Gioacchino Rossini

The operas of the Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868), particularly those in the comic genre, were among the most popular works of the entire 19th century. His best-known work is " The Barber of Seville."

Gioacchino Rossini was born in Pesaro on Feb. 29, 1792, into a musical family: his father was a trumpeter and horn player; his mother became a successful operatic singer. When he was 4 years old, Gioacchino's mother took him to Bologna, where she sought and found singing engagements and where the child received instruction in singing, theory, keyboard, and several other instruments. By the time he was in his early teens, he was an accomplished accompanist, sometimes played horn with his father in the orchestra at the opera, and had begun writing music.

During Rossini's formal musical training at the Liceo Comunale in Bologna (1807-1810) he composed prolifically. His first opera was Demetrio e Polibio, written in 1809, but his first work to be put on the stage was the comic opera La cambiale di matrimonio, composed in 1810 and performed successfully at the Teatro di S. Moise‧ in Venice that year.

Success came quickly to the young composer. He wrote rapidly and fluently, in a style pleasing to singers and audiences alike. La pietra del paragone was staged to great acclaim at La Scala in Milan in 1812; Tancredi became a genuine international hit following its premiere in Venice the following year. Operas flowed from his pen at the rate of three or four a year. In 1815 the San Carlo and Del Fondo theaters in Naples engaged him as musical director, and his duties included writing a new opera every year for each theater. Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, his first work for Naples, enjoyed enormous success. This was the first opera, incidentally, in which he wrote out the ornamentation he expected from his singers rather than leaving this matter to them.

Rossini was in Naples until 1822; during this period he also composed works for such cities as Rome, Milan, Venice, and Lisbon. Almaviva, ossia l'inutile precauzione, based on Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais's Le Barbier de Séville, was poorly received on the occasion of its first performance in Rome in 1816, but soon (renamed Il barbiere di Siviglia) it enjoyed incredible success in Italy and all over the world, becoming one of the most widely sung works in the entire history of opera. La Cenerentola, based on the Cinderella story and premiered in Rome in 1817, was almost as successful; and these two comic operas established Rossini beyond question as the most successful operatic composer of the day.

The year 1822 was a critical one for Rossini in many ways. He went to Vienna for performances of several of his operas in German, married the famous singer Isabella Colbran, who had performed with great success in many of his operas, and worked with even greater care than usual on the new opera, Semiramide, for Venice. The poor reception of this work persuaded him that Italian audiences were no longer the proper ones for what he wanted to compose, and he resolved to write no more operas for performance in his native country. Later in the year he traveled—by way of Paris—to England, where he was royally received and realized a good profit from various performances of his works. He also sang some of his own vocal compositions.

In 1824 Rossini accepted an engagement as musical director of the Théâtre Italien in Paris. He revised a number of his earlier operas to suit the conventions of the French stage, presenting them to great acclaim. He wrote his last two operas for Paris: Le Comte Ory (1828) is one of the most brilliant and witty French comic operas of all time; and Guillaume Tell (1829), a spectacular five-act work integrating soloists, chorus, orchestra, dancers, and elaborate staging, became a model for an entire generation of French grand opera. He remained in Paris until 1836, when he returned to Bologna, where he served as honorary director of the Liceo Comunale. Political disturbances forced a move to Florence in 1847, the year after his marriage to his second wife, Olimpia Alessandrina Pélissier. In 1855 he returned to Paris, remaining there until his death on Nov. 13, 1868.

The most curious aspect of Rossini's later years is that he wrote no operas after 1829. He retained a lively interest in the musical scene, composed occasional cantatas, such religious works as the Stabat Mater and Petite Messe solennelle of 1864, and several hundred small "album" pieces for piano, voice and piano, and various instruments, but he never again attempted a work for the stage. He was a wealthy man, charming and witty, much in demand socially, and comfortable even with those men whose ideas about music were in conflict with his own. Much of his large estate went to the endowment of a conservatory of music in Pesaro. In 1887 he was reburied in the church of Sta Croce, Florence.

Rossini's 38 operas run the gamut from brief one-act comic works to the monumental and historic five-act Guillaume Tell. Some of his contemporaries and some historians, misled by the facility and speed of his writing, his habit of using portions of unsuccessful or forgotten works over again in new operas, and the easy charm of his solo arias and ensembles, have considered him a clever but superficial composer of no outstanding importance in the development of opera. But his works show remarkable craftsmanship, and in their brilliant integration of solo, ensemble, and orchestral writing and their sharp character delineation they are the most important link in the Italian operatic tradition between the late Italian works of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the first works of Giuseppe Verdi. And Rossini's Guillaume Tell altered the entire course of French opera.

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Further Reading on Gioacchino Rossini

The standard work in English is Francis Toye, Rossini: A Study in Tragi-comedy (1934). An important contemporary study is Stendhal's Life of Rossini (2 vols., 1824; trans. 1869; new trans. 1957). A recent excellent study is Herbert Weinstock, Rossini: A Biography (1968). Rossini's life and career are discussed in Donald Jay Grout, A Short History of Opera (1947; 2d ed. 1965). Recommended for general background is Kenneth B. Klaus, The Romantic Period in Music (1970).

Additional Biography Sources

Alvera, Pierluigi, Rossini, New York, N.Y.: Treves Pub. Co., 1986.

Kendall, Alan, Gioacchino Rossini, the reluctant hero, London: V. Gollancz, 1992.

Mountfield, David, Rossini, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995.

Osborne, Richard, Rossini, Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1990.

Stendhal, Life of Rossini / Richard N. Co, London: J. Calder; New York: Riverrun Press, 1985.

Till, Nicholas, Rossini, London; New York: Omnibus Press, 1987.

Till, Nicholas, Rossini, his life and times, Tunbridge Wells, Kent: Midas; New York, NY: Hippocrene Books, 1983.

Toye, Francis, b. 1883., Rossini, the man and his music, New York: Dover Publications, 1987.

Weinstock, Herbert, Rossini, a biography, New York: Limelight Editions, 1987, 1968.