Born 16 years after John Constable, Gioachino Rossini was the father of comic opera and his style reflected the highly embellished, virtuosic melodies in favour at the time.
Rossini was the son of Anna Guidarini (a singer and daughter of a baker) and her husband (an impoverished Italian trumpeter). Although Rossini spent a lot of his childhood in the theatre, his parents initially apprenticed him to a blacksmith. However, encouraged by an inspiring music teacher, at the age of 14 he entered Bologna’s Philharmonic School and at the age of 15 he composed his first opera.
Thirty Eight Operas
Rossini composed 38 operas, many of which are still in the repertoire today. He excelled in opera buffa (comic opera) and the music he wrote in this genre has been described as “the perfect distillation of comedy into music.” He also wrote many wonderful opera seria (serious opera).
The pace of compositon was staggering. From 1811 to 1818 Rossini composed and staged at least three operas each year. This rate of productivity was necessary for a composer to earn a living. In Italy at that time, the composer’s score belonged to the impresario of the theatre who had commissioned the work. The composer received his fee for delivering the work and seeing it presented on the stage. When The Barber of Seville opened at La Scala, Milan, the tenor Manuel Garcia, was paid three times the composer’s fee and the soprano twice as much!
Rossini’s best known operas include:
- The Barber of Seville – 1816 (16th opera)
- The Italian Girl in Algiers – 1813 (11th opera)
- La Cenerentola (Cinderella) – 1817 (20th opera)
- William Tell (39th opera)
- Rossini took just three weeks to create his most famous work The Barber of Seville which was first performed in 1816, a year after the Battle of Waterloo and two years after Constable painted Boat Building in Suffolk.
At the height of his fame Rossini was fêted in Vienna, where he met Beethoven, in England where he sang duets with the King, and in Paris where he was appointed director of the Théâtre Italien. When Beethoven died in 1827, Rossini was regarded as the foremost composer of his day. The overtures to Rossini’s operas are still popular concert pieces and some, such as The William Tell Overture (1829), have been put to various commercial uses in recent years and the Cat’s Duet continues to entertain us whenever it’s performed.
Romantic or Classical?
Rossini is a bit like Jane Austen in that he is best considered a Classical artist – in fact he retired from writing operas at the age of 37 because he was out of sympathy with the new Romantic fashion. If you listen to Rossini’s music, you will hear balance, symmetry, clarity, simplicity, formal grace and elegance, rather than Romantic emotionalism. All of Rossini’s operas set up the singers as stars, showing off their special skills and ability to perform technically difficult bravura singing. Because his music didn’t teem with personal emotion, the audience needed charismatic performers in order to invest emotionally in the drama.
Rossini presented his final opera in 1829, thirty-nine years before his death! It was, coincidentally, his thirty-ninth opera and although he received many proposals for further operatic works he resisted them all. When in retirement Rossini wrote sacred music much of which is still regularly performed, including: Stabat Mater 1832 and 1842 Petite Messe Solennelle 1864 and 1867
End of life
Married twice, Rossini died at the age of 76 from pneumonia at his country house at Passy. Thousands attended his funeral and he was buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris, France. In 1887, his remains were moved to the Basilica of Santa Croce, Florence, at the request of the Italian government.
Click the tab marked ‘video’ above Rossini’s portrait at the top of this page to hear:
- Marriage of Figaro – Figaro’s Aria
- William Tell Overture – as used in the television series The Lone Ranger which began in 1949
- Cat’s Duet with Felicity Lott and Ann Murray
- Petite Messe Solennelle (Kyrie) with the Reale Corte Armonica Choir