The Real Rossini 1792 1868

Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born a score of years before Verdi and died some thirty years before the later Italian master. The periods of these masters is therefore quite different, because Rossini retired from active musical composition some years before Verdi began to produce his better work.

It was Napoleon Bonaparte, the brilliant and terrible, who caused an awakening in Italy during the last ten years of the 18th century. The Italians saw the necessity for uniting against the common enemy, and the much divided country commenced one of those wonderful processes of coalescence which mark the power of a race to make national boundaries of its own.

Italy now had a flag to fight for and fierce were the battles that ensued before complete political unification was possible. Napoleon’s influence should not be regarded as a baneful one. In order to hold sway over the Italian peninsula he instituted many reforms that had been long awaited. There was also a revival in the arts and in literature. These innovations, however, although considerable, could hardly repair the pillage of art works which the all-consuming Bonaparte transferred to his own French capital.

With the fall of the Napoleonic reign, Italy entered what has since become known as the Italian Resurrection (1815-1914); at first political, then economical and educational. Rossini’s period of greatest productivity came at the beginning of this Renaissance, as his wholly delightful and masterly Barber of Seville was first produced in 1816.

Rossini’s Ancestry and Birth

Like so many of the Italian composers who have reached great musical heights, Rossini came from a family in very humble circumstances. His mother was the daughter of a baker, and his father an inspector of slaughter houses, who, in addition to this revolting occupation, had the more lofty position of town trumpeter. Both were people with light sunny hearts, and the boy’s youth was one of merriment, which he carried with him through life. For a time his father was confined in jail for political reasons, but this was to the boy’s advantage, since the mother was thrown upon her own resources and was successful in securing a position as a kind of female comedian (prima donna buffa) in some of the smaller opera houses.

Rossini, “the swan of Pesaro,” was born, February 29th, 1792, at Pesaro, Italy. When his mother was singing in opera the famous composer was little more than a child. When the father was liberated from prison, he undertook to play the French horn and succeeded in getting positions in the opera houses where his wife sang. Unfortunately, however, the boy was left at home in Pesaro in the care of a pork butcher.

The child’s meager musical education came from a liquor dealer named Prinetti, who attempted to teach the boy the harpsichord. Prinetti knew by little of his subject, and in fact played the scales with two fingers only. The little Rossini made so much fun of him that he was abandoned by his teacher as hopeless and was apprenticed to a blacksmith.

The anvil and the forge were too much for an indolent nature like that of the future composer and he once more decided to take up music, this time under a teacher named Angelo Tesi. Before long he was able to sing in church for pay, although he was only ten years of age. A little later he sang in Paer’s opera, Camilla, but not caring to become a dramatic singer, he soon gave up this work. In addition to being a singer he was a capable player of the French horn, as well as a good piano accompanist, and in this way managed to eke out a fairly good living when he was only thirteen years of age. He toured with his father in itinerant opera companies. The combined salary of both was about one dollar a day.

At the Bologna Conservatory

Through the influence of friends he was able to enter the Conservatorio of Bologna in 1807. There he became the pupile of Padre Mattei, and Cavadagni. The former was one of the most noted of Italian teachers of counterpoint and the latter was a famous ‘cellist. Rossini had already composed some juvenile works, including an opera (Demetrio). Mattei was a hard, pedantic teacher. Rossini was a temperamental, impulsive boy. Imagine the inevitable conflict! It came one day when Mattei told his pupil that while he knew enough to write for the stage he must know far more if he wished to write for the church. “What,” said Rossini, “do you mean to say that I know enough to write operas? Then I shall study no more, for my only desire is to write operas.”

Necessity forced the talented boy to teach, play accompaniments, in fact to do anything to eke out a living for himself and his parents. For a time he conducted the “Accademia dei Concordi” of Bologna. After he had been at the Conservatorio one year he was awarded the first prize for his conatata, “Il Tedeschino” (the little German). Those who are familiar with William Tell will see at once what his long drilling with the German craftsmanship did for him. This work, full of Italian fervor, has a kind of musical finish unmistakably Teutonic.

Rossini’s First Success

Through the good offices of his friends the Marquis Cavalli, Rossini was commissioned to write an opera for the San Mose Theater at Venice. This opera was La Cambiale di Matrimonio (Matrimonial Market) and was produced in 1810 when Rossini was eighteen. The reception was altogether flattering and helped Rossini to decide upon his career. This work was the beginning of a long series of operatic compositions which unfortunately are of very uneven merit. Some are genuinely great masterpieces, others sink to the level of mediocrity. Here and there through all his works one may find passages of great beauty, although he did not hesitate to follow in the footsteps of Handel by enriching later works with the best passages from earlier works so little changed that the resemblance is easily seen.

Rossini was always lying in wait for an opportunity to joke. His wit was proverbial. Once he was commissioned to write an opera for the manager of the San Mose Theater in Venice, merely because that manager wanted to prevent him from taking a commission of five hundred francs from another manager. Rossini was bound by contract to the San Mose manager and completed the work, but was none the less mad. When the opera was produced it was found that he had introduced so many musical jokes, such as hitting on the lamp shades, the repeating certain phrases until they became ridiculous, introducing a funeral march in a comic scene, forcing the singers to sing at pitches that made their work so absurd that the performance ended in an uproar and was never repeated.

Rossini’s next opera made a monumental hit and set all Italy singing. This was Tancredi, a really very effective work, but rarely performed at this time. Some of the melodies are very contagious, although the work as a whole is not of the altitude of William Tell.

After producing many other fairly successful works Rossini was invited to Naples by Barbaja, the leading impresario of the city. The rising composer was glad to get a positions which insured him an income of something over $175.00 a month. His first opera produced in Naples, Elizabeth, Queen of England, was especially successful and did away with the jealousy of other older Neapolitan composers such as Zingarelli and Paisiello, who at first looking upon the coming of the young composer as an intrusion.

Paisiello’s best known work was Almaviva, ossia Pinutile precauzione (Almavive, or The Fruitless Precaution). The libretto of this work was taken from Beaumarchais’ Barbier de Seville and Rossini desired to set the same text and asked Paisiello for his permission in taking the same libretto. The older composer gave it with some reluctance, but when the opera was produced for the first time at the Argentina Theater in Rome (February 5, 1816), Paisiello had reason to believe that the young composer would be punished for his presumption. The public was attached to the works of Paisiello and Almaviva had been a public favorite for years. Naturally it resented a young composer taking a famous libretto, and when the work was first produced the audience hissed it fiercely. However, it was received with less disfavor on the second night, and it eventually became the most like opera of the times, under the title, The Barber of Seville. Of all Rossini’s works this opera was given more frequently than any other. The opera was completed and produced in one month. The composer received $400.00 for the work, not a bad figure for the time.

Rossini as a Reformer

In December Rossini’s Otello was produced at the Teatro del Fondo in Naples. The master’s tendencies toward German musical art were quite evident in this work and may be regarded as a reform. The Italian public of that day, like our theater going public of the present, demanded a happy ending, and the plot of Shakespeare’s masterpiece was actually changed to curry public favor.

1817 saw the production of Cencrentola, and this opera also became very popular, although it is rarely heard now. The work represents Rossini’s fatal habit of borrowing from himself. No doubt it is thoroughly ethical for a composer to repeat passages from earlier operas that have proved failures, but it is hardly an artistic course, since the result is likely to be lacking in unity.

Works now followed in rapid succession. In 1818 Rossini’s Mose in Egitto was given at the San Carlo at Naples. This oratorio (Moses in Egypt) was in the more or less florid style of the day and only portions of it remain popular at this time. Detailed description of the lesser known operas of Rossini is hardly in place here, as in many cases they have passed so completely out of use that it is difficult to obtain full copies of some of them.

In 1821 Rossini married a famous singer, Isabella Colbran, who was seven years his senior and possessed an income of $2500.00 a year. It is hinted that Rossini was enticed by this promise of financial ease, but it is known that it was this singer who had done great things in inducing the composer to produce some of his best serious works. In 1822 Rossini made his debut in Vienna, where he visited Beethoven, whom he found a decrepit, broken down man. In 1823 Semiramide was performed in Venice. This was an altogether unusual operatic work for the time and Rossini knew it. The subject, however, was not cheerful enough to suit the care-free Venetian taste. Rossini was sorely disappointed and when he received an offer to write an opera for London for the sum of $1200 he jumped at the chance. In London he immediately became the lion of the hour. His Zelmira was produced with success and in addition to this he gave concerts of his works at which he sang accompanying himself at the piano. The King took an immense interest in him and often went far out of his way to indicate this. Rossini’s original operatic project in London brought him no returns, but his London visit brought him the sum of $35,000.00, while his own countrymen had let him struggle along on trifling fees.

Rossini in Paris

In the fall of 1824 Rossini became director of the Theater Italien in Paris and commenced that part of his career which proved most delightful to him. Indeed, he became so popular in Paris that when his contract with the theater expired he was appointed Composer to the King and Inspector General of Song in France with an income of about $4000.00 a year.

In 1829 Rossini brought out his opera William Tell, which was at once recognized as his masterpiece. Here we find a workmanship and originality which indicates that Rossini must have had a particularly industrious and conscientious spell, for many of his works exhibited both a slip-shod lack of attention to details and a tendency not to be particularly careful about originality. Indeed many of Rossini’s themes have been traced to sources other than his own brain.

Rossini returned to Italy to visit his father, carrying with him the assurance of a pension from the French government. Later he learned that King Charles had abdicated and his connections with the court of France were therefore estranged. This and other disappointments so discouraged the temperamental composer that he resolved to write no more.

His Stabat Mater was given in Paris in 1841 with huge success. Although he lived until November 13, 1868, he ceased to produce works of real musical consequence nearly thirty years before his death. Indeed he took a pride in being an epicure and liked nothing better than attempting to cook choice viands and then regaling his friends with them. His first wife died in 1845 and two years later he married Olympe Pelissier. His later years were spent in Paris. During this time he composed a great many pieces for the pianoforte, all of which have since sunk into oblivion, although his widow sold the right of them to one Baron Grant for no less than $20,000.00. A large part of his fortune went toward the foundation of a conservatory in Pesaro, his native city, although there were some bequests of a charitable nature.

Rossini’s Standing as a Composer

The uneven character of Rossini’s music led many to condemn his good works, because of the weakness of his works of less consequence. Berlioz was particularly outspoken in condemning it, while Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn admired his best works very greatly. Some of the effects in orchestration he achieved are astonishingly fine and even in this day of orchestral extremes sound exceptionally effective. Many of his melodies are exceedingly rich, and anyone who is familiar with the delicious Largo al Factotem from The Barber knows how individual he may become. Following is a list of his best known works in alphabetical order:

  • Adelaide (1818)
  • Adina (1818)
  • Armida (1817)
  • Assedio (1828)
  • Aureliano (1813)
  • Barber of Seville (1816)
  • Bianca e Faliero (1819)
  • I due Bruschino (1857)
  • La Cambiale de matrimonio (1812)
  • Cambio della valigia (1812)
  • La Cenerentola (1817)
  • Le Comte Ory (1828)
  • La Dame du Lac (1825)
  • Demetio e Polibio (1812)
  • Eduardo e Christina (1819)
  • Elisabetta (1815)
  • Equivoco stravagante (1811)
  • Ermoine (1819)
  • La Ladra Gazza (1817)
  • Guillaume Tell (1829)
  • L’Ingano felice (1812)
  • Italino in Algeri (1813)
  • Maometto Secundo (1820)
  • Matilda di Shabran (1857)
  • Moise (1827)
  • Mose in Egitto (original Italian version, 1818)
  • Occasione f ail Ladro (1816)
  • Otello (1816)
  • La Pietra del Parangone (1812)
  • La pie Voleuse (1822)
  • Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818)
  • Robert Bruce (1846)
  • La Scala di seta (1812)
  • Semiramide (1823)
  • Le Siege de Corinthe (1826)
  • Sigismondo (1815)
  • Tacredi (1813)
  • Torvaldo e Dorliska (1815)
  • Il Turco in Italia (1814)
  • Il Viggio a Riems (1825)
  • Zelmira (1824)
  • Stabat Mater (1832)

Saint-Saens’ Recollections of Rossini

The following extract is from a book of memory pictures by the great French composer Saint-Saens:

“It is difficult in our day and generation to form an estimate of the position occupied for nearly a half century by Rossini on our good city of Paris. Long retired from active work, he nevertheless maintained in his splendid idleness a stronger hold on the popular imagination than all the others in full activity. All Paris courted the honor of admission to the magnificent apartment with the high windows looking out upon the corner of the Boulevarde and the corner of the chaussee d’Autin. Since the demi-god never went out o’ nights, his familiars were always sure of finding him at home; and at one time or another the most diverse circles of society rubbed elbows at his magnificent gatherings, where the most brilliant singers and the most illustrious virtuosos were to be heard.”

“The lowest kind of sycophantry surrounded the master without besmirching him, for he knew its exact value, and dominated his ordinary environment with all the hauteur of a superior intelligence which does not care to reveal itself to the first comer.”

Rossini’s Parisian Public

Whence did he get so much glory? His works, apart from the Barber, William Tell, and occasional representation of Moise, appear to have lost their hold. One still goes to see Othello at the Theater Italien, but that is in order to hear the “high C” of Tamberlick! … Rossini entertained so little illusion that he attempted to oppose the effort to install Semiramis in the repertoire of the Opera. Nevertheless, the Parisian public made a veritable cult of him!

The public – I am speaking of the would-be musical public – was at that time divided into two warring factions: the lovers of melody, who former the great majority, and included the critics; and the subscribers to the Conservatory and the quartet concerts of Maurin, Alard, Armingaud, devoted to music considered “learned” – “poseurs” – as the others called them, who pretended to admire works which they could not in the least understand.

The popular cult saw no melody in Beethoven; a few even refused it to Mozart, and the doors of the Opera Comique were closed to me for daring to undertake the defense of The Marriage of Figaro before its director. No such objection was raised against the Italian School, of which Rossini was the leader, nor to the school of Herold and Auber, which it had engendered. To the melodists, Rossini was a palladium, a symbol around which they gathered themselves together in serried ranks, making a rallying-ground of works of his which they should have allowed to fall into oblivion.

Rossini and Beethoven

From a few works allowed to fall in moments of intimacy, I have gathered that this was a source of trouble to him. It was a curious turn of fate that should have made Rossini, in spite of himself without doubt, serve as an engine of war against Beethoven in Vienna, where the success of Tancredi ended forever the theatrical aspirations of the composer of Fidelio, and then in Paris should have used William Tell to avert the encroachment of the Symphony and Chamber music.

I was twenty years old when M. and Mme. Viardot presented to me Rossini. He invited me to his little evening receptions, where he welcomed me with the blank amiability of which he was past-master. About a month later, when he found I did not want him to give me a private hearing either as a composer or as a pianist, he changed his attitude towards me.

“Come and see me in the morning,” he said, “and we’ll have a little chat.”

I hastened to accept this flattering invitation, and found a Rossini totally different from that of the evening before, interesting to the highest degree, open-minded, with ideas which, if not advanced, were at least large and lofty in spirit.

Rossini, Wit and Epicure

Rossini was an epicure and several of the stories connected with his name bear on the pleasures of the table. He had a fastidious palate and declared that he could cook rice and macaroni better than anyone he knew.

“Maestra,” said some one to him, “do you remember that famous dinner given you in Milan, when they served a gigantic macaroni pie? Well, I was seated next to you.”

“Indeed!” replied Rossini; “I remember the macaroni, but I fail to recognize you.”

On another occasion, at a dinner in Paris at which he was observed to remain silent and absorbed, a banker who was on anything but friendly terms with him passed savories to the lady on his right, saying: “I have already eaten as many of these as Samson slew Philistines.”

“Yes, and with the same weapon,” retorted Rossini.