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Gioacchino Rossini: Italian Master Composer

Updated on May 1, 2015

Photograph of the Italian Composer Gioacchino Rossini

"Rossini 7" by Anonymous photographer - Ransom Humanities Research Center, The Univ. of Texas at Austin. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rossini_7.jpg#/media/File:Rossini_7.jpg
"Rossini 7" by Anonymous photographer - Ransom Humanities Research Center, The Univ. of Texas at Austin. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rossini_7.jpg#/media/File:Rossini_7.jpg | Source

Gioacchino Rossini, Composer of "Quintessential" Italian Music

In his famous biography of Rossini, the renowned French author Stendhal wrote that Rossini's music is quintessentially Italian. Gaiety and simplicity are the main characteristics of Rossini's compositions. He reflects the Latin spirit in his music, light and carefree under an azure Italian sky. Rossini's The Barber of Seville is a master work in the light, comic opera genre called opera buffa. It is based on the French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais' work known as Le barbier de Seville and serves as a prequel to Mozart's composition of The Marriage of Figaro, which premiered in Vienna in 1786.

Some Famous Operas by Gioacchino Rossini

  • L'Italiana in Algeri
  • Sigismondo
  • Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville)
  • Semiramide

These are just four of his most well-known operas. He was a prolific composer. (It's said that it only took him 12 days to compose The Barber of Seville!) In all, he composed over forty (40) operas in his career. And that does not even take his cantatas or sonatas into consideration!

Gioacchino Rossini's Musical Genius

The genius of Rossini's music lies in its spontaneity. His orchestrations and the arias he composed reflect the heady love of liberty that prevailed in Italy in his lifetime. In fact, Rossini's music dominated the theater for the full first half of the 19th century. In that time period, the Italian peninsula was experiencing a political reawakening of national sentiment; the Italian population aspired to liberty and independence. (Note: Italy finally became a nation - as we define nations today - in 1861, with what is known as the Unification.) He was a very innovative composer and his works demand much effort and agility from singers and musicians alike.

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Cartoon Satirizing Rossini's Manic Use of Crescendo

By H. Mailly, Le Hanneton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By H. Mailly, Le Hanneton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

Rossini: Innovator and Father of the Bel Canto

Gioacchino Rossini was a classical composer. His compositions exhibit the values inherent in Classical music: balance, symmetry, clarity, simplicity, formal grace and elegance. However, he was also an innovator. His compositions require bravura performances from the singers, which are difficult to achieve if the singer is not vocally agile and robust. Why? Because he embellished his melodies, which is the hallmark of the Bel canto, a type of music invested with classical values but also rife with florid embellishments. The Bel canto is aptly considered the bridge between the Classical (from about 1750 to about 1830) and the Romantic (from about 1830 to about 1910) periods of music. Rossini went even further in his innovations, by animating his ensembles and his finales and by using unusual rhythms. He believed the orchestra was a central part of the opera and his compositions bring the orchestra back to what Rossini considered was its rightful place of honor. And in his position as composer at La Scala, he began to use (and later to overuse) his signature crescendo.

Gioacchino Rossini, Child Prodigy from a Musical Family

Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - whom Rossini admired so much people called him "Il tedeschino" (the little German) - Rossini was also a child prodigy. But, even if he had not been born a musical genius, he was destined to be a musician. His mother, Anna, was a singer on stage, although she had not had formal training. His father, Giuseppe, was the official trumpeter of the town of Pesaro, a port on the Adriatic Sea, where Gioacchino was born on February 29, 1792 (five months after Giuseppe and Anna were married). Rossini's father also played in the band for the productions in which Anna sang. The entire family traveled often because Anna maintained her career. This was a good thing also because at times Giuseppe, Rossini's father, would lose his job. There were tensions between different invaders on the Italian peninsula at this time. On the eastern coast, where Pesaro is located (in the region of the Marches), the Church (called the Papal States at the time) and France (under Napoleon) were the two forces most involved in these political tensions. Rossini's father would be financially stable (i.e., he had his position) when the Napoleonic French regime was in control of the region...and would lose his job when the Papal States would be in power. As he entered adolescence, Rossini also began to work. At the age of 12, he earned some money by singing in churches.

Rossini's Childhood Homes: Pesaro and Bologna

show route and directions
A markerPesaro, Italy -
Pesaro PU, Italy
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B markerAccademia Filarmonica, Bologna, Italy -
Accademia Filarmonica di Bologna, Via Guerrazzi, 13, 40125 Bologna, Italy
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Gioacchino Rossini: Following in Mozart's Footsteps

As I mentioned above, Rossini greatly admired Wolfgang Amedeus Mozart. And it seems Rossini followed in his idol's footsteps, thanks to his family moving to Bologna - home to the oldest, first university in all of Europe - in order to ensure that he received a challenging, rigorous education. His teacher and mentor in Bologna was Padre Angelo Tesei (whose own teacher and mentor had been instrumental in getting young Mozart appointed to the Accademia Filarmonica of Bologna in the 1700s). Rossini was young too; he was only 14 years old when he was given the honor of being appointed to this prestigious musical society. Thanks to his teacher, Padre Tesei, Rossini was admitted to the Liceo Musicale in 1806. While he studied, he also worked as a figured bass (also called continuo) and keyboard (for rehearsals) player in local opera theaters. His position was maestro al cembalo - which is a fancy term for rehearsal musician.

La Scala Opera Theater, Milan, Italy

By Francisco Anzola (La Scala) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
By Francisco Anzola (La Scala) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons | Source

Rossini's Career Skyrockets

Rossini composed his first opera buffa between 1809-1810. It was called La cambiale di matrimonio (The Bill of Marriage) and was written on commission from an opera theater in Venice where friends of Rossini's parents were appearing. It premiered in Venice's Teatro San Moisè to some success. However, his voice was innovative and, as I stated before, his compositions tended to be demanding for singers. His unusual orchestrations made the singers a bit indignant. However, he wound up composing five more operas for this company. Soon, a singer who had sung in Rossini's operas and was interested in promoting his career recommended Rossini to La Scala, which put him under contract.

Gioacchino Rossini: Opera's Superstar Composer

In his heyday, Gioacchino Rossini was a superstar composer. As female fans did with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones in the 60s, they equally called out Rossini's name in the streets and mobbed him often, looking for an autograph or even a lock of hair. Although he composed many other types of music, and even some opera seria, or serious, dramatic opera, the popularity of his light comic operas was such that he became forced to continue in this form. And he was prolific: he composed about forty operas in only 20 years. He married an opera singer of great fame in his day, Isabella Coltran, and moved with her to Paris, where he was received as the major celebrity he was. But, at the age of 37, he decided not to write for the theater again after the success of his last opera, Guillaume Tell (William Tell). He retired a very rich man and lived a life adequate to his means. He still wrote, but he composed music that he loved, such as the religious cantate like the Stabat Mater (1832). His first wife died in 1845 and he remarried a Frenchwoman, Olympe. Together at their villa in Passy, they gave gourmet dinners and enjoyed society life. In fact, Rossini was also known as quite a wit!

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