Gioacchino Antonio Rossini (February 29, 1792 — November 13, 1868) was an Italian musical composer who wrote more than 30 operas as well as sacred music and chamber music. His best known works include Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), and 'Guillaume Tell' William Tell (the overture of which is popularly known for being the theme song for The Lone Ranger).
Rossini was born into a family of musicians in Pesaro, a small town on the Adriatic coast of Italy. His father Giuseppe was town trumpeter and inspector of slaughterhouses, his mother Anna a singer and baker's daughter. Rossini's parents began his musical training early, and by the age of six he was playing the triangle in his father's band.
Rossini's father was sympathetic to the French, and welcomed Napoleon's troops when they arrived in Northern Italy. This became a problem when in 1796, the Austrians restored the old regime. Rossini's father was sent to prison, and his wife took Gioacchino to Bologna, earning her living as lead singer at various theatres of the Romagna region, where she was ultimately joined by her husband. During this time, Gioacchino was frequently left in the care of his aging grandmother, who was unable to effectively control the boy.
Gioacchino remained at Bologna in the care of a pork butcher, while his father played the horn in the bands of the theatres at which his mother sang. The boy had three years instruction in the harpsichord from Prinetti of Novara, but Prinetti played the scale with two fingers only, combined his profession of a musician with the business of selling liquor, and fell asleep while he stood, so that he was a fit subject for ridicule by his critical pupil.
Gioacchino was taken from Prinetti and apprenticed to a smith. In Angelo Tesei he found a congenial master, and learned to sight-read, to play accompaniments on the pianoforte, and to sing well enough to take solo parts in the church when he was ten years of age. At thirteen he appeared at the theatre of the Commune in Paër’s Camilla — his only public appearance as a singer (1805). He was also a capable horn player in the footsteps of his father.
In 1807 the young Rossini was admitted to the counterpoint class of Padre P. S. Mattei, and soon after to that of Cavedagni for the cello at the Conservatorio of Bologna. He learned to play the cello with ease, but the pedantic severity of Mattei's views on counterpoint only served to drive the young composer's views toward a freer school of composition. His insight into orchestral resources is generally ascribed not to the teaching strict compositional rules he learned from Mattei, but to knowledge gained independently while scoring the quartets and symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. At Bologna he was known as 'il Tedeschino' on account of his devotion to Mozart.
Through the friendly interposition of the Marquis Cavalli, his first opera, La Cambiale di Matrimonio, was produced at Venice when he was a youth of eighteen. But two years before this he had already received the prize at the Conservatorio of Bologna for his cantata Il piantô d'armonia per la morte d’Orfeo. Between 1810 and 1813, at Bologna, Rome, Venice and Milan, Rossini produced operas of varying success. All memory of these works is eclipsed by the enormous success of his opera Tancredi.
The libretto was an arrangement of Voltaire’s tragedy by A. Rossi. Traces of Paër and Paisiello were undeniably present in fragments of the music. But any critical feeling on the part of the public was drowned by appreciation of such melodies as 'Mi rivedrai, ti rivèdrô' and 'Di tanti palpiti,' the former of which became so popular that the Italians would sing it in crowds at the law courts until called upon by the judge to desist.
Rossini continued to write operas for Venice and Milan during the next few years, but their reception was tame and in some cases unsatisfactory after the success of Tancredi. In 1815 he retired to his home at Bologna, where Barbaja, the impresario of the Naples theatre, concluded an agreement with him by which he was to take the musical direction of the Teatro San Carlo and the Teatro Del Fondo at Naples, composing for each of them one opera a year. His payment was to be 200 ducats per month; he was also to receive a share of Barbaja's other business, popular gaming-tables, amounting to about 1000 ducats per annum.
Some older composers in Naples, notably Zingarelli and Paisiello, were inclined to intrigue against the success of the youthful composer; but all hostility was made futile by the enthusiasm which greeted the court performance of his Elisabetta regina d'Inghilterra, in which Isabella Colbran, who subsequently became the composer’s wife, took a leading part. The libretto of this opera by Schmidt was in many of its incidents an anticipation of those presented to the world a few years later in Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth. The opera was the first in which Rossini wrote the ornaments of the airs instead of leaving them to the fancy of the singers, and also the first in which the recitativo secco was replaced by a recitative accompanied by a string quartet.
In Il Barbiere di Siviglia, produced in the beginning of the next year in Rome, the libretto, a version of Beaumarchais' Barbier de Seville by Sterbini, was the same as that already used by Giovanni Paisiello in his own Barbiere, an opera which had enjoyed European popularity for more than a quarter of a century. Paisiello’s admirers were extremely indignant when the opera was produced, but the opera was so successful that the fame of Paisiello's opera was transferred to his, to which the title of Il Barbiere di Siviglia passed as an inalienable heritage.
Between 1815 and 1823 Rossini produced twenty operas. Of these Otello formed the climax to his reform of serious opera, and offers a suggestive contrast with the treatment of the same subject at a similar point of artistic development by the composer Giuseppe Verdi. In Rossini’s time the tragic close was so distasteful to the public of Rome that it was necessary to invent a happy conclusion to Otello.
Conditions of stage production in 1817 are illustrated by Rossini’s acceptance of the subject of Cinderella for a libretto only on the condition that the supernatural element should be omitted. The opera La Cenerentola was as successful as Barbiere. The absence of a similar precaution in the construction of his Mosè in Egitto led to disaster in the scene depicting the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea, when the defects in stage contrivance always raised a laugh, so that the composer was at length compelled to introduce the chorus 'Dal tuo stellato Soglio' to divert attention from the dividing waves.
In 1821, three years after the production of this work, Rossini married singer Isabella Colbran. In 1822 he directed his Cenerentola in Vienna, where Zelmira was also performed. After this he returned to Bologna; but an invitation from Prince Metternich to come to Verona and 'assist in the general re-establishment of harmony' was too tempting to be refused, and he arrived at the Congress in time for its opening on October 20, 1822. Here he made friends with Chateaubriand and Madame de Lieven.
In 1823, at the suggestion of the manager of the King’s Theatre, London, he came to England, being much fêted on his way through Paris. In England he was given a generous welcome, which included an introduction to King George IV and the receipt of £7000 after a residence of five months. In 1824 he became musical director of the Théatre Italien in Paris at a salary of £800 per annum, and when the agreement came to an end he was rewarded with the offices of chief composer to the king and inspector-general of singing in France, to which was attached the same income.
The production of his Guillaume Tell in 1829 brought his career as a writer of opera to a close. The libretto was by Etienne Jouy and Hippolyte Bis, but their version was revised by Armand Marrast. The music is remarkable for its freedom from the conventions discovered and utilized by Rossini in his earlier works, and marks a transitional stage in the history of opera.
In 1829 he returned to Bologna. His mother had died in 1827, and he was anxious to be with his father. Arrangements for his subsequent return to Paris on a new agreement were upset by the abdication of Charles X and the July Revolution of 1830. Rossini, who had been considering the subject of Faust for a new opera, returned, however, to Paris in the November of that year.
Six movements of his Stabat Mater were written in 1832 and the rest in 1839, the year of his father's death. The success of the work bears comparison with his achievements in opera; but his comparative silence during the period from 1832 to his death in 1868 makes his biography appear almost like the narrative of two lives — the life of swift triumph, and the long life of seclusion, of which biographers give us pictures in stories of the composer's cynical wit, his speculations in fish culture, his mask of humility and indifference.
His first wife died in 1845, and political disturbances in the Romagna area compelled him to leave Bologna in 1847, the year of his second marriage with Olympe Pelissier, who had sat to Vernet for his picture of 'Judith and Holofernes.' After living for a time in Florence he settled in Paris in 1855, where his house was a centre of artistic society. He died at his country house at Passy on November 13, 1868 and is buried in Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris, France.
He was a foreign associate of the Institute, grand officer of the Legion of Honour, and the recipient of innumerable orders.
In his compositions Rossini plagiarized even more freely from himself than from other musicians, and few of his operas are without such admixtures frankly introduced in the form of arias or overtures.
A characteristic mannerism in his musical writing earned for him the nickname of 'Monsieur Crescendo.'
Rossini is also well known for some personal qualities, which gave origin to several anecdotes. For example, he was supposed to have composed his best known opera, 'Barbiere', in a very short time, because as usual he was late in respecting the delivery date. Some say he did it in seven days; others, like Lodovico Settimo Silvestri, suggest in fourteen. Whatever the precise length, it was in any case very little time for such masterpieces. He worked in his bedroom, wearing his dressing-gown. A friend pointed out that it was undoubtedly funny that he had composed the 'Barber' without shaving himself for such a long time. Rossini promptly replied that if he had to get shaved, he would have had to get out of his house, and he therefore would never had completed his opera.
Another story of Rossini composing in the comfort of his bed: One day an impresario went visiting him and found him writing music in his bed. Rossini, without even looking at him, begged him to collect a sheet that had fallen from the bed to the floor. When the impresario picked it, Rossini gave him the other sheet he was writing and asked him: 'Which one do you think is the better?' 'But... they are completely alike...' said the embarrassed impresario. 'Well... you know... it was easier for me to write another one than to get off the bed and search and pick the first one and then come back to bed...'
Rossini himself was very happy to describe his virtues: here is what he told about his way of composing overtures:
His music is associated with the names of the greatest singers in lyrical drama, such as Tamburini, Mario, Rubini, Delle Sedie, Albani, Grisi, Patti and Christina Nilsson. Marietta Alboni was one of his pupils.