” from Nabucco becomes a symbol of the oppression of the Italian people and for their attempts at unity, and during the “Cinque Giornate” in Milan, the uprising against Austrian domination, six years after the première of Nabucco, it becomes the “secret national anthem of Italy”. But the identificatory effect of Verdi’s operas for the entire populace during the 19th century is not without controversy, and to some extent belongs to the realm of legend, as does Verdi’s role in this. The music of the opera was art music — only very rarely were opera melodies inspired by folk songs and, if so, usually to recall “couleur locale”. Furthermore, folk songs were regionally rather than nationally influenced — as can still be seen in today’s surviving Sicilian, Neapolitan and Sardinian folk traditions, to name just a few examples. However, the opera melodies were copied and played by “bande musicali” and sung and popularized through these channels. (The Ricordi catalogs of the late 19th and early 20th century offered a large quantity of “banda” repertory.) Goethe reports on this in his Italian Journey, but differentiates these experiences from the Italian “folk singing” that he requested the gondoliers to perform for him in Venice, and through which he learned the essence of the singing: “But this singing becomes human and true, the melody comes alive about whose dead letters we otherwise agonized”. The boundaries between folk song and art music are admittedly blurred, and the importance of the “bande” is analogous to the importance of music performed at home in a developing civil society. So editions of traditional Italian “romances”, as well as of opera scores for piano, singing and small ensembles formed an important part of Casa Ricordi’s production. The archive has numerous printed editions, scores and piano scores of operas, and series like the “Biblioteca musicale popolare” document how Casa Ricordi promotes and caters to music-making in the home and popular interest in music. The archive allows for reconstructing the history of this area of music history, taking into account the music, lyrics, pictures, and correspondence. The institution of opera itself in 19th-century Italy tends to be reserved for the wealthier sections of society. Most ordinary people cannot afford to visit the opera. There is a strict dress code and plenty of evidence that the opera houses only condone audiences from the upper middle class and aristocracy. As late as the middle of the 19th century, 80 percent of people in Italy are still illiterate. In 1859 compulsory primary education is introduced through the “legge Casati”, but in 1861 the illiteracy rate is still at 75 percent, and in 1901 at 50 percent, although a certain difference between the urban and rural population must be made. One of the hindrances to literacy was the slow emergence of a unified or standard national language.
So the immediate effect of Verdi’s operas during the Risorgimento concerns only a small elite. But towards the end of the 19th century, identification with Verdi spreads to broader sections of society — this is due to the popularity of Verdi’s melodies, spread by the “bande”, but, from the turn of the century, it also has something to do with the new replication media, the radio, the phonograph — and ultimately, with lower ticket prices in theaters. All this was not yet the case at the time of the Risorgimento. And yet, Verdi’s operas Nabucco (1842), I Lombardi alla prima Crociata (1843), Il corsaro (1848), La battaglia di Legnano (1849) and Un ballo in maschera (1859) have become part of Italy’s founding myth in the discourse about the Risorgimento.