ROSSINI, GIOACHINO (1792–1868), Italian operatic composer.
Gioachino Rossini was the most popular composer of the first half of the nineteenth century, capturing the ardent admiration of audiences throughout Europe with his thirty-nine serious, semiserious, and comic operas. Although this period of music history is now commonly referred to as the "Age of Beethoven," a far more accurate label for the era would list Rossini's name directly alongside that of his German contemporary.
Rossini was born on 29 February 1792 in Pesaro, Italy, to a family of musicians. His father was a trumpet and horn player, his mother a soprano who achieved moderate successes in comic operas. As a child, Rossini's talents were nurtured carefully by his parents, as well as by Canon Giuseppe Malerbi, who gave him lessons in composition. By age twelve, Rossini was singing professionally, and at age thirteen he appeared as Adolfo in Ferdinando Paer's Camilla (Teatro del Corso, Bologna). His compositional career began in 1810 with the premiere of his one-act farsa La cambiale di matrimonio (The bill of marriage) at the Teatro San Moisè, Venice, a debut that compelled the theater to commission from him four more one-act operas between 1812 and 1813. During these years, Rossini also composed his first full-length works, including Tancredi (Venice, 1813), L'italiana in Algeri (Venice, 1813; The Italian girl in Algiers), and Il turco in Italia (Milan, 1814; The Turk in Italy), all of which became international sensations. From this time forward Rossini was a household name, his life characterized by a continual stream of commissions that he fulfilled at an extraordinary speed, completing some operas in as few as three weeks.
Between 1815 and 1822, Rossini composed nine operas for the Teatro San Carlo in Naples, and nine others for theaters in Rome, Milan, and Venice. Among the products of this flurry of activity were Elisabetta regina d'Inghilterra (Naples, 1815; Elizabeth, queen of England), Il barbiere di Siviglia (Rome, 1816; The Barber of Seville), Otello (Naples, 1816; Othello), La Cenerentola (Rome, 1817; Cinderella), La gazza ladra (Milan, 1817; The thieving magpie), Mosè in Egitto (Naples, 1818; Moses in Egypt), La donna del lago (Naples, 1819; The lady of the lake), Maometto II (Naples, 1820), and Zelmira (Naples, 1822). The last opera he composed for an Italian theater was Semiramide (Venice, 1823), following which he and his first wife—the celebrated soprano Isabella Colbran (1785–1845)—traveled to London and then settled in Paris. In the French capital, Rossini became director of the Théâtre-Italien, where he supervised rehearsals of his own operas, as well as those of younger colleagues including Gaetano Donizetti (1797–1848) and Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835). The first opera he composed specially for Paris was Il viaggio a Reims (1825; The journey to Reims) in celebration of the coronation of Charles X. He then he reworked two of his best Neapolitan operas for the French public: Maometto II became Le siège de Corinthe (1826; The siege of Corinth), and Mosè in Egitto became Moïse (1827). Over the next two years, he wrote two more original works for Paris—Le comte Ory (1828; Count Ory) and Guillaume Tell (1829; William Tell)—following which he retired from the hectic and complicated world of operatic composition. He was thirty-seven years old.
The next two and a half decades of Rossini's life were plagued with a series of morbid illnesses that were probably responsible, at least in part, for his compositional silence. During these years, he lived in Bologna, nursed by his mistress, Olympe Pélissier, who later became his second wife. In 1855 the Rossinis moved back to France, where he recovered and began to compose once again, though not opera. In his final decade, he produced over 150 piano pieces, songs, and works for small ensemble, and the Petit messe solennelle (Small solemn mass). Much of this music was written for and performed at the famous samedi soirs, weekly salons presided over by Rossini and featuring the most accomplished singers, instrumentalists, and composers working in Europe at the time. Rossini died in Passy, near Paris, on 13 November 1868.
It is impossible to exaggerate the impact Rossini's music had on spectators and composers throughout the nineteenth century. Although his operas began to fall out of fashion a few decades following his "retirement," his musical style and standardized forms were imitated by all of his successors up through and including Giuseppe Verdi (1813–1901). Between 1850 and 1950, the only Rossini opera to maintain a permanent position in the repertory was The Barber of Seville, and thus, for most of the twentieth century, he was recognized exclusively as a purveyor of comic farce. Beginning in the 1960s, however, this perception shifted dramatically, as all of his operas—comic and serious—witnessed a renaissance. In the early twenty-first century, it is possible to enjoy professional recordings of most of Rossini's operas and to watch them live in opera houses throughout the world, their vibrancy and energy emanating as fully as when they first appeared on the stage nearly two centuries ago.
Gossett, Philip. "History and Works that Have No History: Reviving Rossini's Neapolitan Operas." In Disciplining Music: Musicology and Its Canons, edited by Katherine Bergeron and Philip V. Bohlman, 95–115. Chicago, 1992.
Senici, Emanuele, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Rossini. Cambridge, U.K., 2004.
Stendhal. Life of Rossini. Translated by Richard N. Coe. Rev. ed. London, 1985. Originally published in 1824.