The Opera Nabucco Overture by Giuseppe Verdi

The Verdi opera Nabucco opens with an Overture that includes the famous Va pensiero – Hebrew Slaves chorus. An overture to an opera is considered part of the classical opera music repertoire.

Certainly, an opera de Verdi (which is Spanish and French for ‘opera by Verdi’) and particularly Nabucco di Verdi – the opera Nabucco and the Aida opera by Giuseppe Verdi, are standard repertoire at the National Opera in Lviv Ukraine. Opera tickets are readily available at the opera house.

Come join us and enjoy opera music in general, and the overture music to the famous opera Verdi – Nabucco in particular.

Read to Discover the Opera Nabucco Overture:


The Va, pensiero Chorus in the Overture to Nabucco

Va, pensiero – Part of the Nabucco Overture
Va, pensiero – Part of the Nabucco Overture

In opera lore, there are unsubstantiated claims that Giuseppe Verdi wrote the music for the Nabucco overture during a break in rehearsals for the premiere performance. True or not, it is a fact that the overture contains two distinct musical themes that are pivotal in the dramatic evolution of the opera.

The first such theme is the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” and can be heard about one-third of the way through the overture.

The Va, pensiero Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves, is a widely recognized musical piece. Today, no one is surprised that the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” is featured in the overture to the Nabucco opera. Certainly, had Verdi wanted to predict the success of this famous chorus, he could have not done no better than to include it as part of the overture to his opera Nabucco.

When we first hear the Va pensiero theme in the Nabucco Overture, it sounds unusual to those who are familiar with the opera chorus tune.

The overture version of the Va, pensiero chorus is written in a different time than it appears in Act III of the opera. Additionally, in the overture, the “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” is played by the oboe and flute/clarinet. Finally, the Va pensiero melody is played Andantino and has a rapid section that precedes it and another brisk section that follows it.


A Listening Map for the Overture to Nabucco

Verdi Opera Nabucco at Lviv Opera
Verdi Opera Nabucco at Lviv Opera

What is a listening map for the overture to the opera Nabucco? According to music educators, a listening map is a visual portrayal that represents the aural experience.

In classrooms where teachers apply listening maps, students are expected to listen to a piece of music and then represent what they are hearing in graphic form. As they listen, students are encouraged to hear various musical themes and features. Once students have completed their listening map for a particular piece of music, their classmates are challenged to follow the map as they listen to the music it represents.

When using listening maps, teachers encourage students to visually represent what they are hearing. If the aim of the lesson is to distinguish between various musical techniques, then students may be asked to use geometric shapes to portray what they are hearing. On the other hand, some teachers may want their students to immerse themselves in the emotions that the music conveys. As such, there have been suggestions that students be asked to use emojis, the popular contemporary images that are becoming widely accepted and universally recognized as visual representations of emotions.

The Rochester Philharmonic has produced a lesson plan for music teachers (a new window will open) in which they have incorporated the use of a listening map for the overture to Nabucco, the famous opera by Giuseppe Verdi.

You might want to use this listening map as you listen to an audio recording of the Nabucco Overture provided below.


The Overture Introduces Several Themes from the Opera Nabucco

Nabucco Condemns the Hebrews
Nabucco Condemns the Hebrews

There are 2 specific and identifiable music themes from the opera Nabucco that are introduced in the opera’s overture.

The one that many people instantly recognize during the overture performance is the widely popular Va, pensiero – “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves”.

The second and more prevalent is the Il maledetta non ha fratelli (“The Damned One has No Brothers”) chorus from the end of Act I in the opera Nabucco. The chorus of Hebrew religious leaders denouce Ismael, himself a Hebrew, for raising the Babylonian King Nabucco’s ire and causing the destruction of their Holy Temple.

In the listening map proposed by the Rochester Philharmonic (see above), this musical theme is identified as Allegro Theme A. Did Verdi consider this chorus to be more pivotal for the opera? After all, he included it 3 times in his overture! The Va, pensiero theme, on the other hand, is included only once.

The above audio recording of the overture to the opera Nabucco by Giuseppe Verdi was recorded LIVE during a performance of the K&K Philharmoniker at the Philharmonie München, conducted by Myron Yusypovych.


Surprising Trombone Introduction to Verdi’s Nabucco Overture

The Drama of Nabucodonosor by Verdi
The Drama of Nabucodonosor by Verdi

The Nabucco Overture begins with the sound of three trombones which are then joined by the rest of the orchestra brass section. Various music critics and researchers have expressed extremely different points of view concerning this opening.

Some critics and academics have argued that the use of brass instruments for the first notes of an opera overture is surprising. There are those who have expressed a more critical point of view claiming that the use of the brass to introduce a classical Italian opera is completely inappropriate. Certainly, this seems to have been the point of view of one critic present during the premiere of Verdi’s Nabucco on October 16, 1845 at the Théâtre-Italien in Paris.

Francis Toye (1883 – 1964) in his book Giuseppe Verdi: His Life and Works published in 1931 in New York, claims that directly after the Paris premiere of the opera Nabucco, a review in the following morning’s paper appeared which degraded the initial trombone introduction to the opera.

A bit of background information is needed to fully understand the review.

Verdi’s opera is loosely based on the historical Babylonian ruler Nabuccodonosor (Nebuchadnezzar). The name Nabuchodonosor has a final syllable “or”, which in French means “gold”. And so, using a French play on words, the 1845 critic stated that the overture (and hence, the entire opera) wasn’t gold, but brass.

Vraiment l’affiche est dans son tort: The poster has really got it wrong:
en faux on devrait la poursuivre. They should be prosecuted for deception.
Pourquoi nous annoncer Nabuchodonos - or Why do they announce Nabuchodonos – or [gold]
quand c’est Nabuchodonos – cuivre? When it’s Nabuchodonos – cuivre [brass]?

quoted in G.Baldini (1970) and translated by R.Parker (1980)

On the other hand, Gabriele Baldini (1919 – 1969), a former professor of English literature at the University of Rome, presented a more indulgent perspective. In his book Abitare la battaglia – la storia di Giuseppe Verdi, published in 1970/71 after his death, Baldini reviews the various themes and musical interpretations incorporated into the Nabucco overture.

Fortunately, we have available today an English translation completed by musicologist Roger Parker (b.1951) in 1980 – The Story of Giuseppe Verdi: Oberto to Un ballo in maschera. In the English translation it states: “The heavy, crashing, all-pervading presence of the brass was and is embarrassing: but in spite of this there are some magnificently-effective moments.” (p.57)

The different reactions to the use of trombones by an 1845 audience versus a more contemporary audience could be due to expectations. Certainly, the use of brass instruments in the introductory notes of and opera overture is rather surprising. After all, audiences come to opera performances expecting a predominance of string and voice sounds.

On the other hand, it could be the way the conductor chooses to interpret the initial notes – soft and barely audible or loud and crashing.

Certainly, you can listen and review the Nabucco overture as interpreted by Myron Yusypovych and decide for yourself – is it “brassy” or is it “gold”?


A Short Musical Analysis of the Nabucco Overture

The Opera Overture Provides a Preview
The Opera Overture Provides a Preview

In 1914, Gino Roncaglia (1883 – 1968), an Italian musicologist published his seminal work – Giuseppe Verdi, l’ascensione dell’arte sua (“The Creative Rise of Giuseppe Verdi’s Art”) in Naples. In this work, Roncaglia proposed that the Nabucco overture was one of the first opera overtures ever to provide a musical preview of the entire opera.

Apparently, the tradition (in the operas of Italy prior to Verdi) was to compose a Sinfonia for the introduction – a beautiful musical piece. It wasn’t until after Verdi that Italian composers began to incorporate musical features of the opera in the overture. Or, so Roncaglia claimed in 1914 – 72 years after the opera Nabucco’s premiere in 1842. Although others have rightly disputed this claim, the assertion that Verdi was first in developing the widely accepted overture as a musical preview of the opera should probably be interpreted more as a political statement in pre-war Europe than an analysis of opera history development in general.

In the quote below, Myron Yusypovych mentions that he has conducted the overture to the opera Nabucco 78 times – but, that was in 2010. Since then, there have been many performances both at the Lviv Opera and in concerts in various parts of Europe. Maestro Yusypovych has conducted the overture to Nabucco over 100 times and the statistics keep growing – both for full opera performances, as well as, during various classical music concerts.

The Verdi overture to Nabucco, as well as the opera itself, is perhaps one of the most frequently performed overtures, loved by both by audiences and performers alike. From among all the Verdi overtures, the one to the opera Nabucco is a convenient and effective part of any opera gala concert…

I get extremely annoyed by conductors, who arbitrarily apply retardations in the overture to Nabucco…. Some of the so-called traditions of performance and interpretation widely accepted today are in actuality a departure from what the composer originally envisioned….

Continue reading MusicNotes by Myron Yusypovych

Is anyone interested in performing the orchestra version of the Nabucco Overture as a musician or conductor? The full musical score is available in the public domain as part of the IMSLP – International Music Score Library Project (a new window will open). The IMSLP free online public domain music depository is administered under Canadian copyright laws.

Text by: Oksana A. Wynnyckyj-Yusypovych
Photos courtesy of: S.Krushelnytska Lviv Opera and Ballet Theatre


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