Gioachino Antonio Rossini[n 1] (Italian: [dʒoaˈkiːno anˈtɔːnjo rosˈsiːni](listen); 29 February 1792 – 13 November 1868) was an Italian composer who gained fame for his 39 operas, although he also wrote many songs, some chamber music and piano pieces, and some sacred music. He set new standards for both comic and serious opera before retiring from large-scale composition while still in his thirties, at the height of his popularity.
Born in Pesaro to parents who were both musicians (his father a trumpeter, his mother a singer), Rossini began to compose by the age of 12 and was educated at music school in Bologna. His first opera was performed in Venice in 1810 when he was 18 years old. In 1815 he was engaged to write operas and manage theatres in Naples. In the period 1810–1823 he wrote 34 operas for the Italian stage that were performed in Venice, Milan, Ferrara, Naples and elsewhere; this productivity necessitated an almost formulaic approach for some components (such as overtures) and a certain amount of self-borrowing. During this period he produced his most popular works including the comic operas L'italiana in Algeri, Il barbiere di Siviglia (known in English as The Barber of Seville) and La Cenerentola, which brought to a peak the opera buffa tradition he inherited from masters such as Domenico Cimarosa. He also composed opera seria works such as Otello, Tancredi and Semiramide. All of these attracted admiration for their innovation in melody, harmonic and instrumental colour, and dramatic form. In 1824 he was contracted by the Opéra in Paris, for which he produced an opera to celebrate the coronation of Charles X, Il viaggio a Reims (later cannibalised for his first opera in French, Le comte Ory), revisions of two of his Italian operas, Le siège de Corinthe and Moïse, and in 1829 his last opera, Guillaume Tell.
Rossini's withdrawal from opera for the last 40 years of his life has never been fully explained; contributary factors may have been ill-health, the wealth his success had brought him, and the rise of spectacular Grand Opera under composers such as Giacomo Meyerbeer. From the early 1830s to 1855, when he left Paris and was based in Bologna, Rossini wrote relatively little. On his return to Paris in 1855 he became renowned for his musical salons on Saturdays, regularly attended by musicians and the artistic and fashionable circles of Paris, for which he wrote the entertaining pieces Péchés de vieillesse. Guests included Franz Liszt, Anton Rubinstein, Giuseppe Verdi, Meyerbeer and Joseph Joachim. Rossini's last major composition was his Petite messe solennelle (1863). He died in Paris in 1868.
Rossini was born in 1792 in Pesaro, a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy that was then part of the Papal States. He was the only child of Giuseppe Rossini, a trumpeter and horn player, and his wife Anna, née Guidarini, a seamstress by trade, daughter of a baker. Giuseppe Rossini was charming but impetuous and feckless; the burden of supporting the family and raising the child fell mainly on Anna, with some help from her mother and mother-in-law.Stendhal, who published a colourful biography of Rossini in 1824, wrote:
Rossini's portion from his father, was the true native heirship of an Italian: a little music, a little religion, and a volume of Ariosto. The rest of his education was consigned to the legitimate school of southern youth, the society of his mother, the young singing girls of the company, those prima donnas in embryo, and the gossips of every village through which they passed. This was aided and refined by the musical barber and news-loving coffee-house keeper of the Papal village.[n 2]
Giuseppe was imprisoned at least twice: first in 1790 for insubordination to local authorities in a dispute about his employment as town trumpeter; and in 1799 and 1800 for republican activism and support of the troops of Napoleon against the Pope's Austrian backers. In 1798, when Rossini was aged six, his mother began a career as a professional singer in comic opera, and for a little over a decade was a considerable success in cities including Trieste and Bologna, before her untrained voice began to fail.
In 1802 the family moved to Lugo, near Ravenna, where Rossini received a good basic education in Italian, Latin and arithmetic as well as music. He studied the horn with his father and other music with a priest, Giuseppe Malerbe, whose extensive library contained works by Haydn and Mozart, both little known in Italy at the time, but inspirational to the young Rossini. He was a quick learner, and by the age of twelve he had composed a set of six sonatas for four stringed instruments, which were performed under the aegis of a rich patron in 1804.[n 3] Two years later he was admitted to the recently opened Liceo Musicale, Bologna, initially studying singing, cello and piano, and joining the composition class soon afterwards. He wrote some substantial works while a student, including a mass and a cantata, and after two years he was invited to continue his studies. He declined the offer: the strict academic regime of the Liceo had given him a solid compositional technique, but as his biographer Richard Osborne puts it, "his instinct to continue his education in the real world finally asserted itself".
While still at the Liceo, Rossini had performed in public as a singer and worked in theatres as a répétiteur and keyboard soloist. In 1810 at the request of the popular tenor Domenico Mombelli he wrote his first operatic score, a two-act operatic dramma serio, Demetrio e Polibio, to a libretto by Mombelli's wife. It was publicly staged in 1812, after the composer's first successes. Rossini and his parents concluded that his future lay in composing operas. The main operatic centre in north eastern Italy was Venice; under the tutelage of the composer Giovanni Morandi, a family friend, Rossini moved there in late 1810, when he was eighteen.
First operas: 1810–1815
Rossini's first opera to be staged was La cambiale di matrimonio,[n 4] a one-act comedy, given at the small Teatro San Moisè in November 1810. The piece was a great success, and Rossini received what then seemed to him a considerable sum: "forty scudi – an amount I had never seen brought together". He later described the San Moisè as an ideal theatre for a young composer learning his craft – "everything tended to facilitate the début of a novice composer": it had no chorus, and a small company of principals; its main repertoire consisted of one-act comic operas (farse), staged with modest scenery and minimal rehearsal. Rossini followed the success of his first piece with three more farse for the house: L'inganno felice (1812),[n 5]La scala di seta (1812),[n 6] and Il signor Bruschino (1813).
Rossini maintained his links with Bologna, where in 1811 he had a success directing Haydn's The Seasons, and a failure with his first full-length opera, L'equivoco stravagante.[n 7] He also worked for opera houses in Ferrara and Rome. In mid-1812 he received a commission from La Scala, Milan, where his two-act comedy La pietra del paragone[n 8] ran for fifty-three performances, a considerable run for the time, which brought him not only financial benefits, but exemption from military service and the title of maestro di cartello – a composer whose name on advertising posters guaranteed a full house. The following year his first opera seria, Tancredi, did well at La Fenice in Venice, and even better at Ferrara, with a rewritten, tragic ending. The success of Tancredi made Rossini's name known internationally; productions of the opera followed in London (1820) and New York (1825). Within weeks of Tancredi, Rossini had another box-office success with his comedy L'italiana in Algeri,[n 9] composed in great haste and premiered in May 1813.
1814 was a less remarkable year for the rising composer, neither Il turco in Italia[n 10] or Sigismondo pleasing the Milanese or Venetian public, respectively. 1815 marked an important stage in Rossini's career. In May he moved to Naples, to take up the post of director of music for the royal theatres. These included the Teatro di San Carlo, the city's leading opera house; its manager Domenico Barbaia was to be an important influence on the composer's career there.
The musical establishment of Naples was not immediately welcoming to Rossini, who was seen as an intruder into its cherished operatic traditions. The city had once been the operatic capital of Europe; the memory of Cimarosa was revered and Paisiello was still living, but there were no local composers of any stature to follow them, and Rossini quickly won the public and critics round. Rossini's first work for the San Carlo, Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra[n 11] was a dramma per musica in two acts, in which he reused substantial sections of his earlier works, unfamiliar to the local public. The Rossini scholars Philip Gossett and Patricia Brauner write, "It is as if Rossini wished to present himself to the Neapolitan public by offering a selection of the best music from operas unlikely to be revived in Naples." The new opera was received with tremendous enthusiasm, as was the Neapolitan premiere of L'italiana in Algeri, and Rossini's position in Naples was assured.
For the first time, Rossini was able to write regularly for a resident company of first-rate singers and a fine orchestra, with adequate rehearsals, and schedules that made it unnecessary to compose in a rush to meet deadlines. Between 1815 and 1822 he composed eighteen more operas: nine for Naples and nine for opera houses in other cities. In 1816, for the Teatro Argentina in Rome, he composed the opera that was to become his best-known: Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). There was already a popular opera of that title by Paisiello, and Rossini's version was originally given the same title as its hero, Almaviva.[n 12] Despite an unsuccessful opening night, with mishaps on stage and many pro-Paisiello and anti-Rossini audience members, the opera quickly became a success, and by the time of its first revival, in Bologna a few months later, it was billed by its present Italian title, and rapidly eclipsed Paisiello's setting.[n 13]
Rossini kept his personal life as private as possible, but he was known for his susceptibility to singers in the companies he worked with. Among his lovers in his early years were Ester Mombelli (Domenico's daughter) and Maria Marcolini of the Bologna company. By far the most important of these relationships – both personal and professional – was with Isabella Colbran, prima donna of the Teatro San Carlo (and former mistress of Barbaia). Rossini had heard her sing in Bologna in 1807, and when he moved to Naples he wrote a succession of important roles for her in opere serie.
Vienna and London: 1820–1824
By the early 1820s Rossini was beginning to tire of Naples. The failure of his operatic tragedy Ermione the previous year convinced him that he and the Neapolitan audiences had had enough of each other. An insurrection in Naples against the monarchy, though quickly crushed, unsettled Rossini; when Barbaia signed a contract to take the company to Vienna, Rossini was glad to join them, but did not reveal to Barbaia that he had no intention of returning to Naples afterwards. He travelled with Colbran, in March 1822, breaking their journey at Bologna, where they were married in the presence of his parents in a small church in Castenaso a few miles from the city. The bride was thirty-seven, the groom thirty.[n 15]
In Vienna, Rossini received a hero's welcome; his biographers describe it as "unprecedentedly feverish enthusiasm", "Rossini fever", and "near hysteria". The authoritarian chancellor of the Austrian Empire, Metternich, liked Rossini's music, and thought it free of all potential revolutionary or republican associations. He was therefore happy to permit the San Carlo company to perform the composer's operas. In a three-month season they played six of them, to audiences so enthusiastic that Beethoven's assistant, Anton Schindler, described it as "an idolatrous orgy".
While in Vienna Rossini heard Beethoven's Eroica symphony, and was so moved that he determined to meet the reclusive composer. He finally managed to do so, and later described the encounter to many people, including Eduard Hanslick and Richard Wagner. He recalled that although conversation was hampered by Beethoven's deafness and Rossini's ignorance of German, Beethoven made it plain that he thought Rossini's talents were not for serious opera, and that "above all" he should "do more Barbiere" (Barbers).[n 16]
After the Vienna season Rossini returned to Castenaso to work with his librettist, Gaetano Rossi, on Semiramide, commissioned by La Fenice. It was premiered in February 1823, his last work for the Italian theatre. Colbran starred, but it was clear to everyone that her voice was in serious decline, and Semiramide ended her career in Italy. The work survived that one major disadvantage, and entered the international operatic repertory, remaining popular throughout the 19th century; in Richard Osborne's words, it brought "[Rossini's] Italian career to a spectacular close."
In November 1823 Rossini and Colbran set off for London, where a lucrative contract had been offered. They stopped for four weeks en route in Paris. Although he was not as feverishly acclaimed by the Parisians as he had been in Vienna, he nevertheless had an exceptionally welcoming reception from the musical establishment and the public. When he attended a performance of Il barbiere at the Théâtre-Italien he was applauded, dragged onto the stage, and serenaded by the musicians. A banquet was given for him and his wife, attended by leading French composers and artists, and he found the cultural climate of Paris congenial.
Once in England, Rossini was received and made much of by the king, George IV, although the composer was by now unimpressed by royalty and aristocracy. Rossini and Colbran had signed contracts for an opera season at the King's Theatre in the Haymarket. Her vocal shortcomings were a serious liability, and she reluctantly retired from performing. Public opinion was not improved by Rossini's failure to provide a new opera, as promised. The impresario, Vincenzo Benelli, defaulted on his contract with the composer, but this was not known to the London press and public, who blamed Rossini.
In a 2003 biography of the composer, Gaia Servadio comments that Rossini and England were not made for each other. He was prostrated by the Channel crossing, and was unlikely to be enthused by the English weather or English cooking. Although his stay in London was financially rewarding – the British press reported disapprovingly that he had earned over £30,000[n 17] – he was happy to sign a contract at the French embassy in London to return to Paris, where he had felt much more at home.
Paris and final operas: 1824–1829
Rossini's new, and highly remunerative, contract with the French government was negotiated under Louis XVIII, who died in September 1824, soon after Rossini's arrival in Paris. It had been agreed that the composer would produce one grand opera for the Académie Royale de Musique and either an opera buffa or an opera semiseria for the Théâtre-Italien. He was also to help run the latter theatre and revise one of his earlier works for revival there. The death of the king and the accession of Charles X changed Rossini's plans, and his first new work for Paris was Il viaggio a Reims,[n 18] an operatic entertainment given in June 1825 to celebrate Charles's coronation. It was Rossini's last opera with an Italian libretto. He permitted only four performances of the piece,[n 19] intending to reuse the best of the music in a less ephemeral opera. About half the score of Le comte Ory (1828) is from the earlier work.
Colbran's enforced retirement put a strain on the Rossinis' marriage, leaving her unoccupied while he continued to be the centre of musical attention and constantly in demand. She consoled herself with what Servadio describes as "a new pleasure in shopping"; for Rossini, Paris offered continual gourmet delights, as his increasingly rotund shape began to reflect.[n 20]
The first of the four operas Rossini wrote to French librettos were Le siège de Corinthe[n 21] (1826) and Moïse et Pharaon[n 22] (1827). Both were substantial reworkings of pieces written for Naples: Maometto II and Mosè in Egitto. Rossini took great care before beginning work on the first, learning to speak French and familiarising himself with traditional French operatic ways of declaiming the language. As well as dropping some of the original music that was in an ornate style unfashionable in Paris, Rossini accommodated local preferences by adding dances, hymn-like numbers and a greater role for the chorus.
Rossini's mother, Anna, died in 1827; he had been devoted to her, and he felt her loss deeply. She and Colbran had never got on well, and Servadio suggests that after Anna died Rossini came to resent the surviving woman in his life.
In 1828 Rossini wrote Le comte Ory, his only French-language comic opera. His determination to reuse music from Il viaggio a Reims caused problems for his librettists, who had to adapt their original plot and write French words to fit existing Italian numbers, but the opera was a success, and was seen in London within six months of the Paris premiere, and in New York in 1831. The following year Rossini wrote his long-awaited French grand opera, Guillaume Tell, based on Friedrich Schiller's 1804 play which drew on the William Tell legend.
Early retirement: 1830–1855
Guillaume Tell was well received. The orchestra and singers gathered outside Rossini's house after the premiere and performed the rousing finale to the second act in his honour. The newspaper Le Globe commented that a new era of music had begun.Gaetano Donizetti remarked that the first and last acts of the opera were written by Rossini, but the middle act was written by God. The work was an undoubted success, without being a smash hit; the public took some time in getting to grips with it, and some singers found it too demanding. It nonetheless was produced abroad within months of the premiere,[n 23] and there was no suspicion that it would be the composer's last opera.
Jointly with Semiramide, Guillaume Tell is Rossini's longest opera, at three hours and forty-five minutes, and the effort of composing it left him exhausted. Although within a year he was planning an operatic treatment of the Faust story, events and ill health overtook him. After the opening of Guillaume Tell the Rossinis had left Paris and were staying in Castenaso. Within a year events in Paris had Rossini hurrying back. Charles X was overthrown in a revolution in July 1830, and the new administration, headed by Louis Philippe I, announced radical cutbacks in government spending. Among the cuts was Rossini's lifetime annuity, won after hard negotiation with the previous regime. Attempting to restore the annuity was one of Rossini's reasons for returning. The other was to be with his new mistress, Olympe Pélissier. He left Colbran in Castenaso; she never returned to Paris and they never lived together again.
The reasons for Rossini's withdrawal from opera have been continually discussed during and since his lifetime. Some have supposed that aged thirty-seven and in variable health, having negotiated a sizeable annuity from the French government, and having written thirty-nine operas, he simply planned to retire and kept to that plan. In a 1934 study of the composer, the critic Francis Toye coined the phrase "The Great Renunciation", and called Rossini's retirement a "phenomenon unique in the history of music and difficult to parallel in the whole history of art":
Is there any other artist who thus deliberately, in the very prime of life, renounced that form of artistic production which had made him famous throughout the civilized world?
The poet Heine compared Rossini's retirement with Shakespeare's withdrawal from writing: two geniuses recognising when they had accomplished the unsurpassable and not seeking to follow it.[n 24] Others, then and later, suggested that Rossini had retired because of pique at the successes of Giacomo Meyerbeer and Fromental Halévy in the genre of grand opéra.[n 25] Modern Rossini scholarship has generally discounted such theories, maintaining that Rossini had no intention of renouncing operatic composition, and that circumstances rather than personal choice made Guillaume Tell his last opera. Gossett and Richard Osborne suggest that illness may have been a major factor in Rossini's retirement. From about this time, Rossini had intermittent bad health, both physical and mental. He had contracted gonorrhoea in earlier years, which later led to painful side-effects, from urethritis to arthritis; he suffered from bouts of debilitating depression, which commentators have linked to several possible causes: cyclothymia, or bipolar disorder, or reaction to his mother's death.[n 26]
For the next twenty-five years following Guillaume Tell Rossini composed little, although Gossett comments that his comparatively few compositions from the 1830s and 1840s show no falling-off in musical inspiration. They include the Soirées musicales (1830–1835: a set of twelve songs for solo or duet voices and piano) and his Stabat Mater (begun in 1831 and completed in 1841).[n 27] After winning his fight with the government over his annuity in 1835 Rossini left Paris and settled in Bologna. His return to Paris in 1843 for medical treatment by Jean Civiale sparked hopes that he might produce a new grand opera – it was rumoured that Eugène Scribe was preparing a libretto for him about Joan of Arc. The Opéra was moved to present a French version of Otello in 1844 which also included material from some of the composer's earlier operas. It is unclear to what extent – if at all – Rossini was involved with this production, which was in the event poorly received. More controversial was the pasticcio opera of Robert Bruce (1846), in which Rossini, by then returned to Bologna, closely cooperated by selecting music from his past operas which had not yet been performed in Paris, notably La donna del lago. The Opéra sought to present Robert as a new Rossini opera. But although Othello could at least claim to be genuine, canonic, Rossini, the historian Mark Everist notes that detractors argued that Robert was simply "fake goods, and from a bygone era at that"; he cites Théophile Gautier regretting that "the lack of unity could have been masked by a superior performance; unfortunately the tradition of Rossini's music was lost at the Opéra a long time ago."
The period after 1835 saw Rossini's formal separation from his wife, who remained at Castenaso (1837), and the death of his father at the age of eighty (1839). In 1845 Colbran became seriously ill, and in September Rossini travelled to visit her; a month later she died. The following year Rossini and Pélissier were married in Bologna. The events of the Year of Revolution in 1848 led Rossini to move away from the Bologna area, where he felt threatened by insurrection, and to make Florence his base, which it remained until 1855.
By the early 1850s Rossini's mental and physical health had deteriorated to the point where his wife and friends feared for his sanity or his life. By the middle of the decade it was clear that he needed to return to Paris for the most advanced medical care then available. In April 1855 the Rossinis set off for their final journey from Italy to France. Rossini returned to Paris aged sixty-three and made it his home for the rest of his life.
Sins of old age: 1855–1868
I offer these modest songs to my dear wife Olympe as a simple testimony of gratitude for the affectionate, intelligent care which she lavished on me during my overlong and terrible illness.
Gossett observes that although an account of Rossini's life between 1830 and 1855 makes depressing reading, it is "no exaggeration to say that, in Paris, Rossini returned to life". He recovered his health and joie de vivre. Once settled in Paris he maintained two homes: a flat in the rue de la Chaussée-d'Antin, a smart central area, and a neo-classical villa built for him in Passy, a commune now absorbed into the city, but then semi-rural. He and his wife established a salon that became internationally famous. The first of their Saturday evening gatherings – the samedi soirs – was held in December 1858, and the last, two months before he died in 1868.2007
Rossini in 1865
Rossini began composing again. His music from his final decade was not generally intended for public performance, and he did not usually put dates of composition on the manuscripts. Consequently, musicologists have found it difficult to give definite dates for his late works, but the first, or among the first, was the song cycle Musique anodine, dedicated to his wife and presented to her in April 1857. For their weekly salons he produced more than 150 pieces, including songs, solo piano pieces, and chamber works for many different combinations of instruments. He referred to them as his Péchés de vieillesse – "sins of old age". The salons were held both at Beau Séjour – the Passy villa – and, in the winter, at the Paris flat. Such gatherings were a regular feature of Parisian life – the writer James Penrose has observed that the well-connected could easily attend different salons almost every night of the week – but the Rossinis' samedi soirs quickly became the most sought after: "an invitation was the city's highest social prize." The music, carefully chosen by Rossini, was not only his own, but included works by Pergolesi, Haydn and Mozart and modern pieces by some of his guests. Among the composers who attended the salons, and sometimes performed, were Auber, Gounod, Liszt, Rubinstein, Meyerbeer and Verdi. Rossini liked to call himself a fourth-class pianist, but the many famous pianists who attended the samedi soirs were dazzled by his playing. Violinists such as Pablo Sarasate and Joseph Joachim, and the leading singers of the day were regular guests. In 1860, Wagner visited Rossini via an introduction from Rossini's friend Edmond Michotte who some forty-five years later wrote his account of the genial conversation between the two composers.[n 28]
After a short illness, and an unsuccessful operation to treat colorectal cancer, Rossini died at Passy on 13 November 1868 at the age of seventy-six. He left Olympe a life interest in his estate, which after her death, ten years later, passed to the Commune of Pesaro for the establishment of a Liceo Musicale, and funded a home for retired opera singers in Paris. After a funeral service attended by more than four thousand people at the church of Sainte-Trinité, Paris, Rossini's body was interred at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. In 1887 his remains were moved to the church of Santa Croce, Florence.