Famous Composers: Gioacchino Rossini
Gioacchino Rossini was born on 29th February 1792. One doubts whether his parents deliberately planned that their first and only child should be a leap-year baby and therefore able to celebrate his birthday only once in every four years - or, indeed, whether they wanted a baby at all. (Five months previously there had been what is nowadays called a shotgun wedding.) They lived in Pesaro, occupying two small rooms in the house numbered 334 via del Duomo (later renamed via Rossini1).
Gioacchino’s father Giuseppe Rossini was the ‘town trumpeter’, his mother Anna (nee Guidarini) a professional singer; he inherited their interest in music and in 1806 was enrolled as a pupil at the Liceo Filarmonico in Bologna. Sexually precocious, he soon suffered his first bout of gonorrhoea (it was by no means his last), but apart from that all went well. While he was still a student his one-act opera buffa entitled La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Market) was performed at Venice, seventy miles away, and two years later so was La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder), its overture is one of the earliest of his compositions familiar to today’s listeners. The successful production of these two works set his feet firmly on the operatic highroad and helped to determine the course of his future career.
Presently he established his reputation as a composer of opera seria with Tancredi and as a composer of full-length opera buff a with L’ltaliana in Algeri, both dated 1813 and both first played in Venice. Over the next ten years he consolidated it with a succession of further operas, some serious, some comic; the best-known names are:
Il Turco in Italia (Milan, 1814)
Elizabetta, regina d’lnghilterra (Naples, 1815)
II barbiere di Siviglia (Rome, 1816)
Otello (Naples, 1816)
La Cenerentola, i.e. Cinderella (Rome, 1817)
La gazza ladra, i.e. The Thieving Magpie (Milan, 1817)
Mose in Egitto (Naples, 1818)
Semiramide (Venice, 1823)
Although Rossini was never to leave Italy until 1822 (see below) it will be noticed that during this prolific period he liked to set his scenes further afield, in England for example, in Spain, or in Egypt. It is also worth mentioning that, by contrast with the immediate success which many of his operas enjoyed, Il barbiere - known to countless thousands in English-speaking countries as The Barber of Seville and now almost universally acknowledged to be his masterpiece - was received with disapproval when first produced (in Rome) as Almaviva, ossia I’inutile precauzione; audiences soon came to their senses, however. In 1822, having by now no fewer than thirty-three operas, all told, to his credit, Rossini married the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran. She was seven years his senior, had sung the leading roles in many of his operas - and had almost certainly already been his mistress for quite a while. Since she brought him a substantial dowry, jealous ill-wishers were quick to describe this marriage as just one more of his ‘cunning business deals’.
A few days after the wedding, bride and groom set out for Vienna to attend a Rossini Festival that was to be held in the Kartnerthor Theater, and while there the composer paid a call upon Beethoven. The great man congratulated him warmly on Il barbiere (‘it delights me’), but was less enthusiastic about his opere serie. During the next two years it was the turn first of Paris and then of London to pay tribute to the Rossinis and they were royally feted in both capitals. In August 1824 they settled in Paris, where for French audiences Rossini furbished up a previously unsuccessful Italian opera as Le Siege de Corinthe and revised Mose in Egitto as Moise. In 1828 he composed Le Comte Ory, an opera buffa with a French libretto rather than an opera comique.2 In 1829 came the first production of Guillaume Tell, a grand opera. (Although this work is rarely staged in its entirety nowadays, does not a casual mention of William Tell call to mind Rossini’s familiar overture rather than the figure of Switzerland’s national hero himself?)
In 1830 Rossini and Isabella parted company: as already hinted, theirs had been little more than a manage de convenance. About the same time he began spasmodic work on a Stabat Mater - which he took ten years to complete - but for the most part was content to rest on his laurels so far as composition was concerned. Meanwhile he found an affectionate and efficient domestic helpmeet in Olympe Pelissier (nee Descuillers), a lively lady who ‘knew her way around’ and proved fully capable of ministering to all his creature comforts. They subsequently spent much time in Italy, where Rossini helped to reorganize his alma mater, the Liceo Filarmonico in Bologna, which had recently fallen on evil days; it was in Bologna that he and his devoted Olympe eventually became man and wife in 1846. Nine years later they returned to Paris, and thereafter Rossini, who by this time regarded himself as one of music’s elder statesmen, led an indolent life. The four birthdays that remained to him - in 1856, 1860, 1864 and 1868 - were no doubt sumptuously celebrated, for he was a great lover of good food, good wine, good cheer and good company. His musical output during this period was meagre: it consisted of the Petite Messe solennelle - sung privately (to piano accompaniment) in 1864 but not performed in public until after his death - and a quantity of short piano pieces which would probably be forgotten altogether had they not, many years later, provided the impetus for Otterino Respighi’s ballet La Boutique fantasque and Benjamin Britten’s orchestral suite Soirees musicales. Rossini died on 13th November 1868; Olympe survived him by ten years.
During the three-quarters of a century or so after his death Rossini’s reputation in Britain tottered somewhat: Il barbiere was still in demand and found a place in the standard repertory of many opera companies, but his other operas fell into comparative obscurity - apart from some of the overtures: as recently as 1948 a critic whom none could accuse of being a highbrow informed his readers that their music was for the most part ‘trivial to the point of monotony’. Over the past twenty years, however, the pendulum of responsible opinion - no less than the pendulum of public taste - has swung back sharply in Rossini’s favour: revivals of previously neglected works are frequent - and welcomed. Perhaps only the most fervent of his admirers would go so far as to rate him a ‘great’ composer in the commonly accepted sense of the term, but there can be no denying that he was an exceptionally talented one who deserved most of the triumphs that came his way. He understood the human voice to perfection and the orchestra nearly as well. He conceived plenty of catchy tunes - a sure passport to popularity - and contrived some admirable ensembles and ‘concerted finales’. That Il barbiere - a work of near-genius - was completed within three weeks gives one some idea of his resourcefulness when inspiration was in full flow - even when allowance is made for the fact that it incorporated quotations from some of his previous operas as well as a few snippets unashamedly cribbed from Haydn’s The Seasons and Gasparo Spontini’s La Vestale. It need not be held to his discredit that he usually appeared at his best in opera buffa, where lapses into ‘triviality’ - although not lapses into ‘monotony’ - may be more easily forgiven than those which occur in opera seria. (He himself admitted that he preferred to treat comic rather than serious subjects, but explained that he was obliged to accept any libretto chosen for him by the impresarios.)
All in all Gioacchino Rossini certainly contributed his quota to the musical gaiety of nations, but his achievements need to be set in historical perspective: the works upon which his fame depends were nearly all composed between 1813 and 1828, a brief period which exactly coincided with the bright flowering of Franz Schubert - who was endowed with many of the same gifts and exploited them in other fields to greater purpose.
1 Pesaro (present-day population not far short of 70,000) lies on the Adriatic coast between Rimini and Ancona in the region of Italy now known as the Marches but then part of the ‘Papal States’. In 1796/7 the troops of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded northern and central Italy and the French remained military overlords there until his downfall, when the Congress of Vienna (1815) restored control of the Papal States to the ruling Pope.
2 Le Comte Ory adhered to the tradition of ‘Frenchified opera buffa’ popularized by Piccinni during the 1770s (see page 44). Opera comique, of which the most notable exponent in the 1820s was Francois Boieldieu (1775-1834), derived rather from the comedies a ariettes of Philidor (see page 43); often, although not invariably, in an opera comique, recitative was replaced by dialogue.
Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.