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Gioacchino Antonio Rossini

picture of Rossini

Exceptional Musical Gifts

Rossini was was born in Pesaro on the Northern Adriatic coast of Italy in 1792, and was surrounded by music from birth. His father, Giuseppe, was the town trumpeter, and played horn in the theatre, and his mother Anna, the daughter of a baker, was a singer. However, music was not the only source of income for the Rossini family, for his father also worked as an inspector of slaughter houses. Rossini's parents taught him music and he showed his musical ability at very early age, playing percussion in a band alongside his father.

Rossini's father had been a supporter of Napoleon I when Northern Italy was invaded by the French, and after the Pesaro region was reunited with Italy he was sent to prison for his republican views (in 1796). To support the family, Rossini's mother moved to the Romagna region of Italy, looking for work as a professional opera singer and the family settled in Bologna. With his mother at work, and his father in prison, the young Gioacchino was often left in the care of his ageing grandmother and he was, unsurprisingly, a bit of a handful, running wild and frequently getting into mischief. His primary education was undertaken by a pork butcher, and he was apprenticed to a blacksmith. The family were reunited with his father in Bologna when he came out of prison.

It was clear that Rossini had exceptional musical gifts, learning to sight-read and play accompaniments on the pianoforte, and singing solo parts in the church when he was only ten years of age. He was also a capable horn player, following in the footsteps of his father. At thirteen he sung at the theatre of the commune Bologna in Paër's 'Camilla', his only public appearance as a singer; at fourteen he wrote an opera, 'Dimetrio e Polibia; at fifteen he was accepted as a student at the 'Liceo Musicale' in Bolonga where he studied singing, cello, piano, and counterpoint. He was taught counterpoint by a Padre Mattei but he reacted against this teacher's strict views and methodology, preferring a freer framework for his composition. As a result he was largely self taught in composition, honing his skill with an intense study of the quartets and symphonies of Haydn and Mozart - for which obsession he earned the nickname "il Tedeschino". (Little German.)

Steady Job in Naples

Through family contacts, and with the support of the Marquis Cavalli, Rossini's opera 'La Cambiale di Matrimonio' was produced at Venice in 1810, when he was just eighteen, and thereafter he continued to have his operas produced in Bologna, Rome, Venice and Milan, with varying degrees of success until 1813, when his serious opera 'Tancredi' , followed quickly by the farcically comic 'L'italiana in Algeri', brought him international acclaim. Thereafter commissions from the opera houses of Northern Italy kept him writing busily, but after the success of 'Tancredi' and 'L'italiana in Algeri' the sometimes cool reception of his work was probably not up to the expectations of an ambitious young composer and in 1815, still only twenty seven, he entered into an agreement with Barbaja, impresario of the Naples theatre, by which he became the musical director of the Teatro San Carlo and the Teatro Del Fondo in Naples, and had a contract to compose one opera a year for each house. For this he received a regular salary and a share in other businesses of impresario Barbaja. Even better, the contract allowed him to write for other theatres, so that while routinely producing serious operas for Naples he was able to compose his supreme comedies, 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia' and 'La Cenerentola' for Rome. Today the former work is widely regarded as the greatest of all Italian comic operas.

Prodigious Output

Between 1810 and 1829, Rossini wrote 39 operas, ten of these before his twenty first birthday. In a period of less than twenty years he wrote at least one opera per year and in the eight year period from 1812 to 1819 he wrote an average of 3.5 operas a year. In one period of sixteen months he wrote seven, a prodigious feat by any standard! His rate of working required him to compose in any situation - in bed, at an inn, while travelling - in fact anywhere he happened to be in the course of his ordinary life. It is clear that he accepted that he was an 'opera production machine' from the famous quotation : "Give me a shopping list and I will set it to music". To a degree Rossini was lucky to be working at a time when there was such great demand for opera, in all its forms, but his great success in his lifetime, and his continuing popularity today, are without doubt attributable to the tunefulness and appealing simplicity of his music.

Admirers, Dissenters and Rivals

Beethoven and Verdi admired Rossii's opera 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia' and there can surely be be no greater accolade for any composer. However, the praise of his work was not universal. Berlioz, a contemporary composer and music critic, gave very forthright criticism of Rossini's work. For example he wrote:

" Rossini's melodic cynicism, his contempt for dramatic expression and good sense, his endless repetition of a single form of cadence, his eternal puerile crescendo and the brutal bass drum exasperated me to such a point that I was blind to the brilliant qualities of his genius - even in his masterpiece the Barber, exquisitely scored though it is."

Berlioz obviously didn't like Rossini's work, on balance, although his criticism seems self contradictory and one wonders if there was not a touch of sour grapes in this criticism bearing in mind that in Paris Berlioz was much less successful than his now largely forgotten contemporaries. Lack of success was galling for Berlioz, particularly as he was a music critic for the periodical Journal 'des Débats' and had to review the work of other more successful composers.

In his composition Rossini was not shy of plagiarism, freely reusing material from his previous works, and, to a more limited extent, that of other composers . This is perhaps not surprising, considering the ever pressing need for him to meet deadlines. Some of the older school of composers in Naples, notably Zingarelli and Paisiello, intrigued against the success of the younger Rossini. Paisiello particularly had good reason to be aggrieved, for Rossini used his complete libretto for 'Il Barbiere di Siviglia': The public were at first offended by this brazen act, whistling their contempt at its first performance.

Paris and London

In 1822 Rossini married Isabella Colbran, the leading soprano in the Naples theatres and a former mistress of the impresario of the Naples theatre, Barbaja. In 1823 he returned briefly to Bologna and then moved to Paris where he took the directorship of the Théâtre-Italien. He worked in Paris for six years, during which time he composed five operas. They were not all new, two being reworks of his previous operas under new titles (possibly to suit the Parisians, for one key to his success was his sensitivity to popular taste.) Rossini's work became very popular in Pasis and in 1824 Charles X of France offered him a ten-year contract to write and produce one new opera every two years. In the event he composed only one, 'Guillaume Tell' which premiered at the Paris Opera on August 3, 1829 and a legal battle ensued between Rossini and Charles X over this breach of contract. Opportunities for work in France declined after the July revolution of 1830 with the abdication Charles X and the ascension of Louis Phillipe in 1830.

In 1823 Rossini visited England, at the invitation of the King's Theatre London, and was given a celebrity welcome, including an introduction to King George IV of England and was paid handsomely for work covering only fivemonths

After 'William Tell'

The most remarkable thing about Rossini's career was the continuous outpouring of work from 1810 to 1829. The second most remarkable thing must be that he composed no opera after his 'Guillaume Tell' in 1829, despite demonstrating his continuing skills by writing his 'Stabat Mater', a work with superb vocal scoring. He started composing his 'Stabat Mater' in 1831 but at his behest a friend called Giovanni Tadolini finished it for him. Much later Rossini revised this work and it had its first performance in 1842. In his later years he composed some songs and pieces he called 'little nothings' to amuse visitors, but nothing approaching his previous works.

The question of why there was this sudden change from a 'opera production machine' to a slow, occasional composer is the subject of much speculation in the literature. Perhaps he thought that the tide of popular taste was moving away from his particular style and that he should end his career on a high note: perhaps he wanted to enjoy a quieter life outside music for he became a noted wit and bon viveur in his later years. A more likely explanation is that the situation of his life did not allow the intense composing routine which he established in his bachelor days His first marriage to Isabella Colbran was not successful and two years after she died in 1845, he married Olympe Pelissier, with whom he had had a relationship for 15 years and who tended him through a long spell of ill-health. An unstable political climate caused him to move to Florence from Bologna and he finally settled in Paris in 1855, where his house became a centre of artistic society.

Honour to a Great Musician and Composer

Rossini died from a heart attack on Friday the 13th of November, 1868 at his country house at Passy and he was buried with great honour at the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. In 1887 his remains were moved to the church of Santa Croce in Florence after a request by the Italian Government Following his death, Giuseppe Verdi suggested that Italian musicians should co-operate to write a Requiem in his honour and he began the work by submitting the "Libera me". The Requiem was finished at the time but not performed until Friday the 13th of November, 1988 in Stuttgart, one hundred and twenty years to the day after his death.