Personalities | Gioachino Rossini | Early Romantic | Classical

(Jo-ak-ke’-no Ros-se’-ne) 1792–1868
Italian composer

Rossini dominated Italian opera during the first half of the nineteenth century, writing nearly 40 operas in less than 20 years. He established new conventions in the genre, and was the first Italian composer to abandon un­accompanied recitative in an attempt to create a more continuous flow in the music.

He also developed rhythm and repetition as structural principles in their own right, and showed wit and humour in translating emotion and action into music. The immediacy and energy of his scores, together with his facility for melodies and love of noisy effects, were criticized by some, but his supporters were equally passionate, and during the 1820s and 30s he enjoyed success throughout Europe.

It was only in the 1840s that his popularity began to fade, as audiences turned to the less formulaic, more Romantic operas of Donizetti, Bellini and Verdi. The lack of singers able to perform his virtuosic music contributed to this decline. But during the twentieth century the comic operas gained a new popularity, and, particularly in the last 20 years, the opera seria are being performed again; this is due in large part to a new generation of coloratura singers who have developed the techniques so crucial to Rossini’s style.

The Early Years

Rossini was born into a musical family, and as a boy learnt to sing and play the horn. He studied in Bologna, and at the age of 18 wrote a one-act comic opera for Venice. Further commissions followed from other northern Italian opera houses. His first works to win international success were the opera seria, Tancredi (1813), whose aria ‘Di tanti palpiti’ was reputedly sung by Venetian gondoliers, and the opera buffa L’italiana in Algeri (‘The Italian Girl in Algiers’, 1813), which displays Rossini’s taste and talent for manic pacing and farcical scenes. But L’italiana also had a serious aspect, including a patriotic number, ‘Pensa alla patria’ (‘Think of the Homeland’); this combination of moods was to characterize his later comic operas.

In 1815 Rossini moved to Naples as the director of the Teatro S Carlo, where he concentrated on writing serious opera. Otello (1816), a highly reductive and free adaptation of Shakespeare’s play, despite a mediocre libretto, was much admired by other composers, including Meyerbeer and Verdi. It combined suggestions of Venetian local colour with forceful and dramatic vocal writing, notably in Desdemona’s ‘Willow Song’ which precedes her murder in the final act. The number includes chromatic folk harmonies, ethereal orchestration and intense vocal expression, and its third act was one of the works by which Rossini wished to be remembered.

Growing Reputation

While in Naples, Rossini continued to compose for other theatres, and his most popular comedy was written in Rome during this period: Il barbiere di Siviglia (‘The Barber of Seville’, 1816). Based on Beaumarchais’ play, it featured the same characters as Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro (‘The Marriage of Figaro’,...

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