Classical Music III: Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868)

I really am not a Rossini fan, but I include him here because of his importance in the development of bel canto opera. The trinity of great bel canto composers are Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini. As my tastes have evolved, I find myself avoiding the entire bel canto genre absent a singer that compels attendance or the rare opera of true genius from this genre (such as Lucia). These composers largely looked backwards, to Figaro, rather than picking up where Mozart left off with Don Giovanni.

Rossini is the rare composer to have retired in mid-career. Rossini’s operas were largely composed between 1812 and 1829, ending just before the Romantic Period began (at least according to me). But he would live for nearly another 40 years, during which time he composed next to nothing. What caused his withdrawal? That mystery has never been fully explained. Ill-health is prominently mentioned, but the man lived another 40 years. Was he simply out of ideas? That seems inconsistent with Rossini’s talent, both for technical composition and his all to rare ability to conjure memorable tunes. Perhaps he just got caught out by changing tastes (or the changing French regime after yet another revolution).

Although some like to paint Rossini as a Romantic, his music is fundamentally classical and Rossini’s decision to call it quits in 1830 is telling. The Romantic Period did not emerge overnight, but the first city is consumed was surely Paris in 1830, exactly where Rossini was living at the time. My view is that he could see the way the winds were blowing and they were blowing away from his aesthetic–the grand operas of Giacomo Meyerbeer were now garnering the rave reviews. So instead of evolving as a composer, he simply laid down his quill, buttressed by a small fortune he had earned and returned to Italy.

So, on to the music. First up is a song that you know as well as I do. It comes at the start of Il Barbiere di Siviglia when we first meet Figaro—before he became the Duke’s butler in Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro, he was a simple barber plying his trade and seducing the ladies. The baritone Peter Mattei is the best I’ve seen in this role.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Largo al Factotum:

Did Rossini flirt with Romanticism? Sure. Here’s a popular and great example: The Overture from his William Tell.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Guillaume Tell: Overture

As we will see next week, bel canto soldiered on without Rossini at its head, existing somewhere between the classical and the romantic. Where would Rossini have taken his music in this new era? Unlike Mozart, we actually do have some music to give us some clues.

Before leaving for his self-imposed exile, Rossini completed a Stabat Mater, which owes more than a few debts to Pergolesi’s version.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Stabat Mater:

Late in life, Rossini returned to Paris, holding weekly salons for which he composed original songs. Rossini, laying bare his influences, personally chose all the other music to be presented at the salon–the works of Mozart, Haydn and Pergolesi most notably among them. Many of the great and thte good of the music world attended these salons–Liszt and Gounod were frequent attendees, the former praising Rossini’s skill at the piano. He also composed a final mass–the Petite Messe Solenelle, which is perhpas our best guide as to what Rossini would have sounded like in the Romantic Period–that is with at least one foot firmly planted in the past.

Gioacchino Antonio Rossini, Petite Messe Solenelle

Mozart died at 35; Rossini essentially stopped composing at 37, while living into his mid 70s. The gods are cruel indeed.

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