Gioachino[n 1] Antonio Rossini[n 2] (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 and Giovanni Paisiello. 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 3]
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 4] 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.