Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Rossini: The Man

Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792 – 1868)
City of Dunedin Choir is currently rehearsing Rossini's Petite Messe Solennelle for the concert in Knox Church on 29 September (mark this date in your diary!) so we asked our publicist, Scott Blackwell, to do the research and tell us more about this composer:

Gioachino Antonio Rossini was renowned both for his musical genius and his last-minute, skin-of-the-teeth composing antics.

“Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at 30,” he is quoted as saying in an undated letter.

Born in northern Italy in 1792, just three months after Mozart’s death, he was the son of a poor musician and a singer at a time when Italy as we know it did not exist. The year of his birth was also the year when France’s revolutionary war swept through the disparate states which made up the Italian peninsula, at a time when less than 3 percent of its inhabitants spoke Italian and almost 70 percent of its people were illiterate.

His musical education from his parents was supplemented by singing lessons from a priest. Young Gioachino had a good voice and his uncle, a butcher, suggested he should be castrated to preserve it, but his mother would not allow it. At 14, he was admitted to the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna and studied cello, piano and counterpoint.

Music in Italy was in decline, like its economy, and the young Rossini found much to admire and emulate in the German composers Mozart and Haydn, and he won prizes for his compositions.

A friend of his parents, an impresario in Venice, had been let down by a German composer who did not produce the new work he had promised, so Rossini stepped in at the last moment and wrote a one-act farce, La Cambiali di Matrimonio. Other works followed, including La Petra del Paragone, which premièred in September 1812 at La Scala and had 53 performances in its first season, when Rossini was just 20.

Three years later, he produced his comic opera masterpiece The Barber of Seville – said to have been written in just 16 days – and worked solidly at comic and dramatic opera for the next 17 years, producing an average of two operas a year, but occasionally one every two months. One feature of his work is the use of the gradual but continuous crescendo, which earned him the nickname of “Signor Crescendo”.

For the beautiful female stars of his opera, he produced a new kind of aria which showed off the full colour of the voice, the virtuoso style now known as coloratura. He is regarded as – if not the inventor – then at least the best known early exponent of the style. A 20th-century critic described the “patter” songs as a “spinning top”, going so fast it creates an illusion of standing still. His operas would make Rossini rich while he was still relatively young, and allowed him to tour his works throughout Europe. In London in 1824, eight of Rossini’s operas were performed.

He was offered more than 100 pounds an hour for singing lessons at a time when the best music teachers earned one pound and he and his wife Isabella, earned an appearance fee of about 50 pounds just for attending dinner parties. They were the Brangelina of the age.

In Paris in 1824, he signed a contract for vast sums to write exclusively for the Paris Opera and the Theatre des Italiens.

William Tell, the last of his 39 operas, was performed in Paris in 1829, marking the end of this period of his life. He spent much of the remaining 40 years until his death in Paris in 1868 (aged 76) living in Italy and France surrounded by admirers in his “salon” of rich aficianados, artists and composers including Liszt, Verdi, Gounod, Bizet and Saint-Saëns. Here he developed his reputation for caustic wit. He was almost always courteous, except about Wagner, whose music he once described by sitting on the piano keyboard:

“One can't judge Wagner's opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don't intend to hear it a second time.”

He had decided, at the age of 37, not to write again for the theatre. William Tell was to have been the first of five operas for the Opéra, but after the revolution of 1830, the government set aside his contract.

The reasons for his musical silence remain only suppositions. Some cite his legendary laziness as the cause, while others point to the Parisian hostility to his work – still others his illness due to gonorrhea, which he contracted around age 20. Whatever the cause, during these 40 years, he wrote little music but in his last few years, he once again turned on the tap, producing a few works of substance including the Petite Messe Solennelle (1863). Rossini wrote on the manuscript, which can be seen at La Scala:

“Dear God, here it is finished, this poor little Mass. Is this sacred music which I have written or music of the devil [musique sacree or sacree musique]? I was born for opera buffa, which contains little learning but a lot of emotion. A little science, a little heart, that's all. Be blessed, then, and admit me to Paradise.”


Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gioachino_Rossini; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Petite_messe_solennelle

Britannica: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/510222/Gioachino-Rossini/6262/Additional-Reading

Scholes, Percy A. The Oxford Companion to Music (10th edition). Oxford University Press, London.

Kobbe, Gustav. Complete Opera Book. GP Putnam’s Sons, London, 1925.

Steen, Michael. The Lives and Times of the Great Composers. Icon Books, Cambridge, 2003.

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