Rossini, Gioachino Antonio


Famous Italian operatic composer; one of the brightest musical luminaries of the Nineteenth Century. Rossini was born in the year that Mozart died, at Pesaro, a small town on the Adriatic, and was the only child of Giuseppe Rossini and his wife, Anna Guidarini, who were in the humblest circumstances. Rossini's grandfather had once been governor and the boy came of musical parentage, his father being an excellent horn-player and his mother a very beautiful woman, with an excellent voice, which enabled her to sing secondary roles in traveling opera companies. Rossini's father was sent to prison, while the boy was very young, because of his openly expressed sympathy with the French at the time of the political troubles of 1796, and his wife then took her young son with her to Bologna, where she joined a traveling company of players. After Giuseppe Rossini was set free, he traveled with the same company as trumpeter, and while his parents were thus engaged, the young Gioachino was left in the care of a butcher and his family in Bologna. His father had taught him to play the horn, and also the rudiments of the musical art, but the boy showed such aptitude and love for music that his parents decided to give him every advantage in their power. He was taught to play on the harpsichord, also given vocal lessons by Prinetti, of Novara, remaining under the instruction of that master for three years. As a boy Rossini had an extremely sweet soprano voice and very often sang in the churches of the towns where his parents happened to be staying and also accompanied them  on their tours, playing second horn in the orchestra. He was finally sent to study music with Angelo Tesei, who interested  him in practical harmony, so that in a short time he was competent to accompany vocalists on the piano and to sing solos in church. At the age of seven he appeared at the theatre of the Commune, Bologna, as Adolfo in Paer's Camilla, with much success. About this time Rossini made the acquaintance of Chevalier Giusti, commanding engineer of Bologna, who took a keen interest in the young man's career, read and explained the Italian poets to him, and helped him to gain that fund of general knowledge that was to stand the composer in such good stead in later years.

After spending three years with Tesei, Rossini studied for a time with a tenor singer, named Babbini, but his voice shortly afterward broke and at the age of fifteen, he entered the famous musical lyceum at Bologna, studying counterpoint under Mattei, and shortly afterward took up the study of the cello with Cavedagni. At that institution, Rossini showed the greatest application and intelligence and the following year, 1808, he was intrusted with the composition of the annual cantata, which he called The Lament of Harmony over the death of Orpheus and which was produced with great success and received a prize. He was then an ambitious student of Haydn's symphonies and quartets, and of the compositions of Mozart, not only studying the works of these composers but scoring them. He hated the rules of counterpoint and his original method of working taught him much more than he could ever have learned in the old way. His teacher, Mattei, told him one day that he knew enough counterpoint to write operas, and as this was Rossini's only ambition, he shortly  afterward left the Lyceum, determined to devote himself to the work he had, chosen. For a time he gave lessons, acted as accompanist and conducted performances of chamber-music, and even attempted to conduct the concerts of the Philharmonic Society of Bologna. He shortly afterward renewed his acquaintance with the Marquis Cavalli, who had years before promised him his aid whenever he should need it. Cavalli was at that time the director of the theatre of San Mpse, at Venice, and through him, Rossini received an invitation to compose an opera for the manager of the theatre. The opera buffa, The Matrimonial Market, was the result and was produced in 1810 with great success, and marked the beginning of the composer's operatic career.

The following year Rossini composed for the Corso at Bologna another light opera, entitled L'Equivoco stravagante. With his twentieth year begins his period of improvisation and in that year 1812 he produced   two light operas, beside four other pieces for the theatre, and an oratorio. The following year the composer was equally prolific; then came Felice. The foundation of Rossini's fame was really laid by the production of this opera. Rossini was only twenty when he achieved his greatest popularity with the production of Tancredi at Venice in 1812. In this opera the composer gave the public, that had been wearied by a number of dull works, something new and vital. All northern Italy was enthusiastic over it and in the music a new step in the master's career was marked. These early operatic successes helped Rossini to gain access to the Academy of Royal Music, where three of his Italian operas, Le Siege de Corinthe, Moüse and Le Comte Ory were brought out. These were followed by numerous other operas, all written in Rossini's most popular vein. Some of them contain many melodious airs, but none enjoyed a very great degree of popularity. In the year 1815 Rossini was appointed director of the music at the theatre of San Carlo and the Del Fondo, in Naples, by their manager Barbaja, and was engaged to compose two operas a year, to be brought out at the two theatres. His first opera for San Carlo was Elizabeth, Queen of -England, which had a great success and was received with marked favor, partly through the efforts of Isabella Colbron, a Spanish singer, then in the highest favor at Naples, and who later became Rossini's wife. While at Naples Rossini wrote the everpopular, vivacious, tuneful work, The Barber of Seville, which is quite as popular at the present time as it was in the lifetime of its composer. The story of Rossini's writing of it is of interest: He had contracted to write two operas for the Roman Carnival of 1816. The first was produced the year before and the story of the Barber was sent to him piece by piece' and he set to work to set it to music, writing it as fast as the verses came in. In less than three weeks the opera was finished, and because of the haste with   which the composer despatched it the trio intended for the music lesson scene was lost, and the composer allowed the prima donna to interpolate something else. Thus an opportunity has been given to all singers of the role of Rosina to give any song they like in that portion of the opera. The Barber was first produced at Rome, December, 1816, and although it was not well received the first night of its appearance, it was hailed with genuine enthusiasm on the second, and achieved a popularity all over Europe, which has remained to the present day. It is a good specimen of genuine opera buffa, is tuneful and sprightly, with a number of beautiful melodies in it.

This opera was followed by Othello, written for the San Carlo at Naples, with the libretto furnished by a dilettante poet of the city, from the tragedy of Shakespeare. Othello contains some very melodious music and was, like its predecessor The Barber, very successful. In it Rossini broke away from the old Italian dogma that instrumental music should be purely subservient to the singing and recitative and every bit of recitative in Othello was accompanied by instrumental music. Between the years 1817 and 1822, and while still under thirty, Rossini produced some of his greatest works, among them the operas of Armide, Ermione, La donna del Lago and Mabinetto Secondo and the oratorio, Moses in Egypt. The composer remained in Naples seven years, and during that time, he produced about twenty operas for that city, Venice, Milan and Rome. Semiramide was his next success, and it was brought out in Venice in 1823, and received there with marked favor. It is a lyric tragedy with the subject taken from Voltaire's Semiramis. The same year it was produced in Paris and was received there with marked favor. In 1823 Rossini visited London, where he was received with the utmost graciousness by the nobility, and showed many attentions by the reigning monarch, King George IV. He remained in London six months, then went to Paris. Shortly after his arrival in the French city he was appointed director of the Italian opera at the Theatre Italiens, and a few months later inspector of singing. At the Theatre Italiens several of Rossini's operas were produced with a fair degree of success and he was quite as successful a manager as composer. From that time on he was in possession of a large salary from France as composer to the King, a post he was deprived of by the Revolution, but later was granted a pension of six thousand francs.

At the French Opera, Rossini produced some revisions of earlier Italian operas in French versions and finally, in 1829, was given his masterpiece, William Tell, written to the libretto taken from Schiller's drama of the same name. To many it represents still the ideal of French grand opera, and was hailed then as the greatest musical event of the Nineteenth Century and the date of a new era. It was the culminating work of the composer's career. The overture, with its great storm picture, its trumpet call to freedom and the great melodic beauty of its music, is one of the most impressive ever written. The opera is usually classed among French operas, because it was written for the French stage and was a deliberate attempt to follow the French style. With it Rossini closed his career of operatic composer at the age of thirty-seven. Although he lived to be a very old man, he never wrote another opera. After writing William Tell he did nothing for thirty-nine years, except to write his Stabat Mater and the Petite Messe Solennelle. He is the only composer who ever quit work in the prime of life. The Stabat Mater was written when the composer was forty-five, 1832, but was not produced until 1842. It is a very beautiful composition, composed in cantata form, and is the only work worthy of remembrance that came from the pen of the composer, after the production of William Tell.

It is not at all religious in character, but its music is brilliant and it is strong and individual. Rossini has been more severely criticized for this work than for any other, because the composition lacks dignity and earnestness. Nevertheless it has always retained its popularity. The Cujus Animam in the work is popular because of its fluency and it, at least, exhibits true devotional feeling. After the Stabat Mater came a cantata on Joan of Arc; three choruses on Faith, Hope and Charity for female voices, several piano-pieces, and the Petite Messe Solennelle, all inferior to anything that had gone before.

Rossini's first wife, who had been Isabella Colbron, the singer, died in 1845, and two years later he married Olympe Pelissier, a French woman, who had been a resident of the Parisian half-world for many years. They lived for a time in Florence, later took up their residence in the French capital and finally Rossini bought a villa at Passy, near Paris, where he received and entertained his friends and where he died in 1868. He literally idled and trifled away the last years of his life, became a voluptuary and gourmand, who was prouder of the excellence of his macaroni than of the fact that he had written perhaps the greatest operatic work of the century; yet withal was liked by everyone who knew him for his lovable, generous nature and his universal good humor. He was buried with great honors from the Church of the Trinity, Paris, and at his funeral the beautiful music from his Stabat Mater was sung by Mme. Patti, Mme. Christine Nilsson and Mme. Albani.

Rossini's life may be divided into three parts: the first period, from his birth to 1823 when he made his greatest success with Semiramide, and began to be recognized; the second period, from 1823, when he visited London and Paris, until 1829, when he produced his great masterpiece, William Tell, and laid down his pen forever when he had made his fortune, and his third period, from 1829, the year of the production of William Tell, until 1868 the year of his death. Rossini wrote altogether over forty operas, and of these only The Barber of Seville, Othello, La Gazza Ladra, Semiramide, Cenerentola and William Tell have "kept the stage." Some of his operas were serious, others comic, still others farcical. His masterpiece in serious style is William Tell; his masterpiece in lighter style, The Barber. Of the remaining operas, the best known are Tancredi, Othello and Semiramide. Besides his operatic works he wrote the Stabat Mater and Messe Solennelle, previously referred to; seventeen works of large proportion, but now obsolete; vocal and instrumental music, including duets, ariettas and about forty songs, besides piano-music and five string quartets. Various opinions were and are held concerning Rossini's music. Many dismissed him as a composer with a natural gift for melody, who dashed off a few trifles, not worthy to be taken seriously. Others, while criticizing his sensational climaxes, his pandering to the low tastes of his audiences, and his reveling in "a veritable debauch of vocal ormentation," agreed that he had a real genius for writing music, a contagious humor, and was gifted with great facility. The most conservative of critics have said that Rossini was the greatest musical genius that Italy has produced since Alessandro Scarlatti, it may be said that he revolutionized the music of Italy and of the civilized world and thus established the school of Italian Opera as it was then known. The history of Rossini's career is the history of the opera in Italy during the first half of the Nineteenth Century.

He caused the works of those who had gone before him to be shelved, while his own and those of his immediate followers continued to be played to the exclusion of all others, till the period of Verdi. Even Verdi was to some extent indebted to the school of Rossini. There is no depth or sincerity in the music of Rossini. It is sensuous, and emotional, melodious, of unrestrained sweetness, animation and pathos, and is theatrical in the extreme. He cared little or nothing for the lasting value of anything that he wrote. His music was an expression of his life and habits, and lacks the higher expressions of truth and reverence which characterize the melodies of Handel, Mozart or Beethoven. His standards were those of the Italian operatic composer, formed among Italian musical traditions and art practise, and he wrote frankly to please his public. In William Tell, however, he showed that he could do something worthy when he chose. Considered in any light it must be conceded that he inaugurated the reforms that led to the school adopted by Verdi, Boito, Mascagni, Leoncavallo and others of the modern composers. Rossini was of an amiable disposition, generous to a fault, extremely witty and humorous, with a touch of cynicism; was easy-going, happy-golucky, liked to pass his days with his' friends and loved ones around him, eating, drinking and enjoying the best that life had to offer. He has been called the most wayward, laughterloving, indolent of men, and one of his friends once described him as a mixture of Punchinello and Jupiter Olympus. In appearance he was portly with a rather heavy face, that revealed the luxuriousness and indolence of his nature, with a kindly mouth and quizzical eyes, sometimes kindly in expression, at others cynical His manners were simple and yet polished and urbane, and he was at home in any society. Rossini had a good voice and used to delight his friends with his singing and also played the piano and cello in a manner far above the average, being considered a master of the latter instrument. With all his faults and taking into consideration all his limitations, Rossini is without doubt one of the brightest geniuses in all musical history.