1792 — 1868
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Rossini was an Italian composer, celebrated for his vast corpus of operas – 39 in total – the most famous being the comicIl barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). He had an affinity for writing beautifully expressive song-like melodies, heard throughout his music, which earned him the nickname "The ItalianMozart" in his lieftime.
Gioachino Rossini was born into a musical family in Pesaro on the Adriatic coast, which was at the time one of the Papal States. He grew up surrounded by a backdrop of war and unrest: the Napoleonic wars were in full swing during Rossini’s youth and the French and papal soldiers were often in their midst. Rossini’s father earned the nickname ‘Vivazza’ for his enthusiasm for standing up for liberty, which saw him incarcerated in 1800. This no doubt caused great hardship for the young Gioachino and is thought to have lessened his feelings for nationalism in later life.
Nevertheless, the Rossini family were part of the rich musical and theatrical life of the area. Rossini’s father played horn and his mother had lead roles in the carnival seasons between 1798 and 1808, not just in Pesaro but also in Bologna, Lugo and Fano, amongst other cities. During the 1801 carnival season, nine-year-old Rossini played the viola in the orchestra. The family moved to Lugo in 1802 and Rossini’s father began to teach him horn. He also received lessons in singing and composition with Canon Giuseppe Malerbi, under whose influence the young composer wrote many sacred pieces. Around the same time, the family became acquainted with Agostino Triossi, a wealthy businessman who welcomed the family as summer guests to his villa at Conventello. Triossi would become Rossini’s long-term friend and patron, for whom Rossini composed his six Sonate a quattro in his early teenage years and to whom he later dedicated his Sinfonia ‘al Conventello and the Grand’overtura obbligata a contrabasso.
In 1804, the Rossini family moved to Bologna where Giuseppe and his wife’s flourishing performance careers could develop further and where their son could receive more formal musical instruction. Young Gioachino soon began to perform professionally as a singer in theTeatro Comunale in Imola and at the Teatro del Corso in Bologna. In 1806, aged fourteen, he entered the Liceo Musicale in Bologna to study singing, cello, piano and counterpoint. In the same year he was accepted into the BolognaAccademia Filarmonica on the grounds of his astounding proficiency and skill as a singer, which was an unusual feat for such a young man. During his student days he was known as "il Tedeschino", the little German, due to his enthusiasm forMozart and Haydn. During these years he composed many instrumental pieces, acantata Il pianto d’Armonia sulla morte d’Orfeo, which won a prize at the liceo and many sacred pieces. In 1809 he was commissioned by the cathedral of Rimini to compose a mass.
His first operatic work Demetrio e Polibio was composed when he was 18 years old. It was commissioned by the tenor Domenico Mombelli. It was not performed for another two years, but with it, Rossini was catapulted fame in the Italian opera world.
In 1810 Rossini was commissioned to compose La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) by the Teatro San Moise in Venice, which soon commissioned a further four operas. Among them wereL'equivoco stravagante and L'inganno felice. The highlight of Rossini’s early opera career wasLa pietra del paragone which premiered at La Scala Milan on 26 September 1812 and was so successful that it earned him exemption from the military service. He later recalled this life-changing opportunity: "That theatre also made possible a simple début for young composers, as it was for Mayr, Generali, Pavesi, Farinelli, Coccia, etc., and for me too in 1810."
The early years of the nineteenth century posed a challenge, as Italian opera had been going through a marked transition. The Neapolitan comic opera oropera buffa was in decline and likewise the opera seria was losing favour as composers continued to set music to Metastasio’s elaborate texts, which were becoming overly edited, resulting in productions that lacked originality and therefore vitality. No Italian composer had yet written in the more sophisticated tonal scheme to match that of their Austrian counterpartMozart . Eighteenth century orchestras were beginning to prove inadequate for the increasingly profound subject matter of the libretto: medieval epic tales, classical history and Romantic drama. Italian opera was beginning to perceive the influence of other European schools. Effectively, Italian opera was a dying tradition.
In Rossini’s time, legislation was not in place for claiming royalties as is the case today. Therefore the sole income Rossini received was for performances of his works in which he himself participated. At that, the fee was nowhere near that of the leading lady. Under pressure to make a decent living, as well as to support his parents, Rossini churned out operas at an incredible rate. Entire operas were prepared in a month. With the pressure of commitments, he sometimes had no choice but to borrow melodies from previous operas – for instance the duetQuesto cor ti giura amore from his first opera Demetrio e Polibio reappeared in five later operas. Indeed, Rossini’s masterpiece The Barber of Seville was composed within three weeks.
The first two operas that brought Rossini international fame were Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri. Tancredi, Rossini’s first great opera seria is best remembered for its aria ‘Di tanti palpiti’ which Wagner parodied in his Tailor’s Song in Act 3 of Die Meistersinger – proof if its longevity. L’Italiana in Algeri on the other hand was a prime example of Rossini’s opera buffa and is cited by Grove Dictionary as his ‘zaniest’ opera of all.
His most famous opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia, (The Barber of Seville) was premiered on 20 February 1816 at theTeatro Argentina, Rome. It was a huge success and secured Rossini’s fame and even Beethoven was impressed by it. The libretto was based on a play by Beaumarchais, featuring the protagonist Figaro. While it may lack the human emotion found in Mozart’sMarriage of Figaro, it makes up for it in its dazzling vitality, wit and sophistication.
The opera La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) was premiered on 31 May 1817. This poses a tragi-comedy oropera semiseria. Rossini masterfully developed the characters without leaning too much on the exaggerations ofopera buffa nor the poise of the opera seria. He manages to strike a careful balance.
Naples had boasted a long, fruitful native opera tradition and due to this fact, Rossini’s operas were performed everywhere in Italy except Naples. The fact that Rossini was welcomed by the shrewd opera impresario Domenico Barbaia into the opera scene of Naples showed that this Neopolitan dominance had come to an end. Barbaia sought the need to revitalise Neapolitan opera which was had been waning. Between 1815 and 1823 – Rossini’s Neapolitan period – he composed 20 operas. Of these,Otello was the high point of his opera seria writing. Otello was premiered on 4 December 1816 at theTeatro del Fondo and showed a different side of Rossini. The libretto was not directly based on the play by Shakespeare but rather its French adaption by J.F. Ducis.Otello can be said to have been the point where Rossini came of age as a musical dramatist.
Barbaia helped Rossini undertake his first foreign visit – he organised a Rossini festival in Vienna’s Kärntnertortheater, bringing his complete opera company from Naples for the occasion, which began on 13 April 1822 and lasted until July. In 1835, Rossini made a short trip to Germany where Mendelsohn was in the audience for one of Rossini's performances. Mendelssohn, impressed, wrote to his mother and sister: ‘intelligence, vivacity and polish at all times and in every word; and whoever doesn't think him a genius must hear him hold forth only once, and he'll change his mind immediately’.
The last years of Rossini’s life were marked with physical illness and mental exhaustion and he took a long break from composing. He moved to Paris in 1855 where his health improved dramatically, his sense of humour returned, he indulged in his passion for cooking and most significantly, he began to compose again. The finest composition from his final years is hisPetite messe solenelle for 12 voices, two pianos and harmonium. Rossini later orchestrated the work, worried that if he did not do so, somebody else would – however the mass is more beautiful and effective in its original instrumentation.
Rossini died in November 1868 and left a large sum of money to be put towards the establishment of a conservatory in his name, in his birthplace of Pesaro.