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Gioachino Rossini
(1792-1868)

Since their inception in the early and mid-nineteenth century, Gioachino Rossini’s operas have been performed time and again and are a staple of the operatic canon.  Undoubtedly his most famous work is Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), closely followed by La Cenerentola (Cinderella) and L’italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers).  However, Rossini was a speedy and prolific composer and his legacy includes nearly forty operas.  Moreover, his impact as a composer goes beyond the great number of works he wrote.  In particular, the demands of his writing, which calls for great vocal agility, have had a lasting effect on the vocal practices of opera singers, and his innovative style and form have influenced generations of opera composers.

Rossini's Musical Childhood


Gioachino Rossini was born on February 29, 1792, in Pesaro, an Italian port town on the Adriatic coast.  His father, Giuseppe, first played the trumpet and horn in his hometown of Lugo, and in his youth was the official town trumpeter of Pesaro.  There Giuseppe shared lodgings with the family of a baker named Domenico Guidarini, whose daughter Anna became Giuseppe’s wife.  Anna, who lacked formal musical training, possessed a good voice and began singing on stage (although women were officially banned from the stage in what had been the Papal States, this rule was not enforced with regularity).   Rossini was their first son, born five months after the wedding. 

During Rossini’s childhood, his father encountered some professional difficulties due to his open support of Napoleon and republicanism.  After Napoleon’s initial conquest of Italy in 1796, there were times when papal forces regained control of Pesaro (in 1797 and again in 1799), and Giuseppe lost his job; in contrast, while Napoleon prevailed, his position was safe.  At the same time, since Anna maintained a stage career, the Rossini family also traveled often, both parents performing in opera productions: Giuseppe in the band and Anna as a singer (eventually becoming the prima donna).  During these years, Rossini began to earn money himself by singing in churches.
 
In 1802, the family settled for a time in Lugo, where Giuseppe had grown up.  There, several local priests undertook Rossini’s formal education in music, and he also began to play the horn under his father’s tutelage.  In 1804 one of his earliest compositions, a set of six sonate a quattro (for two violins, a cello, and double bass), was performed at the country house of a local merchant.  Rossini, all of twelve years old, played the second violin part. 

The family relocated to Bologna in 1804, hoping to find better employment in a larger city, and in order to allow Rossini access to a first-rate education.  Accordingly, he studied singing and performed on the operatic stage at the Teatro del Corso, and was honored at the age of fourteen with election to the prestigious Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna.  Further studies in singing, keyboard accompaniment, and figured bass with Padre Angelo Tesei helped Rossini win acceptance to Bologna’s Liceo Musicale in the spring of 1806.  Tesei had been a pupil of the renowned Padre Giovanni Battista Martini, an influential musician and mentor who had been instrumental in the young Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s entrance to the Accademia.

Beginning a Career as an Opera Composer


During this time, Rossini also worked as a continuo player and rehearsal keyboardist at local opera theaters; his title was maestro al cembalo.  In this post, beginning as early as 1806, he sometimes was called upon to compose new arias for operas by other composers. 

In 1805, Rossini met the tenor Domenico Mombelli, whose family was then touring as a self-contained opera company.  Mombelli had previously been married to Luisa Laschi, a soprano known for premiering the role of the Countess in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, and now he was remarried to composer Luigi Boccherini’s niece Vincenza Viganò.  This musical family is said to have met Rossini when he asked them for a copy of an aria they performed regularly.  Rossini’s request was denied, but he was not deterred: he apparently surprised Mombelli by attending an opera performance to hear the aria, and then wrote out the music from memory.  Later on, in 1810, Mombelli asked Rossini to set several individual numbers from a libretto by his wife Vincenza.  The completed opera, Demetrio e Polibio, however, was not staged until 1812, by which time Rossini had already established himself as an important new voice in the world of opera.

In November 1810 this voice was introduced to the Italian public with La cambiale di matrimonio.  A company in Venice, with which friends of Rossini’s parents were appearing, asked him to compose this opera.  Its first run at the Teatro San Moisè was quite popular.  He went on to write five more operas for the theater.  The second, L’equivoco stravagante, opened in Bologna in October 1811.  For reasons that are not known today, it was received poorly, but he had already received another commission from San Moisè, and it was ready by January 1812.  This work, L’inganno felice, received the acclaim that had been denied Rossini’s previous opera, first in Venice, and then internationally in France, Austria, England, and even the United States. 

San Moisè immediately commissioned another opera for performance in the spring.  However, before this work, La Scala di seta, opened, Rossini finished an opera seria for production in Ferrara during Lent.  Because it involved a religious theme, Ciro in Babilonia was able to sidestep the laws dictating theatrical use during the Lenten Season.  However, its debut was unimpressive.  La Scala di seta fortunately fared better, but is nevertheless known today only for its much-performed overture.  Demetrio e Polibio was finally staged in Rome just after La Scala di seta premiered. 

A commission from La Scala in Milan inspired the comic opera La pietra del paragone, which is now widely considered to represent Rossini’s first masterpiece.  The opera received fifty-three performances during the 1812-13 season, a record at the time.  Its triumph apparently allowed Rossini to obtain exemption from military service, for which he otherwise would have been eligible when he was twenty years old.  This success was followed by two one-act comedies for San Moisè, L’occasione fa il ladro and Il signor Bruschino.  The latter included a sinfonia written with some of Rossini’s hallmark humor, requiring the violins to use their bows to tap rhythms on their candleholders (or music stands).

Soon after Il signor Bruschino opened, Rossini received a commission from the Teatro La Fenice in Venice.  For this request he composed Tancredi, an opera seria rooted in Voltaire’s 1760 play Tancrède, which in turn referenced the epic poem Gerusalemme liberata by the sixteenth-century Italian author Torquato Tasso.  Some illnesses in the cast during opening week delayed the first complete performance of the opera until February 12, 1813, and it did not make a strong impression until its revival nearly two years later.

In the spring of 1813, Rossini returned to Venice for the production of L’italiana in Algeri, for which he received significant compensation from the Teatro San Benedetto.  It was reported variously at the time that he had written it in either twenty-seven or eighteen days—whatever the case, Rossini is known to have composed with staggering speed.  L’italiana in Algeri met with great audience approval.  Next came Aureliano in Palmira (1813), and Il turco in Italia (1814) for La Scala.

The Neapolitan Period and Il barbiere di Siviglia


Sigismondo (1814), written for La Fenice and performed during the carnival season, was a fiasco, but Rossini, characteristically, recycled some of its music for use in his next opera, Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815).  Elisabetta, which played at the Teatro San Carlo, served as Rossini’s Neapolitan debut.  The composer seems to have been invited to Naples by the impresario Domenico Barbaia (also known for his invention of a coffee beverage which was made with cream and chocolate and was called the barbajata), though the details of their negotiations are unclear.  While Rossini’s arrival did not create much of a stir, Elisabetta was quite successful.  The king of Naples (Joachim Murat, the brother-in-law of Napoleon) was apparently impressed enough to have the director of the Royal School of Music cancel a ban on the study of Rossini’s scores – Rossini’s music, while extremely popular, was rejected by many conservatory administrators as frivolous in comparison to older, more venerated styles.

While based in Naples, Rossini also traveled to produce operas at theaters in other cities, including Torvaldo e Dorliska at the Teatro Valle in Rome (1815).  While this opera was not a resounding success, it did earn him a contract with Rome’s Teatro Argentina for the end of the carnival season.  As the composer Paisiello had already written a beloved Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782), the new opera, a rival adaptation of Beaumarchais’s play, was initially titled Almaviva, ossia L’inutile precauzione (Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution).  In his later years, Rossini maintained that he had written to beg forgiveness of Paisiello for using the subject of the older composer’s most renowned work. 

The libretto to this opera, written by Cesare Sterbini (who had also written Torvaldo e Dorliska), was of a quality that far surpassed the others set by Rossini to date.  Rossini used an overture originally composed for Aureliano in 1813, and subsequently employed for Elisabetta, and, despite this borrowing, the music exhibits a great freshness and vitality.  The opera itself, composed and prepared in less than one month, is generally acknowledged to be one of Rossini’s greatest operas, and one of the greatest comic operas in history.  But at its premiere on February 20, 1816, everything that could go wrong did, and much of the audience proved unwilling to accept another Barbiere in place of Paisiello’s.  

The problems at the premiere were multiple.  Rossini directed from the keyboard clad in a garish Spanish-style coat, a choice that immediately made a poor impression.  In the opening scene, singer Manuel Garcia’s guitar string snapped as he tuned for Figaro’s serenade.  Zenobio Vitarelli, in the role of Basilio, tripped and injured himself during his entrance, developed a bloody nose, and was unable to sing.  Reportedly, a wandering and somewhat aggressive cat caused chaos onstage during the finale, whipping the already hostile audience into a frenzy of booing and, of course, catcalls.  However, the second performance is said to have been more successful, and while it did not run for very long in Rome, the opera was soon heard in other Italian cities, then in London, and in 1825, in New York.  Eventually re-titled Il barbiere di siviglia, its success was gradual but ultimately astounding, and it remains a staple of the operatic canon.

Rossini returned to Naples and was immediately commissioned to write a cantata, Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo (1817), for the wedding of King Ferdinand I’s granddaughter to the future King Charles X of France.  Two new operas prevented Rossini from returning to Pesaro upon the death of his grandmother, Antonia Olivieri Rossini.  One was La gazzetta (1816), a relative failure, and the other, Otello (1816).  A version that focused heavily on the role of Desdemona, Otello starred the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran, who later became Rossini’s first wife, and who was by this time involved with him.  Critics did not like the way in which the librettist Marchese Francesco Berio di Salsa reworked Shakespeare’s play, but after a disappointing debut, Otello grew in popularity.  It stayed in the general operatic repertoire until it was overshadowed by Verdi’s version of Otello in 1887

In January 1817, La Cenerentola debuted at La Valle; this work was essentially Rossini’s last Italian comic opera.  Like Il barbiere, La Cenerentola was a gradual success.  Along with Il barbiere di Siviglia and L’italiana in Algeri, it is among the most widely performed of Rossini’s Italian comedies today.  May 1817 saw the premiere at La Scala of La gazza ladra, a work known today, like La scala di seta, primarily for its overture. The opera was criticized for applying sophisticated music to peasant characters, and for orchestration that was felt to overpower the singers; however, this semi-tragic opera did seem to move its audience emotionally. 

Between 1817 and 1823, Rossini produced several of his most important operas: Armida (1817), Mosè in Egitto (1818), Ricciardo e Zoraide (1818), Ermione (1819), La donna del lago (1819), Maometto II (1820), Zelmira (1822), and Semiramide (1823).  All but Semiramide were created for Naples.  In these works, Rossini began to experiment with form, changing his approach to the overture or leaving it out entirely, as in La donna del lago and Zelmira.  He also imagined the chorus as a strong presence, a character in its own right, particularly in Mosè in Egitto and La donna del lago.

In 1818, Rossini returned to his native Pesaro for a production of La gazza ladra at the opening of the town’s newly rebuilt opera house.  While he was there, he became ill and his death was erroneously reported in Naples and abroad, as far away as Paris.  He was, in fact, far from dead, and around this time he wrote several operas for Rome (Adelaide di Borgogna, 1817 and Matilde di Shabran, 1821), Venice (Eduardo e Cristina, 1819), and Milan (Bianca e Falliero, 1819), and the one-act Adina, completed in 1818, was first performed in Lisbon, 1826

Vienna, London, and Paris


During these years he grew closer to Isabella Colbran, who had initially been Barbaia’s mistress when Rossini had arrived in Naples.  When Barbaia became impresario at the Kärnthnertortheater in Vienna, Rossini was given the freedom in his Neapolitan contract to travel.  In 1822 Rossini went with Zelmira and its cast, including Colbran, to Vienna, where the opera was better received than in Naples.  On the way to Vienna, he and Colbran married at Castenaso, in a ceremony attended by his parents and two witnesses.  He was thirty, she was thirty-seven, and rumors flew regarding his possible interest in her financial resources.  Their marriage, whatever the case, was shaky.  After eight years together, Isabella lived either alone or with Rossini’s father until her death in 1845.  

However, while in Vienna in 1822, Rossini met Antonio Salieri, Carl Maria von Weber, and, probably, Ludwig van Beethoven.  Barbaia’s first program of Rossini’s operas, including La cenerentola, Elisabetta, La gazza ladra, and Zelmira, was extremely well received.  Vienna had heard Rossini’s work before, but the presence of the composer helped to create a new enthusiasm for his work.

When Rossini left Italy in 1823, he was a celebrated composer of thirty-four operas, many of which were playing continuously throughout Italy.  Rossini and his wife spent some time in Paris, where he laid the groundwork for future contracts, and then they traveled to London for a season at the King’s Theatre.  He also either composed a now lost opera for the theater, or adapted Ermione, and passed much of his time giving lessons to or entertaining members of the eager aristocracy. 

By the fall of 1824 the Rossinis were settled in Paris, where the composer produced his next work for the coronation of Charles X in 1825 at Reims.  Il viaggio a Reims was written for the Théâtre Italien of Paris, and was received well.  However, because it was intended for a particular occasion, Rossini withdrew the score and eventually recycled pieces of it for Le comte Ory (1828) at the French-language Opéra theater.  The recycling of material proved a useful technique during Rossini’s time in France. For the Opéra, he adapted Maometto II as Le siège de Corinthe (1826, the first published opera by Rossini, 1844), and Mosè in Egitto was reconceived as the extremely well received Moïse et Pharaon, ou Le Passage de la Mer Rouge (1827).  Moïse itself was in turn revised and revived successfully as Il nuovo Mosè in Italy (1835). 

Since the French-language operas were a sensation, Rossini was asked to primarily write for the Opéra rather than for the Théâtre Italien.  In 1827 he was appointed premier compositeur du roi and inspecteur général du chant en France, posts created especially for Rossini.  His next triumph, Guillaume Tell (1829) has become better known for its overture, familiarized in the twentieth century through its incarnation as the theme to “The Lone Ranger” series on radio and television.  However, the opera is still staged today.  Guillaume Tell was ultimately Rossini’s last opera, though he lived for forty years after its completion.  The reasons for his abandonment of opera are unclear, but they may have had to do with a combination of ill health, financial security, changes in Parisian theatrical management, the success of his friend and rival Giacomo Meyerbeer’s French operas, and the 1830 forced abdication of Charles X, who had previously provided his annuity.

Rossini returned to Bologna in 1829, but soon had to return to Paris to deal with financial concerns.  He remained in Paris without Isabella through 1835, when he traveled to Frankfurt and then home to Italy.  While in Paris, he met Olympe Pélissier, and the two formed a relationship that lasted the rest of Rossini’s life. 

In the next two decades, Rossini composed relatively little, largely revising or adapting his previous works.  He had written a set of duets and arias in the early 1830s, and these were published collectively in 1835 as the Soirées musicales.  He also revised his Stabat Mater, a sacred piece for chorus and soloists first composed in 1832, now prepared for an 1841 performance in Paris at the Théâtre Italien.  It was very warmly received, and composer Gaetano Donizetti conducted its subsequent Italian debut in Bologna.  Earlier, an understanding had been reached with Isabella, and a formal separation cleared the way for Olympe to relocate to Bologna, where Rossini (as well as Isabella) resided.

In 1845 Isabella died, and Rossini married Olympe, with whom he had been living for nearly fifteen years.  In 1846 he reworked some of his older operatic material as a cantata in honor of the new Pope, Pius IX.  Unfortunately, however, his health was declining, and, along with depression, he experienced digestive and urological difficulties.

Renewed Compositional Efforts in Rossini’s Last Years


With the 1848 revolutions, Rossini’s failure to vocally support the movement made him suddenly unwelcome in Bologna, and he fled with Olympe to Florence.  However, when the repeated taking of Italian cures did not help his physical condition, the couple returned to Paris.  They purchased land and built a home in the suburb of Passy, and Rossini split his time between this villa and a residence in the city.  In France, he felt sufficiently recovered to begin composing again, producing eventually more than 150 new works, including songs, piano pieces, and the Petite messe solennelle.  Rossini wrote many of these pieces in a humorous vein, and called them Péchés de vieillesse, “sins of old age.”  These compositions remained unpublished at Rossini’s insistence, until they were reexamined in the mid-twentieth century.

Rossini was discovered to be suffering from cancer in 1868.  An initial surgery was at first expected to yield hopeful results, but a second procedure became necessary, and Rossini did not recover well from it.  He died on November 13, 1868 in Passy.  He was buried in Paris, with thousands of mourners at his funeral, but at Olympe’s request, upon her death in 1887 his remains were relocated to Florence.

References:


Gossett, Philip: ‘Rossini, Gioachino (Antonio),’ Grove Music Online ed. L. Macy (Accessed 13 December 2005), <http://www.grovemusic.com>

Kendall, Alan.  Gioachino Rossini: The Reluctant Hero.  London: Victor Gollancz Ltd., 1992.