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Gioachino Rossini

Gioachino Rossini

(1792 - 1868)

Gioachino Antonio Rossini (February 29, 1792 - November 13, 1868) was born in Pesaro, the only child of Giuseppe, the town trumpeter (and apparently its inspector of slaughterhouses), and Anna, a talented singer. His mother's talent proved fortunate when Giuseppe was jailed in 1800 for expressing his political opinions; taking for-year-old Gioachino with her, Anna secured a prima buffa singing role in Bologna where Giuseppe joined them on his release from prison.

While in Bologna, Gioachino received his first music lessons, and by the age of ten he was able to carry out musical tasks such as accompaniment and church music. When his mother's voice deteriorated and she was unable to find work, young Rossini's earnings became essential. He earned more than money, however: a well-meaning patron by the name of Chevalier Giusti showed his admiration for the boy's talent by taking him under his wing and preparing him for a more formal musical education. By the time he was 15, Gioachino was ready to enter Bologna's Liceo Communale, where he was put in Padre Stanislao Mattei's counterpoint class. Rossini and Mattei never saw eye to eye; strictly of the old school, Mattei insisted upon the delights of counterpoint while Rossini wanted to learn just enough to enable him to begin composing operas. At the age of 18, Rossini finished his studies at the Liceo and was commissioned to write a one-act opera buffa. The result, La cambiale di matrimonio, was premiered in Venice and was sufficiently successful for him to write some six more one-act operas over the next 12 months, capped by his first La Scala production in late autumn 1812, the two-act opera La pietra del paragone. Rossini was on the verge of stardom.

This was to come with his next two operas, Tancredi and L'Italiana in Algeri, both produced in Venice in 1813 to overwhelming acclaim. Rossini's melodic gifts and wonderful dramatic sense, allied to his irrepressible humor and the sheer impetus of his operas had a powerful impact on his audience. An invitation to compose for Milan confirmed his widening popularity, although the operas written for production there (which included Il Turci in Italia) were not immediate successes, and he had to wait until 1815 and Naples for his next triumph. This was for the opera seria, Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, a work occasionally revived today, and which is notable in Rossini's oeuvre for being the first for which he wrote out the vocal ornamentation, thus removing the opportunity for prima donnas to introduce their own set-pieces into his music and destroy its unity. Elisabetta was also an opera from which Rossini made a number of borrowings for his most famous work, written (according to Rossini in less than a fortnight) for Rome's Teatro Argentina, Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). It is worth pointing out, however, that parts of Elisabetta had been lifted from Aureliano, one of the Milan disappointments of 1814: in this, Rossini was only confirming a habit practiced by so many composers, great and mediocre. a self-plagiarism.

Certainly the borrowing did not adversely affect Il Barbiere, which remain one the jewels of the opera stage, and ever amusing, beautifully placed and genuinely comical opera whose good-humored and delicious-absurdities, wrapped in the most energetic and melodious music, never failed to please. Not that the first-night audience in Rome agreed; they were still loyal to the opera of the same name written by Giovanni Paisiello, and only grudgingly gave their support, but by the second performance, all resistance was swept sway by Rossini fever.

His connections with Naples grew in significance as the operas continued to come. While he was writing witty and entertaining opera buffas for other Italian cities, for Naples between 1815 and 1822 he was serving up an unbroken line of opera seria which, although not so popular today, served to make him the idol of the Neapolitans. During this time he was not only composing for Naples impresario Domenico Barbaia, but working as musical and artistic director for the same theaters. His taste, then, became paramount. His taste in women also became artistically important, as he and the prima donna Isabella Colbran began an affair which was to culminate in marriage in Bologna in 1822. He wrote music to suit her florid, dramatic style of singing all the years he was based in Naples, and this is a distinguishing trait of his opera seria. Of the operas written for Naples during this time, Otello (1817) stands out as a key work especially in the third act where Rossini handles Desdemona's doom with utter authority. Armida (1817) and Ermione (1819) demonstrated Rossini's ability to retain a tight grip on the drama without abandoning his dedication to his fertile production of musical ideas.

Outside Naples, Rossini still had an audience eager for more opera buffa, especially in the wake of Il Barbiere. The follow-up, La Cenerentola (modeled on the Cinderella story, but stripped of all supernatural elements), was a massive early-1817 success in Rome, and today is second perhaps only to Il Barbiere in popularity. As usual, it borrowed from earlier works, especially La Gazzetto and Il Turco in Italia, and this occasionally mars its overall impact, but the characterization and plot is mature and satisfying. La Gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), which contains one of Rossini's famous overtures, is a pot boiler of an opera with copious padding, and shifts uneasily between the comic and the serious, but it was a hit in Milan.

Meanwhile in Naples, Rossini was taking musical strides with works such as La Donna del lago (1819), Zelmira and the superb Semiramide (Venice, 1823). Within these works he was pushing opera seria to new boundaries and making decisive moves away from his first mature style into an openly more Romantic approach to his subjects and their settings.

The 1820s were the years when Rossini's reputation became international, From London to St. Petersburg. Two visits to Vienna in 1822, where Cenerentola was given in February, were followed by a series of cantatas, for the Congress of Vienna which proved beyond doubt that his music was truly international in appeal. A trip to London via Paris in 1823 was illuminating and flattering, and laid the foundations of his return to Paris in the late summer as musical director of the Theatre Italien. Once ensconced he introduce some vibrant new singers and musicians to revitalize the company, including Ferdinand Hérold and Giacomo Meyerbeer (Rossini staged Crotiato, the first Meyerbeer opera to be heard in Paris). He also gave productions of his own operas which had yet to receive Paris premieres and wrote a new opera for the 1825 season, Il viaggio a Reims, timed to celebrate the coronation of Charles X. Withdrawn by the composer after the festivities had ended, the work was plundered heavily by Rossini for Le Comte Ory, his 1828 French-language comic opera, and forgotten for 150 years until its rediscovery in 1980s.

Rossini's position in Paris was elevated still higher in 1826 when a new contract allowed him to write for the Paris Opera, and the government awarded his the titles Premier Compositeur du Roi and Inspecteur Général du chant en France. In this guise he presented his late masterpiece in the heroic mould, Guillaume Tell (1829). This work, a long and often misunderstood epic opera (with a ridiculously famous overture), was originally conceived as the first of five new works for Paris. But events overtook Rossini's intentions: his mother died in 1827, leaving his father alone and Rossini began to feel that his place was in Bologna with what little family remained. His decision was eased by the French government's overthrow and Charles X's abdication in July 1830. Rossini, then in Bologna, resolved to return to Paris to settle his affairs and then move to Italy. A lawsuit to retrieve the money owed him kept in Paris until 1836, but no more operas were written.

Rossini spent the rest of his life in leisured retirement from opera composing. A lavish entertainer of his friends and a fine cook, he even wrote a recipe book which was circulated amongst a favored few. His travels were extensive, especially after his separation from Isabella. He refused all offers to further operas, and as time passed and Vincenzo Bellini, Gaetano Donizetti and Giuseppe Verdi came on the scene, his compositional style became more remote from what was fashionable, so his judgment may well have been astute. In 1845 Isabella died, and Rossini, now 53, married his Parisian mistress, the celebrated beauty Olympe Pelissier.

Middle age proved difficult for him and for a time he suffered considerable mental anguish. A move back to Paris in 1855 was the start of a personal rehabilitation for the composer, and in the 1860s he even began composing small piano pieces - works he described as "trifles" and which he called Sins of Old Age. In 1864 came the misleadingly titled Petite Messe Solennellle, a choral work of a considerable length and no little wit. In 1867 he wrote a cantata for the Exposition Universelle, but by now his physical health was no longer sound. In November 1868, after a short but painful illness, he died aged 76. His funeral at the Église de la Sainte-Trinité was virtually a state occasion.

Recommended Recordings

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Barber of Seville (opera)  Figaro aria

The Barber of Seville (1816)/Philips 411058-2
Thomas Allen (tenor), Baltsa, Araiza, Trimarchi, Lloyd, Neville Marriner/Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields & Ambrosian Singers
The Barber of Seville (1816)/CBS M3K37862
Nucci, Marilyn Horne (soprano), Barbacini, Dara, Ramey (tenor), Ricardo Chailly/La Scala Orchestra & Chorus

L' Italiana in Algeri (opera)

L' Italiana in Algeri (1813)/Erato 2292-45404-2
Marilyn Horne (soprano), Kathleen Battle (soprano), Palacio, Ramey, Zaccaria, Claudio Scimone/I Solisti Veneti & Prague Philharmonic Chorus

Core Repertoire - Start Here! Overtures

8 Overtures/Deutsche Grammophon 415363-2
Orpheus Chamber Orchestra
8 Overtures/Philips 412893-2
Neville Marriner/Academy of St. Martin-In-The-Fields
7 Overtures/EMI CDC7540912
Roger Norrington/London Classical Players

Semiramide (opera)

Semiramide (1823)/London 425481-2
Joan Sutherland (soprano), Marilyn Horne (soprano), Serge, Rouleau, Malas, Richard Bonynge/London Symphony Orchestra & Ambrosian Singers
Trumpet