Music with Ease > 19th Century Italian Opera > Life of Rossini
The Life of Gioacchino Antonio Rossini
Of necessity the change in musical taste has pushed the old Italian masters of opera into the background. But they are by no means totally neglected. Wagner has not captured all the opera-goers! There are still a vast number who recognise charm of melody and clearness of musical form, and prefer an opera in which voices and orchestra are used with discrimination and taste, neither striving for mastery over the other. In spite of great advances, many still take the view that Haydn took when he wrote:
"Let your air be good, and your composition, whatever it be, will be so likewise, and will assuredly delight. It is the soul of music, the life, the spirit, the essence of a composition. Without it theorists may succeed in discovering and using the most singular chords and combinations, but nothing is heard after all but a laboured sound, which, though it may not vex the ear, leaves the head empty and the heart cold and unaffected by it."
To those who agree with Haydn the Rossini school is always welcome. Its chief exponents, besides Rossini himself, were Donizetti and Bellini, and the surviving operas of the three may now be considered.
Gioacchino Antonio Rossini was born at Pesaro on February 29, 1792, the son of a horn-player. The leap-year advent took his humorous fancy. He counted his birthday only once in four years, and, when he was seventy-two, he facetiously invited his friends to celebrate his eighteenth birthday. He made his stage debut with an opera when he was eighteen, and had written five operas before he was twenty. When twenty-one, his "Tancredi" was produced at Venice, to achieve an instant success, and when he followed with "LItaliana in Algeri," the Italians hailed him as their greatest living opera composer. Then, in 1816, came his triumph with "Il Barbiere di Seviglia," the crown of all Italian buffo operas.
Various other works succeeded this masterpiece, including "La Gazzas Ladra" and "Semiramide" (a work of broad and noble dimensions, unjustly neglected); but it was not until 1829 that he produced "William Tell," the second of his operas which have lived. He had taken up his residence in Paris by this time, and had become "quite a Frenchman." But he had amasssed a fortune by his operas (he made £7000 during a single visit to London), and though he was only thirty-seven when he wrote "Tell," he grew lazy, and for the remaining years of his life wrote nothing of any importance but his famous "Stabat Mater." He spoke of himself as having "a passion for idleness." After 1836 he withdrew to Italy. The insurrection of 1848 troubled him, and he had to escape from the insurgents to Florence. In 1853 he returned to Paris, where he lived till his death in 1868.
Rossini was a great humorist, and his bon mots are legion. Like Ruskin, he hated railways, and used a caravan. He was fat as Falstaff, a prodigious snuffer, and wore a wig. Amateur composers constantly worried him, and he did not bear them gladly. One such sent him the MS. of his latest composition, accompanied by a Stilton cheese, of which he knew Rossini to be fond. He hoped, of course, for a letter praising the work. The letter came, but all it said was: "Thanks, I like the cheese very much." Rossini had a fastidious palate, and declared that he could himself cook rice and macaroni better than any one he knew. It was his joke to say that he and Meyerbeer could never agree because Meyerbeer liked sauerkraut better than macaroni.
He had scant respect for most of his brother composers. He seldom went to the Opera, but he went once to hear "Tannhauser," and when asked his opinion of it, said: "It is too important and elaborate to be judged after a single hearing, but I shall not give it a second." Somebody once handed him the score of another Wagner music-drama, and presently remarked that he was holding the music upside down. "Well," he replied, "I have already read it the other way, and am trying this, as I can make nothing of it." He conceived the idea that Meyerbeer did not like him, and meeting his brother composer one day, he laid off a long catalogue of his (Rossinis) physical ills, declaring he felt sure he had not long to live. After they parted, a friend who had been with Rossini remonstrated with him for his levity. "Well," he said, "it is every good mans duty to contribute to the peace and comfort of his fellow-man; and you know nothing would delight Meyerbeer more than to hear of my early decease."
Such was the composer of "The Barber" and "Tell." He had a tremendous vogue at one period, and even overshadowed Beethoven. The number of his operas, mostly forgotten now, is prodigious. But the fever long raged. Of thirteen operas performed at the Kings Theatre, London, in 1826, eight were by Rossini. All over Europe Rossini was conqueror -- in popularity the Wagner of his time.