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Gioachino Rossini
Gioachino Rossini


Gioachino Rossini was an amiable, jovial character with an almost obsessive love of fine food. He is most celebrated for his sparkling comic operas. He was nicknamed ‘Signor Crescendo’ because of the trademark intensifying of sound he used in his music, and he became the most widely acclaimed and wealthy composer of his time. But it was his many opere serie that proved to be more influential and historically significant. Their innovative style would dominate Italian opera for half a century. Rossini’s natural affinity for comedy may have stemmed from a boyhood spent playing viola in the orchestra for his parents' carnival tours. In 1806 he entered the Conservatorio di Bologna, where he developed a devotion to Mozart that remained with him for the rest of his life and is clearly evident in the operas he wrote. After his studies, he worked in local theatres, composing additional arias for other people’s operas. Eventually, in 1812, he got a break with the sixth of his own operas. L’inganno felice (‘The Fortunate Deception’) was his first great success at its premiere in Venice’s Teatro San Moisè. This acclaim led to a swathe of commissions from major Italian theatres, including Milan’s La Scala. Rossini’s early career was hugely prolific, though he often recycled material from one opera to another. Tancredi (1813), his first mature opera seria, was a massive hit, and its famous cavatina ‘Di tanti palpiti’ was still being sung on streets all over Italy decades after its first performance.  Most of his serious operas, including Otello (1816) and Mosè in Egitto (1818), were produced in Naples, his home between 1815 and 1823. The exceptional quality of the city’s musicians and singers allowed Rossini to hone and stretch his compositional skills. The pioneering style of these operas encompasses strong characterisation, extensive multi-character ensembles, and dramatic use of the chorus. Although Rossini’s early works are performed only infrequently today, they paved the way for later Italian opera giants Bellini, Donizetti and ultimately Verdi. But, as Rossini himself admitted in 1860 to Richard Wagner, ‘I really felt more aptitude for opera buffa (comic opera).’ His undisputed masterpiece, Il barbiere di Siviglia (‘The Barber of Seville’), written for Rome’s Teatro Argentina in 1816, is populated with vividly drawn characters and brims over with uproarious comedy. The situation is brought to life with memorable tunes, lively rhythms, effervescent ensembles and vibrant orchestration. Its successor, La Cenerentola (1817) is a surprisingly serious take on the Cinderella fairytale that omits its usual supernatural elements. It anticipates sentimental dramas such as Bellini’s La sonnambula (1831) with its bittersweet strains, although there is no shortage of musical sparkle. In the rustic La gazza ladra (‘The Thieving Magpie’, 1817), Rossini developed this more serious approach to the tensions within a comic situation even further. In search of new challenges, the composer moved to Paris in 1824, where he forged a path towards grand opéra, the lavish, large-scale style in vogue in the city at the time. Following the comic exuberance of Le comte Ory (‘The Count Ory’, 1828), the colossal Guillaume Tell (‘William Tell’, 1829) fuses Italian lyricism with French spectacle. It also heralded the era of Meyerbeer, the most famous and successful opera composer in Europe at that time, and went on to influence composers as diverse as Verdi, Berlioz and Wagner. Foreshadowing the great Romantic tone poems of Liszt and Strauss, and with a nod to the symphonies of Beethoven, its overture is an elaborate piece in four sections that incorporates a pastoral idyll, a vivid storm and a thrilling galop. Guillaume Tell was Rossini’s 39th and final opera. In 1829, at the age of just 37, he astonished the musical world by retiring. Rossini was to live for 40 more years but, despite frequent pleas, he never composed another opera. There are probably many reasons, not least the turbulent political situation in France. The 1830 revolution led to the termination of Rossini’s contract at the Paris Opéra. The frenetic pace of writing over 30 operas in less than 20 years may have left Rossini creatively burnt out, and the rise in popularity of Meyerbeer may have added to a feeling that he was yesterday’s man. Initially, his retirement was unhappy. Rossini was plagued by illness and marital troubles. He returned to Italy in 1836 with his nurse, Olympe Pélissier, and they were married ten years later, after the death of Rossini’s first wife Isabella. Although the composer was all but incapable of writing music, the only major work he managed during this period turned out to be one of his most durable creations. His Stabat mater (1841) is magnificent, full of his glorious, irrepressible operatic spirit. In 1855, Rossini moved back to Paris and miraculously returned to good health. His sense of humour resurfaced and he began composing again: charming, witty salon miniatures that he called Péchés de vieillesse (‘Sins of old age’, 1857–68). He wrote over 150 of these pieces, which went on to influence composers as diverse as Saint-Saëns and Satie. The high point of this period is the Petite messe solennelle for 12 voices, two pianos and harmonium, which ranks among Rossini’s greatest works. He invested it with more emotional warmth than much of his operatic music, and it integrates Baroque solemnity with sublime, uplifting melodies. After the composer’s death, in 1868, his funeral was attended by thousands, and memorial services were held throughout France and Italy.

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