Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Life of Rossini (2)
Gioacchino Antonio Rossini
Italian opera composer
It would be difficult to persuade any one today that Rossini was a reformer of opera. But his instrumentation, excessively simple as it seems to us, was regarded, by his contemporaries, as distracting too much attention from the voices. This was one of the reasons his Semiramide was coolly received at its production in Venice, 1823.
But however simple, not to say primitive, the instrumentation of his Italian operas now strikes us, he made one great innovation in opera for which we readily can grant him recognition as a reformer. He dispensed with secco recitative, the so-called "dry" recitative, which I have mentioned as a drawback to the operatic scores of Mozart. For this Rossini substituted a more dramatic recital of the text leading up to the vocal numbers, and accompanied it with such instruments, or combinations of instruments even to full orchestra, as he considered necessary. We accept a well accompanied recitative in opera as a matter of course. But in its day it was a bold step forward, and Rossini should receive full credit for it. Indeed it will be found that nearly all composers, whose works survive in the repertoire, instead of tamely accepting the routine of workmanship in opera, as inherited from their predecessors, had ideas of their own, which they put into effect, sometimes at the temporary sacrifice of popularity. Gluck and Wagner, especially the latter, were extreme types of the musical reformer. Compared with them Rossini was mild. But his merits should be conceded, and gratefully.
Rossini often is spoken of as the "Swan of Pesaro," where he was born. His mother sang buffa roles in a traveling opera troupe, in the orchestra of which his father was a horn-player. After previous musical instruction in Bologna, he was turned over to Angelo Tesei, sang in church and afterwards travelled with his parents both as singer and accompanist, thus gaining at first hand valuable experience in matters operatic. In 1807 he entered the Liceo (conservatory) at Bologna, studying cello under Cavedagni and composition with Padre Mattei. By 1810 already he was able to bring out in Venice, and with applause, a one act comedy opera, "La Cambiale di Matrimonio." During 1812 he received commission for no less than five light operas, scoring, in 1813 with his "Tancredi" his first success in the grand manner. There was scarcely a year now that did not see a work from his pen, sometimes two, until his "Guillaume Tell" was produced in Paris, 1829. This was an entire change of style from his earlier works, possibly, however, foreshadowed by his "Comte Ory," a revision of a previous score, and produced, as was his "Tell," at the Grand Opéra.
"Guillaume Tell" not only is written to a French libretto; it is in the French style of grand opera, in which the vocal melody is less ornate and the instrumental portion of the score more carefully considered than in the Italian.
During the remaining thirty-nine years of his life not another opera did Rossini compose. He appears deliberately to have formed this resolution in 1836, after hearing "Les Huguenots" by Meyerbeer, as if he considered it useless for him to attempt to rival that composer. He resided in Bologna and Florence until 1855, then in Paris, or near there, dying at Ruelle.
He presents the strange spectacle of a successful composer of opera, who lived to be seventy-six, abruptly closing his dramatic career at thirty-seven.