|Rossini's residence in Naples was in the Barbaja villa (photo, below), across from the main cable-car station on via Toledo (via Roma). Domenico Barbaja (1778-1841), the owner of the building, was the foremost impresario in the Naples of the day. He got Rossini to come to Naples in the first place and also managed the rebuilding of San Carlo after it burned in 1816.|
you saw that awkwardly-rendered musical pun at the
top of this entry and said, "Hey, I know that...," then
you are living proof of the presence of Gioacchino
Rossini’s music, even in the lives of those who wouldn’t
know an overture if one bit them on the bassoon. It is
strange, indeed, that we should be surrounded by the
music of one whom we have never quite taken seriously.
I recall a list of the world’s most popular classical composers, rated by number of performances in concert halls over the last century. As you might think, Beethoven is in first place. No one is in second place and fading fast. Beethoven deserves it, of course. If you take Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Einstein, and roll them up into one very, very large musician, you get Beethoven. You cannot, for example, play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to death, although many have tried. That’s how good it is.
credit: Étienne Carjat; restored by Adam Cuerden
On the other hand, one notch or so down the list, at the level of mere mortal composers who are only great, Rossini gets a good workout, especially if you count all the bits and fragments of stray Rossini that wind up as background music on radio, TV and film sound tracks. He wrote mostly operas, but concert-goers generally get their Rossini in orchestral format, since overtures to operas are often played as stand-alone symphonic works. Even total musical morons can get theirs if they’re not careful, just by watching, say, that magnificent Bugs Bunny cartoon where our wascally fwiend conducts a fine, if somewhat truncated, version of the opening aria —the silliest piece of great music ever written— of Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, (the lyrics read, approximately, "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro") until the Hollywood Bowl collapses. And if you have really and truly never heard Biddy-bump, biddy-bump, biddy-bump-bump-bump! —from the overture to the opera William Tell— you should check your birth certificate; it’s a fake. You don’t exist.
[If you still can't
hear it in your head, try this audio excerpt.]
born in Pesaro in central Italy in 1792, the year Mozart died. It would thus be
poetic justice if he were remembered as some sort of a
link between the perfect classicism of Mozart and the
passionate Romanticism of the early 1800s —in short, if
he had been Beethoven. That would have been difficult,
however, because Beethoven was already Beethoven at the
time. Rossini comes down to us, then, as a composer born
a few decades too late. He said of himself that he ‘was
born to write Comic Opera,’ referring to the school of
Neapolitan farce that was the rage of Europe from 1750
to 1800. He, himself, is remembered as the last in the
line of such composers, the one who wrote the greatest
of all such works, The Barber of Seville.
It was unfortunate for Rossini that he wrote at a time
when Europe was no longer interested in musical comedy.
People wanted passion and thunder —volcanoes of music.
That was something Rossini could not give them.
Beethoven, of course, could and did.
A good-natured caricature of the day shows
Yet, Rossini is one of the five composers who have defined Italian opera over the last 200 years in terms of quality and quantity of their work, their popularity and their critical acclaim. Working backwards chronologically, these composers are: Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini. Puccini is the undisputed master of the late Romantic Italian opera, a composer with an uncanny flair for couching tragedy in beautiful melody. Then, Verdi’s career overarches almost the entire history of 19th-century Italian nationalism, and his music is inextricably bound up with the struggle to create a unified nation during that period; he was a patriot as well as a musician. Donizetti and Bellini, contemporaries, mark the beginnings of Italian lyric romanticism in music: love, passion, heroism, all to the sounds of beautiful melody, now the trademark of Italian opera. Then comes Rossini, the last great Italian composer of the 1700s, which is strange to say, since he lived until 1867. Indeed, he was called the "grand old man of Italian music" by Verdi, whom everyone else called the "grand old man of Italian music."
terms, it is more accurate to say that Rossini was the
first great Italian composer of the 1800s. He came of
age during the Napoleonic wars and his music was
revolutionary in one very important sense: he was the
first to desert entirely (except for some very early
works) Greek mythology and the texts of Metastasio. A
list of his serious opera is revealing: from Tancredi to Elizabeth, Queen of
England to Lady
of the Lake, Ivanhoe,
and William Tell,
Rossini chose themes that were closer to the hearts of
modern Europeans than were the tales of ancient Greece.
Rossini was a child
prodigy, performing at the age of 12 as a pianist and
soprano singer. In 1815, at the age of 23, he was
appointed "house composer" and musical director of the San Carlo theater in Naples. He
served in Naples for seven years, during which time he
composed some of his best–remembered works. One of these
was The Barber of Seville. The scandal surrounding
the opening of that work is well-known. An opera by that
name already existed in the repertoire of Neapolitan comic
opera, and it was extremely popular. Rossini decided to
write another one, thus incurring the wrath of Neapolitan
fans of Giovanni Paisiello,
the composer of the original. Said boors showed up at the
premiere in Rome and disrupted the performance; they say
that even members of the cast conspired to make the
premiere a flop, which it was —an utter and total flop,
getting catcalls and walk-outs all evening and leaving
Rossini almost suicidally depressed by evening’s end.
The fact that
Rossini did not take failure lightly may have been at
the heart of his decision at the ripe old age of 37 in
1829 to stop composing opera altogether. His last opera,
William Tell, starts with the overture that
"everyone remembers". It is perhaps the most overplayed
piece of music in the entire classical repertoire.
Indeed, in the United States, where the overture was for
years the theme music of the popular radio and TV
western series, The Lone Ranger, it was said
that the only ones who could listen to the William Tell overture and not think of
horses and Cheerios (the sponsor) were
intellectuals —and they were lying. Yet, in spite of
that, it remains a magnificently stirring piece of
music and still has the power to move. Rossini wrote William
Tell as somewhat of an answer to critics who told
him that the age of the comic opera was over and that he
should start generating a little true fire. William
Tell is, thus, Rossini at his most passionate. It
was the most Romantic, stirring, and deliberately
19th-century piece of music he could wring out of his
18th-century soul. It didn’t flop, but it wasn’t a smash
Rossini lived the
last half of his life in France and never wrote another
opera. He composed some sacred music, most prominent of
which is the Stabat Mater. He lived far into the
19th century, yet was viewed as a composer firmly rooted
in the music of the distant past. He did not have the
mysterious and revolutionary passions of Beethoven, or
even the simple flair for a beautiful melody, like his
countrymen Bellini or Donizetti. By the calendar, he was a
contemporary of the two giants of 19th century Romantic
opera, Verdi and Wagner; yet, compared to them musically,
he was truly a time traveler, and if he could not get back
to the past, he did the next best thing: he quit composing
opera and let the world of music go forward without him.
—this person "born to write Comic Opera," and whose music
seems light-weight to our ears, was esteemed by his contemporaries.
Verdi’s famous Requiem was originally conceived by
Verdi to be a joint effort by himself and other Italian
composers to honor Rossini on his death in 1867. The work
went unfinished at the time and was reworked by Verdi and
ultimately performed as a requiem mass for the author
Alessandro Manzoni in 1875. Rossini, thus, never got the
honor which he was due. In a sense, he is still