Gioachino Rossini - Biography


Gioachino Rossini was born on leap day February 29th 1792 in Pesaro Italy and died on November 13TH 1868. Rossini’s father Giuseppe had a rather unusual dual career as a horn player in the local opera house and an inspector of a slaughter house. His mother was a singer. Rossini’s father was a supporter of Napoleon’s incursion into Italy in 1796 this landed him into prison when the Austrians regained power. Rossini and his mother moved to Bologna when he was six where his mother supported themselves as a singer. Rossini father was eventually released and continued his career as a horn player (performing in theatres where his wife had secondary roles) and was able to provide musical instruction to the boy. As he reached early adolescence he received professional training from Angelo Tesei a prominent Bologna music teacher from whom he received rigorous training on the piano, violin and sight reading. His first compositions that receive any performances these days are his Six Sonatas for String Quartet that was written when he was twelve. He finished his musical education when he entered the Bologna Conservatory at fourteen. He chafed under the severe tutelage of his prime teacher Padre Mattei but studied the instrumental work of Mozart which were a great revelation to him (Mozart was to remain his favorite composer).


Rossini’s career starts in earnest with his first opera La Cambiale de Matrimonia which he completed at eighteen. He already had composed ten operas by the age of twenty one when he composed his first major hit Tancredi a classic tragic opera followed during the same year by the wonderful comic L’ Italia in Algeri(The Italian Girl in Algiers). Rossini at the age of twenty three teamed up with the famed Neapolitan opera impresario Barbaia who ran the renowned San Carlo Opera and the Teatro Del Fondo to write an opera for each theatre per year. His first opera under this contract was to Elisabetta Regina del Inglhilterra (Elizabeth the Queen of England) starring Barbaia’s mistress Isabella Colbran who was eventually to become Rossini’s wife. His next opera written in 1816 was to become his most popular one the great Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). The opera caused a furor initially because Naples best known composer Paisello wrote a well known more twenty five years prior. Rossini wrote this masterpiece in a month an unbelievable accomplishment (it was written so quickly that there was no overture ready at the premiere and the one to Elisabetta was used. After the rocky premiere its fame spread rapidly throughout Europe and during the next ten years Rossini was to write at a staggering pace averaging more than two operas per year. These opera were to include Cenerentola (Cinderella) (1817), Otello (with a happy ending!)(1816), La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie) (1817) and Mose in Egitto (Moses in Egypt) (1818). La Donna del Lago (The Lady of the Lake) (1819), Maometto the Second (1820) and Semeramide (1823) .Rossini was becoming during this period a major European celebrity, Barbaia not holding any grudges over Rossini marrying his mistress Colbran set up a festival of Rossini’s works in Vienna in 1822 where he met Beethoven (ironically Rossini was far more popular at the time with the Viennese mass public who thought Beethoven was to learned and severe). In order to keep up with his astonishing pace of composition when writing new operas there was a certain amount of self borrowing from his earlier scores.


In 1823 he toured England where he had an audience with King George the Fourth and made 7,000 pounds the equivalent of somewhere around $800,000 in today’s terms. In 1824 he moved to Paris and became the director of the Italian Opera in Paris along with being the Chief composer to the French King Charles the Tenth. This made him wealthy probably beyond any composer up to that time. To celebrate his royal appointment he wrote the opera Le Voyage a Reims (The Voyage to Reims) (1825) a piece celebrating a series of meetings by European diplomats then going on in Paris. He used parts of this opera three years later when writing the more dramatically viable Le Comte Ory (The Count of Ory).In fact his next opera’s were to be re writes for the French stage, the pastiche Ivanhoe (1826), The Siege of Corinth (1827)a revamped Maometto and Moise et Pharaon (1828) a re writing of Mose in Egitto. Rossini was to summon up a heroic effort when he closed out his career as an opera composer at thirty-seven with his masterpiece the four hour five act Guillame Tell (William Tell) in 1829.


Why Rossini decided to stop writing operas at the height of his powers at thirty seven when he had thirty nine years more to live is one of the great mysteries of music history. Some felt that the limited success of William Tell embittered him. More likely Rossini wrote at a furious pace for many years and had unprecedented financial security for a composer and decided to quit. As noted the four French operas prior to William Tell were re-writes, he was already slowing down. Rossini liked to live the life elegance he was a gourmet cook, wine connoisseur and a bon vivant of Parisian society. Rossini however did not stop composing he wrote his famed Stabat Mater in the 1830’s; along with a collection of vocal pieces he entitled Soirees Musicales that includes the very amusing Duet for Two Cats. The French revolution of 1830 temporarily endangered his financial security but came to a settlement with the new king, Luis Philippe for his annuity. Rossini’s relationship with his wife Colbran was increasingly strained and he acquired a new mistress Olympe Pelissier he separated from his wife and was to marry Olympe upon the death of his first wife in 1845.From 1836 to 1848 Rossini lived in the city of his youth Bologna where he managed the cities operatic affairs. In 1848 he moved to Florence eventually returning to Paris in 1855. He took up composing again writing nine volumes of remarkable piano pieces Sins of My Old Age, some satiric, some touching that are prophetic of Satie and Debussy. Rossini was again the social lion of Paris famed for his biting wit once asked what he thought of The up and coming Wagner he admitted he had great moments but terrible quarter of hours; a young composer performed an ode his good friend famed composer Meyerbeer who had recently died commented that it would be far better if Meyerbeer had memorialized the young composer. Rossini had one more minor miracle up his sleeve when he composed his chamber Mass, Petite Messe Solenelle. Rossini had progressed from corpulence to obesity in later years and experienced various chronic conditions but he lived for the period a long life and died in his seventy seventh year on November 13th 1868.


Rossini outside of Italy was not considered generally a major composer for the first part of the past century, but a charming one who composed stirring overtures and virtuoso arias but with exception of The Barber of Seville not a composer of the first rank, this changed when after the 1940’S his operas were performed with proper musical texts and with performers who had the musical technique to perform his operas correctly. Recordings in many cases introduced us to works long unknown to the general public. Artists like Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Teresa Berganza, and Jose Carreras along with conductors like Toscanini, Gui, Giulini, Scimome, Abbado and Chailly perform these works with a great comprehension of the style and wit of the pieces. Rossini has dramatic side but his defining greatness is a wit un matched by any other composer.

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