Composer Biography

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Gioachino Rossini

Known as “The Swan of Pesaro,” Rossini was the most popular composer of the first half of the 19th century. Rossini’s highly ornate musical style revolutionized the art form, inaugurating the “Golden Century” of Italian opera.

VITAL STATISTICS

Born: February 29, 1792, Pesaro, Italy
Died: November 13, 1868, Passy, France (suburb of Paris)
Nationality: Italian
Genre: Classical
Performed as: Pianist, Singer
During the composer’s lifetime: Rossini’s music becomes the foundation of the famous music-publishing empire founded by Giovanni Ricordi in Milan. Gas streetlights are introduced in Paris and other major European cities.

BIOGRAPHICAL OUTLINE

  • First gigs, 1804-1811: Assistant conductor (maestro al cembalo) in theaters in and around Bologna. In 1806, he enrolls in the Liceo Musicale in Bologna, where he studies piano, voice, and counterpoint with the renowned instructor Padre Saverio Mattei. From 1806 on, he also supplies replacement arias for singers.
  • One-act farces: Rossini’s career begins in the smaller theaters of Venice. By the end of 1812, Rossini has composed eight operas, five of them farces.
  • Making a living, 1813-1815: Without effective copyright law, composers could only make money from new works, or from performances they themselves directed. Rossini’s first two international hits, Tancredi (opera seria) and L’Italiana in Algeri  or The Italian girl in Algiers (opera buffa, with elements of opera seria), premiere three months apart, in Venice, in 1813.
  • Comic genius, 1816Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) receives its first performance in Rome. Rossini returns a few months later to produce La Cenerentola (Cinderella).
  • Naples, 1815-22: The Teatro San Carlo becomes Rossini’s home base, and he soon becomes the artistic director. Since the San Carlo only plays serious opera, Rossini composes nine of them in Naples. His Otello (1816) is a landmark in the development of 19th-century opera.
  • Paris, 1824-29: Now internationally famous, Rossini travels to Vienna and London, producing his operas, and being feted by aristocrats and the public. Finally, he signs a contract with the French government, making him head of the Théâtre Italien (Italian Theater) in Paris. At the French-language Paris Opera, Rossini produces his crowning masterpiece, Guillaume Tell (William Tell, 1829).
  • Retirement: Beset with health problems, Rossini writes no further operas after William Tell, and writes only a few other pieces (a setting of the Stabat Mater prayer, and a set of songs) in the 1830s. After the July revolution in Paris, in 1830, his contract is suspended; he returns to Bologna in 1837.
  • Last years: Rossini builds a house in the suburbs of Paris in 1855. Here he writes more than 150 shorter pieces (songs, piano pieces, etc.) and the Petite messe solennelle (Little solemn Mass). He remains, untill his death, the Grand Old Man of Italian opera.

FUN FACTS

  • Leap-year baby: In 1868, a few months before he died, Rossini celebrated his 19th “actual” birthday.
  • Horn fed: Gioachino’s father played the French horn, an instrument that has many important solos in his son’s operas.
  • Music machine: Rossini composed the vast majority of his 40 plus operas between 1810-1822.
  • Depression: Rossini suffered from depression and neurasthenic illnesses, which were not understood in his day.
  • Mentor: He advised both Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti, the stars of the next generation, and he shepherded major works by each of them through the Theatre Italien.
  • Great wit: In his later years, Rossini was known as a great conversationalist and wit, as well as a lover of fine food.

RECOMMENDED BIOGRAPHY

  • Richard Osborne, Rossini, edition. Master Musicians Series (Oxford, 2007).
  • Benjamin Walton, Rossini in Restoration Paris: The Sound of Modern Life.Cambridge Studies in Opera (Cambridge, 2008).
  • The Cambridge Companion to Rossini,Emanuele Senici, editor (Cambridge, 2004).

EXPLORE THE MUSIC

  • Operas: Rossini is best known as the composer of The Barber of Seville, one of the most popular comic operas of all time. The overtures to his operas are also extremely famous. In the past few decades, Rossini’s music has experienced a renaissance, leading to performances of his serious works and a new appreciation of his entire body of music.
  • Code Rossini: Rossini’s aria forms, style of vocal writing, and orchestration became the conventional models for Italian opera until about 1850.
  • Singers first: Rossini’s operas are known for their ornamental vocal style, with lots of fast scale-runs and trills in the singer’s upper register.
  • Who wears the pants?: In Rossini’s day, the tenor was only slowly becoming the standard voice-type for the male romantic lead. Rossini wrote many male roles for women’s voices, because they were closer to the sound of the castrato, the voice type that had dominated Italian opera in the 18th century.

Attention, please: In Rossini’s day, members of the audience rarely stopped talking to each other, which is why his overtures are designed to grab your attention.

This article was originally published by San Francisco Classical Voice. Used by permission.