University Musical Encyclopedia/Great Composers: A Series of Biographical Studies/Gioachino Antonio Rossini

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It may be safely asserted that no composer ever enjoyed in his lifetime such a degree of popularity as did Rossini. At one time his music solely occupied nearly all the operatic stages of Europe, and none other would be listened to. His music appeals to the million, not alone to the educated class. It is perfectly natural, and in keeping with Rossini's character. Full of melody, sweet and beautiful, it never fails in its purpose of captivating. No one, probably, could listen to the "Stabat Mater" without becoming an admirer of Rossini, or without experiencing a feeling of enjoyment, as page after page of its music glides on, gratifying the listener with its suavity, and leaving the mind impressed with the sense of the pleasure which such agreeable music has aroused. Ulibisher once declared that when listening for the first time to one of Rossini's operas, he forgot, for the time being, all that he had ever known, admired, played, or sung—it seemed as though he had never heard music before.

It was on February 29, 1792, that Gioachino Antonio Rossini first saw the light, at the small town of Pesaro, Italy, where his father, Giuseppe Rossini, was herald, or town-crier. He could also play the horn; and in Signora Rossini the old man had married a singer of some pretensions, so the two were to be frequently met with at fairs and other musical gatherings—she sustaining small parts on the stage, while he played the horn in the orchestra. Their little son was to be brought up as a musician, and the parents soon commenced to train him. At seven years of age he made his debut at Bologna. Paer's “Camilla” was produced there in 1799, and Gioachino was chosen to fill the part of the child. Beyond this incident, little more is known of Rossini's early life, save that while a boy he joined his parents in their musical excursions, when he generally played second horn in the orchestra.

Soon he came under the notice of Tesei, of Bologna, who gave him lessons in pianoforte playing and singing, and put him in the way of earning money by singing solos at churches. It was this latter which led to the Countess Perticari's patronage. She had heard young Rossini sing, and loved his voice, so she sent him to the Lyceum at Bologna, there to study counterpoint and fugue under the strict Padre Mattei. A year's study, and he was chosen, at the age of sixteen, to write the cantata which was annually expected from the best pupil at the Lyceum. The result was "Il Pianto d'armonia per la morte d'Orfeo," which, on its production at Bologna, met with the greatest success. Passing over various juvenile efforts which followed it—such as "La Cambiale di Matrimonio," "L'equivoco stravagante," "L'Inganno felice," "L'occasione fa il Ladro," "Ciro in Babilonia," "La Scala di Seta," and "La Pietra del Paragone"—we come upon the first opera which made Rossini's name celebrated throughout Europe, that is, "Tancredi."

“Tancredi” was written for the Fenice Theater in 1813, and it at once laid hold of the Venetians. Its airs were sung everywhere, the gondoliers shaped them into serenades, and they even crept into the law courts, so that the judges had more than once to forbid their being hummed. To this opera belongs the exquisite cavatina “Di tanti palpiti,” far better than is the little anecdote which gave to it the title of “aria de' rizzi.” The day before the opera was to be given, Madame Malanotte took it into her head to dislike her opening air, insisting that Rossini must write her another. He returned home from the rehearsal, and it is said that while the servant was preparing a dish of rice which he had ordered, Rossini noted down this beautiful air.

“L'Italiana in Algeri,” written for the San Benedetto Theater at Naples, also came to light this year, and is important as being the first essay in that style which reached perfection in “Il Barbiere di Seviglia” (The Barber of Seville). It never met with any great success. It was followed by “Aureliano in Palmira,” which saw one representation and was withdrawn.

In the year of its production, Rossini was visited by the famous impresario Barbaja, which led the composer to make a journey to Naples, where he shortly afterward made his debut at the San Carlo, having signed a contract with Barbaja for several years, to conduct at his theaters, to write two new operas annually, and to rearrange the music of any old works to be produced; in return for which he was to receive 200 ducats a month, and a share in the profits of the San Carlo gaming-tables.

“Elisabetta” was the first opera composed here, and when it was produced in the autumn of 1815, found great favor with the warm Neapolitans; but notwithstanding this and its beautiful music, it never traveled much farther than Naples.

Soon after this Rossini went to Rome, where he was engaged to write two works for the carnival of 1816, and thus were created “Torvaldo e Dorliska” and “Il Barbiere di Seviglia.” Of “Torvaldo” nothing need to be said but that it was not sucessful; but the immortal “Barber of Seville,” his happiest effort, deserves much more attention.

Years before Rossini thought of “The Barber of Seville,” Beaumarchais' subject had been set to music by Paisiello and had become celebrated throughout Italy, so that there was no small stir when it became known that the young Rossini had applied to Paisiello for permission to reset it. He was accused of presumption, but had no choice in the matter, having agreed to compose music to whatever text was supplied him. Paisiello having granted permission, Sterbini wrote a new libretto, and it was as different from Paisiello's as possible. It took Rossini but thirteen days to compose this masterpiece, during which time he never left the home of Zamboni (the original Figaro), where th work was done. As Sterbini handed him over the wet pages of the libretto, they were wedded to the joyous music, and passed on to the copyists. "Not even did I get shaved," said Rossini to a friend. "It seems strange," was the reply, "that through 'the Barber' you should have gone without shaving." "If I had shaved," explained Rossini, "I should have gone out, and if I had gone out I should not have come back in time."

Donizetti, who wrote with an even greater facility than Rossini, and is said to have composed the finest act of “La Favorita” in an evening after dinner, when told that Rossini had written “Il Barbiere” within this time, remarked, “Ah, possibly—he is so lazy!

Every one knows the story of Rossini's so-called laziness, though it strikes one as being really a peculiar form of activity—how one day when he was writing in bed, and having finished a duet, let it drop to the floor. Rather than get up to recover it, he wrote another in its place. A friend came in, and Rossini asked him to fish for the piece of paper under the bed. "I've written another," he said; "just listen and tell me which you think best." The composer sang the two, and as they both agreed that the first was the best, Rossini at once turned the second into a trio, then got up, dressed, and went out to breakfast with his friend.

On the night of the first representation of “The Barber” the Argentina Theater was crammed with friends and foes, the latter not hesitating to declare openly what they hoped and intended should be the fate of Rossini's “Barber.” In his “History of the Opera” Sutherland Edwards gives an account of this first performance, and says that the composer was weak enough to allow Garcia to sing beneath Rosina's balcony a Spanish melody of his own arrangement. Garcia maintained that, as the scene was in Spain, the Spanish melody would give the drama an appropriate local color; but unfortunately the artist forgot to tune the guitar before appearing on the stage as Almaviva. He began the operation in the presence of the public. A string broke. The vocalist proceeded to replace it, but before he could do so, laughter and hisses were heard from all parts of the house. The Spanish air, when Garcia was at last ready to sing it, did not please the Italian audience, and the pit listened to it just enough to be able to give an ironical imitation of it afterward.

The introduction of Figaro's air seemed to be liked; but when Zamboni entered also with a guitar in his hand, a loud laugh was set up, and not a phrase of “Largo al factotum” was heard. When Rosina made her appearance in the balcony, the public were quite prepared to applaud Madame Giorgi-Righetti in an air which they thought they had a right to expect from her; but only hearing her utter a phrase which led to nothing, expressions of disapprobation were again shouted out. The duet between Almaviva and Figaro was accompanied throughout with hissing and hoots. The fate of the work seemed now decided. At length Rosina came on, and sang the cavatina which had so long been looked for. Giorgi-Righetti was young, had a fresh, beautiful voice, and was a great favorite with the Roman public. Three long rounds of applause followed the conclusion of her air, and gave some hope that the opera might yet be saved. Rossini, who was at the orchestralo piano, then turned toward the singer, and whispered his delight. This happy moment did not last, and the hisses recommenced with the duet between Figaro and Rosina. The noise increased, and it was impossible to hear a note of the finale.

When the curtain fell, Rossini turned toward the public, shrugged his shoulders, and clapped his hands. The audience were deeply offended by this open contempt for their opinion, but they made no reply at the time; the vengeance was reserved for the second act, of which not a note passed the orchestra. The hubbub was so great that nothing like it had ever been heard at any theater. Rossini meanwhile remained perfectly calm, and afterward went home as composed as if the work, received in so insulting a manner, had been the production of some other musician. After changing their clothes, Giorgi-Righetti, Garcia, Zamboni, and Botticelli went to his house to console him in his misfortune. They found him fast asleep. But there were other troubles. Don Basilio, on entering, stumbled over a trap, which had been left open, bruising his face terribly, and appearing on stage with his handkerchief up to his nose. The letter-duet miscarried in some way; and to crown all, a cat appeared on the stage while the grand finale was going on, and in the attempts to drive it off, got so bewildered as to excite the laughter of the artists themselves.

Such was the reception accorded to Rossini's happiest work on its first hearing. A week afterward it was applauded to the skies, and it was speedily played on every operatic stage in Europe.

This same year (1816) saw the production of another grand opera, "Otello," first brought out at Naples. Apart from its capital music, it is celebrated for Rossini's reforms in opera seria, which it marks. Its orchestration shows what strides the "innovations" were making. Moreover, in "Otello" there were other reforms, among which was the banishment of the pianoforte as an orchestral instrument, the accompaniments being played instead by the orchestra, and the increased importance given to the chorus. This opera much pleased the Italians, who considered it the chef-d'œvre of lyric tragedy.

“La Cenerentolla,” another of Rossini's most successful operas, followed closely upon "Otello." It was written for the Teatro Valle, at Rome, where it was not very successful, though soon it became a favorite in all the capitals of Europe.

No sooner did Rossini get “La Cenerentolla” off his hands than he fell to work on "La Gazza ladra." It was written for the frequenters of La Scala, Milan, who were somewhat displeased at "Il Turco in Italia," their last opera from the maestro (1814). "La Gazza ladra" removed all this. Directly the overture was played, the whole of the La Scala audience rose and greeted Rossini in the most enthusiastic fashion, calling out, "Bravo, maestro! Viva Rossini!" This was continued throughout the opera.

Next came “Armida,” written for the opening of the San Carlo, Naples, after it was rebuilt, and notable as being the only one of Rossini's Italian operas containing ballet music; "Adelaida di Borgogna," for the 1817 carnival at Rome; and "Adina," for a Lisbon theater, all of which are now forgotten.

We now pass on to two far more important works—“Mosè in Egitto” and Donna del Lago."

“Mosè” appeared in 1818 at the San Carlo, and proved a success, except at the crossing of the Red Sea, which nightly moved the audience to laughter, instead of producing the totally different effect Rossini had anticipated. Undoubtedly this scene spoiled the conclusion of the opera, and the maestro was at his wit's end to know how to remedy it; till one morning the librettist presented himself in Rossini's bedroom and suggested a prater for the Israelites before and after the passage of the sea. Rossini at once saw the use of it, and on looking over the words with which Tottola had provided him, exclaimed, "I will get up and write the music," and instantly jumping up, and sitting down in his shirt, he finished the piece in eight of ten minutes.

The same evening it was played with the opera, "when," says Stendhal, "the audience were delighted as usual with the first act, and all went well until the third, when the passage of the Red Sea being at hand, the audience as usual prepared to be amused. The laughter was just beginning in the pit, when it was observed that Moses was about to sing. He began his solo, 'Dal tuo stellato stoglio' (To thee, great Lord). It was the first verse of a prayer which all the people repeat in chorus after Moses. Surprised at this novelty, the pit listened and the laughter entirely ceased. … It is impossible to imagine the thunders of applause that resounded throughout the house; one would have thought it was coming down. The spectators in the boxes standing up and leaning over to applaud called out at the top of their voices, Bello, bello! O che bello!" I never saw so much enthusiasm, nor such a complete success."

“La Donna del Lago” was brought out at the San Carlo, Naples, in October, 1819. It proved a signal failure on the first night, owing to its further new effects and innovations. Rossini went the same night to Milan, informing every one along the route that the new opera had quite delighted the Neapolitans! This proved to be true by the time he reached Milan, where upon his arrival he learned that at its second performance the San Carlo frequenters were in ecstasies over it.

Following “La Donna del Lago” came two works, "Bianca e Faliero" and "Matilda di Shabran," neither of which met with any fresh degree of success at their first representations. Of their after receptions Rossini did not stay to acquaint himself, but with Mdlle. Colbran, took himself off to Bologna, where they were married by the archbishop in his palace. After a short stay at Bologna, Rossini and his wife went to Vienna, where they met with a flattering reception. In this city Barbaja had an opera house; and it was for the purpose of conducting one of his new operas that Rossini visited the capital.

“Zelmira” was the title of the new work, and by some critics it is considered as the most satisfactory of his compositions with regard to invention and the ingenious manner in which the ideas are developed. It was successfully produced at Naples, and afterward at Vienna.

After the Vienna season Rossini returned to Bologna and produced “Semiramide,” the last of his Italian operas. This was first performed at the Fenice Theater, Venice, February 3, 1823. It was not much liked, but the Venetians were wrong in their estimate of it. Time has declared it to be one of the finest of his works.

We now reach a new phase in Rossini's life—his English and French career. His first appearance in London was at the King's Theater, January 24, 1824, when he stood in the orchestra to direct "Zelmira." "When Rossini entered," says a writer of the time, "he was received with loud plaudits, all the persons in the pit standing on the seats to get a better view of him. He continued for a minute or two to bow respectfully to the audience, and then gave the signal for the overture to begin. He appeared rather stout, and somewhat below the middle height, and rather a heavy air, and a countenance which, though intelligent, betrayed none of the vivacity which distinguishes his music; and it was remarkable that he had more the appearance of a sturdy beef-eating Englishman than a fiery and sensitive native of the south." No one could have received more attention upon his arrival than did Rossini. He was presented to his Majesty (George IV) at the Pavilion at Brighton, where he found this monarch playing at écarté with a lady. Taking his arm the King walked with him to the concert-room to hear his band, which in compliment to Rossini had been ordered to play "The Barber" overture. The next piece his Majesty left to Rossini's selection, to which he replied with his natural good breeding, "If I might take the liberty of selecting the next piece, it must be 'God save the King.'"

Rossini was a guest at the most fashionable houses, where his talents as a singer and performer on the pianoforte were always called into action. He had a fine tenor voice and sang with much taste, and was also a remarkable pianist. Auber once saw him play and said, "I shall never forget the effect produced by his lightning-like execution. When he had finished, I looked mechanically at the ivory keys; I fancied I could see them smoking."

After one London season Rossini, with his wife, went to Paris. He soon perceived that the French were a more artistic people than the English; and one of the first proofs of this was his appointment as director of the Italian opera. With this and the Académie, Rossini was associated till the year 1830, when the Revolution put an end for a time to all musical arrangements. For Paris Rossini wrote "Il Viaggo a Reims," "Le Siège de Corinthe," "Le Comte Ory," and “Guillaume Tell”—of which only the latter need be referred to.

“Guillaume Tell,” Rossini's masterpiece, was first produced at the Académie Royale of Paris on August 3, 1829. It was partly successful, but after fifty-six representations it ceased to draw. Rossini had wedded his fine dramatic music to a somewhat imperfect libretto. The music had saved it for a time, but necessary revision was made. In its new form it soon blazed into great popularity. Fétis, the eminent Belgian critic, writing immediately after its performance, said: "The work displays a new man in an old one, and proves that it is vain to pretend to measure the action of a genius. This production opens a new career to Rossini."

This opera is full of melody. Whether in its solos, or its massive choral and ballet music, we meet alike with that fine stream which runs through the whole. Its overture is a magnificent work of art. The opening andante carries the listener away to the peaceful regions of the snowy Alps. We see that nature is waking, and the hazy atmosphere clears off for the new-born day. In the next movement, this solitude is dispelled; a storm with thunder and lightning bursts upon us. But its fury is soon spent; the clouds clear away, and all is bright again. The shepherds are astir—and from the mountain sides come the peculiar notes of the "Ranz des Vaches" from their pipes. Suddenly all is changed. Trumpets sound a call to arms. Troops are mustering, and the music cleverly marks their quick step as the soldiers and shepherd patriots march off to protect their country. A brilliant use of the instruments depicts the exultation of the victors upon their return, and their joyous shouts effectively close this grand tone-picture.

With this work Rossini's prolific career may almost be said to have ended—and this at the age of thirty-seven, when most great careers have but begun. Notwithstanding that he lived almost forty years longer, a few songs and small pieces, his “Stabat Mater” and the “Petite messe solennelle,” are all he wrote. Why he sank into this retirement remains a mystery which may never be solved.

The “Stabat Mater” was originally written for a distinguished Spaniard, Señor Valera, but after his death Rossini secured it, and in 1842 it was publicly performed, bringing him fame as a Church composer. That it is a great work no one will doubt, nor would any one question the beauty and tenderness of the melodious music in it; but that there is a lack of devotional feeling and solemnity few would deny. Rossini's fame will rest on his operas, not on his contributions to Church music.

The “Petite messe solennelle” first came to light in 1864, when it was played at Paris before Auber, Meyerbeer, and other private friends. As a sacred composition it has not as much interest as the “stabat,” and can never become as popular as that favorite work.

The forty years of Rossini's retirement were spent partly in Italy, and in 1855 he returned to Paris to end his days. He had long been ailing before his death, but it was only a fortnight or so prior to that event that his mortal illness began to show itself seriously. “The Swan of Pesaro,” as his compatriots delighted to style him, died, after intense sufferings, November 13, 1868. After a grand funeral mass had been sung, his remains were borne from the Church de la Trinité to their resting place in the cemetery of Père Lachaise, followed by an immense concourse of mourners of all ranks. Many celebrated musicians and singers were present. The most impressive part of the ceremony was the singing of the "Quis est homo," from the "Stabat Mater," by Adelina Patti and Alboni. To hear that beautiful music rendered by two such voices, and in the presence of such artists, over the grave of the composer, was to feel in the deepest sense the genius of Rossini, and to realize the part he played in the musical history of his time.

Music, and especially operatic music, owes much to Rossini for the reforms that he made both in opera buffa and opera seria. He substituted singing for the endless recitatives of which Italian opera before him chiefly consisted; he brought the bass voice prominently to the front and gave it a leading part; he banished the pianoforte from the Italian orchestra; he laid down the principle that the singer should sing the notes the composer had given him, without any flowery additions of his own; and he gave the chorus a much more important place in opera than it had ever held.

Rossini brought about a real orchestral advance in his own country. Every new instrument that was invented he found room for in his brilliant scores, despite the indignation of the Italian musicians. Hitherto their orchestras had consisted almost solely of strings; what must have been their astonishment to see wind instruments added to such an extent! This is best conceived, perhaps, by Sigismondi's behavior on one occasion, when young Donizetti, then a student, pleaded to look at the Rossini scores at the Neapolitan Conservatory. That of “Otello” was selected, and the two sat down to examine it; but instantly old Sigismondi began raving about the "monstrous" score and its "buffooneries." Every instrument employed was severely commented upon; but when he came to the "wind" his indignation was terrible. Clarinets, bassoons, trombones, first, second, third, and fourth, had all been employed to swell a crescendo in one part; but when the fortissimo was reached, Sigismondi, it is said, uttered a cry of despair, struck the score violently with his fist, upset the table, which young Donizetti had loaded with the productions of Rossini, raised his hands to heaven, and rushed from the room, exclaiming, “A hundred and twenty-three trombones! A hundred and twenty-three trombones! ”Donizetti followed the enraged musician, and endeavored to explain the mistake. "Not a hundred and twenty-three trombones, but first, second, and third trombones," he gently observed. Sigismondi, however, would not hear another word, and disappeared from the library, exclaiming to the last, “A hundred and twenty-three trombones!”

Finally, it should be added that Rossini's music has been very differently estimated by various critics. Ingres, in whose view honesty in art held almost as high a place as genius or originality, has called it “the music of a dishonest man.” Berlioz would gladly have burnt it all, and Rossini's followers with it. On the other hand, Schubert—though fully alive to his weaknesses, as his caricatures of Rossini's overtures show, and with every reason to dislike him from the fact that the Rossini furor kept Schubert's own works off the stage—contrasts his operas most favorably with the “rubbish” which filled the Vienna theaters at that time, and calls him emphatically “a rare genius.” “His instrumentation,” he continues, “is often extremely original, and so if the voice writing, nor can I find any fault with the music [of 'Otello'] if I except the usual Italian gallopades and a few reminiscences of Tancredi.” Mendelssohn too, as is well known, would allow no one to depreciate Rossini. Even Schumann, so intolerant of the Italian school, is enthusiastic over one of his operas, and calls it “real, exhilarating, clever music.” Such exaggerations as those of Ingres and Berlioz are as bad as intentional injustice. It is necessary to recollect the difficult circumstances which surrounded an Italian composer in Rossini's day, and thereby to discover why so much of the music which was once so widely worshiped went out of fashion.

Rossini, as our sketch has shown, effected a complete revolution in the style of Italian opera. His accompaniments were richer than any that had been previously heard in Italy, and in their masterly instrumentation rivaled some of the most notable achievements of German art. His overtures are by far the most masterly and complete compositions of the kind that the Italian school has ever produced. In contrast with the dramatic art of Wagner, Rossini's work maintains for him a distinct position in the history of musical development.