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Gioacchino Rossini

1792 - 1868

Gioachino Antonio Rossini (29 February 1792 – 13 November 1868) was an Italian composer who wrote operas, as well as some sacred music, songs, chamber music and piano pieces.

A precocious composer of operas, he made his full debut at the age of eighteen (with La cambiale di matrimonio). His best-known operas include the Italian comedies Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)L'italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers) and La Cenerentola (Cinderella). He also wrote a string of serious operas in Italian, including works such as TancrediOtello and Semiramide. The semi-serious opera La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) has one of Rossini's most celebrated overtures. After moving to Paris in 1824, he eventually started to write in French. His last opera, the epic Guillaume Tell (William Tell), replete with its iconic overture, helped usher in grand opera in France.

"Give me the laundress' bill and I will even set that to music."

Gioacchino Rossini   

La Cenerentola - overture

Rossini’s take on the Cinderella story is full of satire and wit. Cenerentola, rejected by her stepfather and step sisters, is protected by Alidoro, a philosopher, and falls in love with Prince Ramiro, who arrives disguised as his valet Dandini. Dandini, disguised as the Prince, wins over the family. The real Prince can then marry his beloved.

Key Works

Stabat Mater

The Barber of Seville - overture

Rossini set Cesare Sterbini’s libretto, based on the first of Beaumarchais’s Figaro plays Le barbier de Seville (The Barber of Seville) in 1816 and wrote the music, it is said, in 13 days. The play had been set to music before, and the supporters of the most popular setting, by Paisiello, caused a riot at the first night of Rossini’s rival version in Rome.
ACT ONE (90:00) Count Almaviva, disguised as the student Lindoro, has his heart set on Rosina, Dr Bartolo’s ward. The doctor wants to marry her and keeps her under lock and key, but Almaviva enlists Figaro, barber and factotum, to insinuate himself into the house.
Bartolo has heard a rumour from Rosina’s music teacher, Don Basilio, about certain plots, but is not smart enough to stop Almaviva entering first as a regimental horse doctor, and then as a music teacher for Rosina.
ACT TWO (75:00) After many confusions and revelations, Figaro smuggles a notary into the house and, before Dr Bartolo can do anything about it, Almaviva and Rosina are married.

Tancredi - overture & opening chorus

Tancredi is based on Voltaire’s play of the same name and on an episode in Tarquino Tasso’s epic poem of 1581, Jerusalem Liberated. In Syracuse during the Crusades, Tancredi returns from exile to find that his beloved Amenaida is about to marry Orbazzano. Amenaida’s letter to Tancredi is intercepted, and she is accused of colluding with the Saracens.

Tancredi fights to defend her name and then defeats the Saracens. Tancredi is a mezzo-soprano role and Tancredi has some of Rossini’s finest writing for this voice.

L'italiana in Algeri - overture

The Barber of Seville - Figaro's Aria

Otello - overture

La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) - overture

Semiramide - overture

The Siege of Corinth - overture

William Tell - overture

The overture to William Tell is perhaps Rossini’s most famous work. Based on Schiller’s play about the Swiss patriot, Wilhelm Tell, Rossini’s opera was his first - and last - work in the style of French Grand Opera with its grandiose sets, huge choruses, and ballets, bound together by Swiss alphorn melodies.
ACT ONE (60:00) Tell helps to rescue a fugitive from the Austrian army of occupation. Arnold, in love with the Habsburg princess, Mathilde, promises to join Tell’s resistance army.
ACT TWO (60:00| Mathilde declares her love to Arnold. He learns that the Austrians have murdered his father.

ACT THREE (60:00) Mathilde and Arnold part. The Austrian governor, Gesler (bass), forces Tell to shoot an apple from his son Jemmy’s head, dell sings his great aria “Sois immobile”, and successfully fires the arrow, but he is imprisoned and sentenced to death.
ACT FOUR (45:00) Tell escapes and kills Gesler with an arrow. Arnold and his army capture Gesler’s stronghold and restore Switzerland to freedom.

(b. Pesaro, February 29, 1792; d. Passy, November 13, 1868)

Italian composer, whose comic gift was A matched by his great productivity. In a mere 19 years (1810-1829) he composed 39 operas, many of them of the first rank. He brought an end to the old order in Italian opera—the stale plots, the formulaic characters—and laid a foundation for the Romantics through his emphasis on advancing the drama through music, without abandoning the art of “beautiful singing.”

Both of Rossini’s parents were musicians. His father, Giuseppe, a skilled horn player, was employed as a municipal trumpeter in Pesaro from 1790. His mother, Anna, was a capable soprano. In 1800, in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, Giuseppe was briefly imprisoned by the papal authorities for his lively republican sympathies; from 1801 until 1808, Giuseppe and Anna made the rounds of regional theaters—she as the prima donna, he as an instrumentalist. The young Rossini took part in some of these tours and was playing viola in opera orchestras before he turned nine. He composed his first sacred settings at the age of ten and by the time he was 12 had penned a charming set of six four-part string sonatas that are still in the active repertoire. An excellent singer, he was admitted to membership in Bologna’s prestigious Accademia Filarmonica in 1806 at the age of 14. The following year he heard for the first time the Spanish soprano Isabella Colbran, whom he would marry in 1822 and for whom he would write some of his most demanding and dramatically potent roles.


Portrait of Rossini as a young man

Rossini received his first important operatic commission in 1810 from the Teatro San Moise in Venice, for a one-act farsa comica, or comedy, tided La cambiale di matrimonio (The Bill of Marriage). Between November 1810 and January 1813 he composed five additional farse, ending with II Signor Bruschino. In the midst of this, his first two-act opera, La pietra del paragone (The Moral Touchstone), received its premiere in 1812 at the Teatro alia Scala in Milan. By 1814, the year he was offered a lucrative contract by the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, Rossini was a young star. San Carlo was the best-financed house in Europe; its roster included Colbran, the tenors Manuel Garcia and Andrea Nozzari, and the bass Michele Benedetti. Rossini was given heavy responsibilites involving composition, administration, and the preparation of performances of his own and other composers’ works. His efforts at San Carlo, centering on opera seria, led to a string of successes beginning with Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra (1815) and including La donna del lago (1819), an imaginative treatment of Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. Even with a full plate in Naples, he had the energy to shuttle back and forth to Rome; it was for that city that he composed his two greatest comedies, Il. barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville; 1816) and La cenerentola (Cinderella; 1817).

Rossini’s last work for the Italian stage was the powerful melodrama Semiramide (1823), based on a tragedy by Voltaire set in ancient Babylon. In 1824, Rossini was installed as general manager of the Theatre Italien in Paris, where Italian operas were performed in their original language. The following year he composed a royal entertainment, II viaggio a Reims (The Journey to Rheims), to celebrate the coronation of Charles X; in 1826 he produced Le siege de Corinthe, a vivid reworking of Maometto II (1820), one of his few San Carlo failures. Rossini then capped his operatic career with Le Comte Ory (1828) and Guillaume Tell (1829), both written for the Paris Opera. Having sent French grand opera on its way with Tell, Rossini, only 37 years old, retired.

Many factors played a role in Rossini’s decision to quit. Chief among them were sheer physical exhaustion and, it now seems likely, emotional difficulties associated with either chronic depression or bipolar disorder. In addition, Rossini was troubled by what he viewed as a decline in the standards of singing and by the political upheaval surrounding the Revolution of 1830—which deposed Charles X and brought the “citizen king” Louis-Philippe to the French throne. As a result of the new bourgeois order, Rossini’s contract with the Opera was canceled; it took him six years to get his lost annuity restored. He wrote little music during the 1830s save for a series of songs called Les soirees musicales (1830-35) and an extraordinary setting of the Stabat mater, begun in 1832 and completed in 1841.

In 1846, following Colbran’s death, Rossini married Olympe Pelissier, who had helped him through the worst of his years of malaise. He returned to composition with the Peches de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age; 1857-68), and offered as his swan song the touchingly intimate Petite messe solennelle (1863).

To deal with the variety of situations he faced as a theatrical composer, Rossini borrowed from every convention; on many occasions he also lifted the best material from one work he had written and put it in another. He revitalized the buffa style, casting aside much of what he had inherited from Giovanni Paisiello (1740-1816) and Domenico Cimarosa (1749-1801). He also innovated, masterfully using the orchestra to create a scintillating, rhythmically vital backdrop to the vocal lines he spun with such seeming ease, bringing a sharpness to the art of characterization that rivaled Mozart’s. He blazed a trail for the Romantics in his choice of material, seizing on Scott for La donna del lago before Donizetti looked to him for Lucia de Lammermoor, and turning to Schiller for Guillaume Tell long before Verdi got in the game.

Gioachino Rossini, c. 1815.
Portrait by Vincenzo Camuccini)

Gioachino Rossini
(photo by Félix Nadar, c. 1856)

In the best of Rossini’s music, which is to say in nearly all of it, one finds lightness without frivolity—a sympathetic view of human nature from one who was himself frequendy burdened by the weight of despair. Again and again, he achieved the kind of surprise that, as his biographer Stendhal well knew, induces laughter. There’s hardly anything in opera funnier than Don Basilio’s aria “La calunnia” from II barbiere di Siviglia, in which the spread of rumor from a tiny whisper to a deafening roar is mimicked by a classic, brilliantly orchestrated Rossini crescendo, climaxed at the line “come un colpo di canone” (“like the ka-boom of a canon”) by an explosive thwack on the bass drum. Rarely has a composer succeeded so marvelously in capturing the comic essence of words in music.

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