Rossini: Work Fast, Retire Early
July 6, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
Who hasn’t dreamed of wild success and early retirement? This is more the model for stock brokers or dot com billionaires than it is for composers, but it has happened. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) retired in 1829, at the age of thirty-eight, the most popular opera composer in all of Europe. Unlike composers like Mozart and Schubert whose careers were cut short by sickness and death, Rossini lived almost forty more years after his early retirement, although not always in the best of health. The kind of productivity Rossini showed in his career can be easily compared to a candle lit at both ends: a bright light burning out in half the time.
Rossini was born in Pesaro, on the eastern coast of Italy. His father Giuseppe Antonio was a horn player and his mother sang opera. Young Gioachino grew up in the midst of the Napoleonic wars, and when he was eight years old, his father was briefly imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution. The family focus, however, was music, and by the time the Rossinis moved to Lugo, Gioachino was already getting horn lessons and singing. By fourteen, he entered the Bologna Academia Filarmonica. His private teacher at the time was Padre Angelo Tesei, but he soon began formal studies at the Liceo Musicale. He was particularly fond of Mozart, calling him, “the admiration of my youth, the desperation of my mature years, the consolation of my old age.” He was such a fan of Mozart—who died a year before Rossini was born—that his classmates took to calling him “il Tedeschino,” the little German.
Like many young composers, Rossini chafed under the very strict rules of counterpoint. His counterpoint teacher, Padre Stanislao Mattei, challenged Rossini to work through the lessons and follow the procedures set forth in the Baroque and Classical periods. Although Rossini didn’t love following the rules, he was certainly able to pass his classes, and when he was able to apply a freer style to his work, he was happy to do so.
Rossini’s career as an opera composer really got underway in 1810, although his very first attempts at opera was date from a few years earlier. Venice’s Teatro S Moise commissioned a one-act opera from the young and largely inexperienced Rossini (who was reportedly not the first choice). La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) premiered in 1810. Although his next opera, which was written for Bologna, L’equivoco stravagante, closed after just three performances, Rossini continued to write farces for the Teatro S Moise. His second farsa for the theater was L’inganno felice, and it was Rossini’s first great success. On the strength of his operas for Venice, other commissions rolled in. These early operas are not the ones we remember Rossini for, nor are they the ones that have entered the canon of operatic works. This early period, however, was very important for Rossini, who was crafting his unique style and maturing as an artist.
Rossini was also learning how to work quickly. He composed seven operas in sixteen months, often borrowing from himself in the process. One duet that he wrote for an early effort Demetrio e Polibio, “Questo cor ti giura amore,” was used in six of Rossini’s operas. Some successful works from this time period include La pietra del paragone and Il signor Bruschino. In 1813, Rossini scored his biggest hits with two operas you might recognize, Tancredi and L’italiana in Algeri. The success of these works catapulted Rossini international fame and fortune. He was twenty-one.
After working in Venice and Milan, Rossini sought to broaden his horizons in Naples, becoming musical director of the Teatro di San Carlo and the Teatro del Fondo. He was expected to write one opera for each theater a year. For this, he received a monthly salary, which was augmented by a cut from the gaming tables that were in the theaters. Rossini traveled and composed, sometimes completing operas in a month or less, including perhaps his most famous opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia, which took probably three weeks (Rossini boasted twelve days, but we don’t think this was the case).
Rossini’s opera continued to bring him fame and wealth, but it was also an opportunity to make connections. Isabella Colbran, a singer in Rossini’s Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra eventually became Rossini’s wife. Musically, this opera showed some important developments for Rossini, like the use of a string quartet as accompaniment to a recitative, and the specific ornaments notated in the score rather than improvised. Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia premiered in February of 1816 as Almaviva (to distinguish it from another Barber of Seville opera by Giovanni Paisiello). At first, it was something of a failure, but by the summer of 1816, when it was revived in Bologna, itwas a grand success, and was now known by its more familiar title. It was not only loved by the public, but respected by other composers. Beethoven told Rossini, “It will be played as long as Italian opera exists.” At the turn of the twentieth century, Verdi called it, “the most beautiful opera buffa there is.”
Other successes followed: La Cenerentola, La gazza ladra, Semiraminde, and Guillaume Tell. Rossini traveled throughout Europe, In Vienna he directed La Cenerentola and Zelmira. He attended the Conference of Verona, and traveled to England by way of Paris and stayed in residence there for five months (he received a generous payment for this residency). In 1824 he became the director of the Theatre des Italien in Paris. He was given a contract by King Charles X for five operas a year followed by a lifetime annuity. It was at the end of five years in Paris that Rossini composed his last opera. He had written thirty-eight operas in his thirty-eight years. He wrote a few small pieces in his retirement, but never again returned to the grind of constant composing.
Rossini’s retirement was still full of activity. He was quite the amateur chef, and he indulged his passion for food and cooking while living in Florence and Paris. He hosted many gatherings of friends and fellow artists, impressing many who came his way. He was intelligent, a great conversationalist, and a splendid host. He composed as a hobby, writing miniatures for solo piano or small chamber ensemble. He collected fourteen volumes of these works and called them Péchés de vieillesse, or “Sins of Old Age.”
Rossini was a genius at melody. Not all composers are good at melody. Beethoven wrote some beautiful ones now and then, but he was a master of motivic development, harmony, expression. Bach was brilliant at process and counterpoint. But Rossini’s melodies were his bread and butter. They were singable, rhythmically lively, and offered ample opportunity for the singers to embellish. Some of these melodies found their way out of the opera house, becoming popular tunes on their own. Rossini was also quite skilled at composing overtures. Even today the popular overtures are among Rossini’s most performed works.
Over the course of his career, Rossini produced different kinds of operas, Italian comic operas known as opera buffa; serious operas like Otello; and finally French Grand opera like Guillaume Tell. In all of these styles, Rossini remained faithful to the voice. He balanced virtuosic singing with the needs of the narrative. In the earliest days of nineteenth century Italian operas, the priority was given to vocal fireworks over the coherency of the drama. Rossini showed that an opera could showcase the voice while still serving the story. This balance may have been the key to Rossini’s success, and it was certainly one of the aspects of his style that influenced the next generation of Italian opera composers.