Composer of the Week: Gioachino Rossini

This week we are looking at a real Italian bon vivant. The last Italian composer we considered was Francesca Caccini. A dear friend pointed out that we really need more Italian energy on this website, and I couldn’t agree more. Here we will learn about Rossini’s life and times, and in the process we will listen to one of the most famous pieces of music ever written.

Before we begin, you need to know some things about Rossini. In his own lifetime he earned the nickname: “Monsieur Crescendo”. With Rossini, everything is loud, overdone, verging on the absurd. Beethoven is said to have remarked that Rossini’s teachers at school should have spanked him more. I don’t have the full context here but I think this was a good-natured jab, because Beethoven recognised his genius.

At the end of this post I’ll be giving you a live demo of the galloping horse theme from Rossini’s William Tell Overture, or as it’s affectionately known in the business: “William Hell”.

Humble Beginnings

Rossini’s life began in 1792 AD, in the coastal town of Pesaro. His father was a musician who played the trumpet and the horn. His mother was a seamstress, but apparently a good singer, too. He received a good education and by the age of 12 he was composing works for multiple instruments. In 1810, he premiered his first opera, la cambiale de matrimonio. He was only 18 years of age. The money he earned from this opera made an impression on him. He remarked that he had never seen such an amount of money brought together before. You can imagine what it must have felt like for a young man from a rather ordinary background to enter into the opulent world of Italian theatre and meet success on his first attempt. This success would be the first of many, and Rossini quickly adapted to the role of a composer of opera.

Why Opera?

It’s worth defining exactly what we mean by “opera”. Usually, the word evokes an image of portly, absurdly made-up people belting out impossibly high and impossibly long notes. I must confess, opera is not something that I enjoy. I find effusive sentimentality hard to stomach. Nevertheless, the virtuosity involved in operatic singing is undeniable. Opera is also an important moment in the history of culture and it is, in many ways, the predecessor of film. Composers of operas (and here Rossini is almost without parallel) have to coordinate music, art and literature. It is a rare genius who can pull it off.

The Latin word opera is the plural of opus, which means work. You will find opus the head of most compositions in classical music. For example, each of Haydn’s sonatas has an “opus number”, which is a way of cataloguing his works for ease of reference. The idea behind opera is the combination of music, dance, acting, costume and painting – in other words, all the “works” that go into a piece of artistic production.

The 16th century humanists who developed this form felt that they were resurrecting Ancient Greek theatre. In my opinion, this does little justice either to the new genre itself, or to the Greek theatre. There is no saccharine, cloying emotion in Aeschylus, or even Euripides, the most decadent of the Greek playwrights. No, opera is a genre unto itself. It played a central role in the cultural life of Europe in Rossini’s day.

Opera in Italy

His country, Italy, like the rest of Europe, was experiencing the effects of the horrors of 1789. Italy was not yet a unified country, but it was moving towards unification in the atmosphere of emergent romanticism and nationalism. Opera is the perfect vehicle for these sentiments. It is an art form, like cinema, that can engage a mass. It offers an immersive experience in which large orchestras, impressive set designs and evocative drama combine in a way that can enthral audiences. The word “enthral” has its root in a word for “slave”. Music, as Plato and Augustine knew, can make you its slave. Be careful what you listen to!

Rossini’s Greatest Works: The Barber of Seville

After his 1810 success, Rossini followed up with many more. One of the most famous of these is his opera with the rather clumsy title: “The Barber of Seville Or: The Useless Precaution”. This work is an opera buffa. The word buffa is cognate with the French bouffon and English buffoon. People then, as now, enjoyed a silly comedy. Briefly, the story goes like this: the beautiful girl (of course), Rosina, attracts the attention of Count Almaviva. He has two problems, though. Firstly, he really doesn’t want her to love him for his money and title. She wants him to love him “for who he is” (this should sound familiar to all of us in the twenty-first century, even though none of us have any idea what people mean when they say it). The second problem is that Rosina’s guardian, Bartolo, wants to marry her and cash in on her dowry.

The poor count lurches from one farce to another, wearing various disguises, aided by Figaro, the barber. Like any Disney movie, emotion trumps reason and the two are married in a hurry. The ceremony is, also, a mess. Here is the barber singing his anthem: “make way for the servant”. There’s a reason the music from this opera has entered the popular consciousness. It’s simply brilliant:

Rossini’s Greatest Works: William Tell

Rossini wrote his last opera, William Tell, in 1829. He would go on to live another 40 years, but he would not write any more opera. In the latter part of his life he changed his focus to salon music. These are works for a more intimate setting. They exist in one compendium with the title “Sins of Old Age”. This retreat into contemplation seems like a kind of penance for what was probably quite a decadent life in the fast lane. But who knows?

Anyway, William Tell is no opera buffa. In fact, its overtly political character has attracted censorship. The story, based on the famous Swiss legend of the same name, depicts a plucky rebel overcoming a tyrant. The evil governor Gesler demands that William Tell shoot an apple on the head of his own son, Jemmy.

This motif, the shooting of an apple on someone’s head by an expert marksman, shows up frequently in Germanic folklore. I think it says something about putting your money where your mouth is. If you really want admiration, you must prepare to risk everything. Thankfully, this story has a happy ending and Tell successfully shoots the apple. The Swiss give the Austrian governor the boot and reclaim their independence. In the context of early 19th-century Europe, this is explosive stuff indeed.

Most people have heard the galloping theme from Rossini’s Overture to William Tell. An overture is an introduction to an opera or ballet. It is usually entirely instrumental, without voices. For violinists and violists, this overture is a rough ride. The gallop theme requires ricochet bowing. As the name suggests, you have to let the bow bounce on the string: two down bows, one up, two down, one up, and so it goes. It’s easy to lose control at high speed!

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