Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

first entry Aug. 2003. Rossini Opera Festival Aug. 2022   

contains 2 audio excerpts

ioacchino Rossini
1. Biddy-bump, biddy-bump, biddy-bump-bump-bump!
                        2. Rossini Opera Festival

Rossini's residence in Naples was in the Barbaja villa (photo, below), across from the main cable-car station on via Toledo (via Roma). Domenico Barbaja (1778-1841), the owner of the building, was the foremost impresario in the Naples of the day. He got Rossini to come to Naples in the first place and also managed the rebuilding of San Carlo after it burned in 1816.

If you saw that awkwardly-rendered musical pun at the top of this entry and said, "Hey, I know that...," then you are living proof of the presence of Gioacchino Rossini’s music, even in the lives of those who wouldn’t know an overture if one bit them on the bassoon. It is strange, indeed, that we should be surrounded by the music of one whom we have never quite taken seriously.

I recall a list of the world’s most popular classical composers, rated by number of performances in concert halls over the last century. As you might think, Beethoven is in first place. No one is in second place and fading fast. Beethoven deserves it, of course. If you take Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Einstein, and roll them up into one very, very large musician, you get Beethoven. You cannot, for example, play Beethoven’s 5th Symphony to death, although many have tried. That’s how good it is. 

Photo credit: Étienne Carjat; restored by Adam Cuerden    

On the other hand, one notch or so down the list, at the level of mere mortal composers who are only great, Rossini gets a good workout, especially if you count all the bits and fragments of stray Rossini that wind up as background music on radio, TV and film sound tracks. He wrote mostly operas, but concert-goers  generally get their Rossini in orchestral format, since overtures to operas are often played as stand-alone symphonic works. Even total musical morons can get theirs if they’re not careful, just by watching, say, that magnificent Bugs Bunny cartoon where our wascally fwiend conducts a fine, if somewhat truncated, version of the opening aria —the silliest piece of great music ever written— of Rossini’s opera, The Barber of Seville, (the lyrics read, approximately, "Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro") until the Hollywood Bowl collapses. And if you have really and truly never heard Biddy-bump, biddy-bump, biddy-bump-bump-bump! —from the overture to the opera William Tell— you should check your birth certificate; it’s a fake. You don’t exist.

[If you still can't hear it in your head, try this audio excerpt.]

Rossini was born in Pesaro in central Italy in 1792, the year Mozart died. It would thus be poetic justice if he were remembered as some sort of a link between the perfect classicism of Mozart and the passionate Romanticism of the early 1800s —in short, if he had been Beethoven. That would have been difficult, however, because Beethoven was already Beethoven at the time. Rossini comes down to us, then, as a composer born a few decades too late. He said of himself that he ‘was born to write Comic Opera,’ referring to the school of Neapolitan farce that was the rage of Europe from 1750 to 1800. He, himself, is remembered as the last in the line of such composers, the one who wrote the greatest of all such works, The  Barber of Seville. It was unfortunate for Rossini that he wrote at a time when Europe was no longer interested in musical comedy. People wanted passion and thunder —volcanoes of music. That was something Rossini could not give them. Beethoven, of course, could and did.

A good-natured caricature of the day shows
Rossini "firing off his artillery", in reference
to his forceful and high-spirited music.

rossini caricatureYet, Rossini is one of the five composers who have defined Italian opera over the last 200 years in terms of quality and quantity of their work, their popularity and their critical acclaim. Working backwards chronologically, these composers are: Puccini, Verdi, Donizetti, Bellini and Rossini. Puccini is the undisputed master of the late Romantic Italian opera, a composer with an uncanny flair for couching tragedy in beautiful melody. Then, Verdi’s career overarches almost the entire history of 19th-century Italian nationalism, and his music is inextricably bound up with the struggle to create a unified nation during that period; he was a patriot as well as a musician. Donizetti and Bellini, contemporaries, mark the beginnings of Italian lyric romanticism in music: love, passion, heroism, all to the sounds of beautiful melody, now the trademark of Italian opera. Then comes Rossini, the last great Italian composer of the 1700s, which is strange to say, since he lived until 1867. Indeed, he was called the "grand old man of Italian music" by Verdi, whom everyone else called the "grand old man of Italian music."

In musical terms, it is more accurate to say that Rossini was the first great Italian composer of the 1800s. He came of age during the Napoleonic wars and his music was revolutionary in one very important sense: he was the first to desert entirely (except for some very early works) Greek mythology and the texts of Metastasio. A list of his serious opera is revealing: from Tancredi to Elizabeth, Queen of England to Lady of the Lake, Ivanhoe, and William Tell, Rossini chose themes that were closer to the hearts of modern Europeans than were the tales of ancient Greece.

Rossini was a child prodigy, performing at the age of 12 as a pianist and soprano singer. In 1815, at the age of 23, he was appointed "house composer" and musical director of the San Carlo theater in Naples. He served in Naples for seven years, during which time he composed some of his best–remembered works. One of these was The Barber of Seville. The scandal surrounding the opening of that work is well-known. An opera by that name already existed in the repertoire of Neapolitan comic opera, and it was extremely popular. Rossini decided to write another one, thus incurring the wrath of Neapolitan fans of Giovanni Paisiello, the composer of the original. Said boors showed up at the premiere in Rome and disrupted the performance; they say that even members of the cast conspired to make the premiere a flop, which it was —an utter and total flop, getting catcalls and walk-outs all evening and leaving Rossini almost suicidally depressed by evening’s end.

Here is an audio segment of the signature aria of his Barber of Seville.

The fact that Rossini did not take failure lightly may have been at the heart of his decision at the ripe old age of 37 in 1829 to stop composing opera altogether. His last opera, William Tell, starts with the overture that "everyone remembers". It is perhaps the most overplayed piece of music in the entire classical repertoire. Indeed, in the United States, where the overture was for years the theme music of the popular radio and TV western series, The Lone Ranger, it was said that the only ones who could listen to the William Tell overture and not think of horses and Cheerios (the sponsor) were  intellectuals —and they were lying. Yet, in spite of that, it remains  a magnificently stirring piece of music and still has the power to move. Rossini wrote William Tell as somewhat of an answer to critics who told him that the age of the comic opera was over and that he should start generating a little true fire. William Tell is, thus, Rossini at his most passionate. It was the most Romantic, stirring, and deliberately 19th-century piece of music he could wring out of his 18th-century soul. It didn’t flop, but it wasn’t a smash hit, either.

Rossini lived the last half of his life in France and never wrote another opera. He composed some sacred music, most prominent of which is the Stabat Mater. He lived far into the 19th century, yet was viewed as a composer firmly rooted in the music of the distant past. He did not have the mysterious and revolutionary passions of Beethoven, or even the simple flair for a beautiful melody, like his countrymen Bellini or Donizetti. By the calendar, he was a contemporary of the two giants of 19th century Romantic opera, Verdi and Wagner; yet, compared to them musically, he was truly a time traveler, and if he could not get back to the past, he did the next best thing: he quit composing opera and let the world of music go forward without him.

Rossini, however —this person "born to write Comic Opera," and whose music seems light-weight to our ears, was esteemed by his contemporaries. Verdi’s famous Requiem was originally conceived by Verdi to be a joint effort by himself and other Italian composers to honor Rossini on his death in 1867. The work went unfinished at the time and was reworked by Verdi and ultimately performed as a requiem mass for the author Alessandro Manzoni in 1875. Rossini, thus, never got the honor which he was due. In a sense, he is still waiting. 

(see also: Barbaia and Rossini)


he Rossini Opera Festival

Every August in Pesaro, Italy, Rossini's birthplace the city sponsors the Rossini Opera Festival, often simply referred to as the Pesaro Festival. It's an international music festival held to study the musical heritage of the composer in the unique setting of his birthplace. The Festival was set up in 1980 with the help of Ricordi music publishers, which published their critical editions. In 1993, the Italian parliament approved Special Law N. 319 "Regulations in support of the Rossini Opera Festival", which recognizes the Pesaro Festival's achievements in the reviving of Rossini's operas and entitled to be among efforts to preserve Italian artistic heritage. Major singers have appeared, such as Marilyn Horne, Montserrat Caballé, Ruggero Raimondi, Samuel Ramey and Juan Diego Flórez.

Of Rossini's 39 operas, only a handful are regularly presented, which is why we say "revive" some of his lesser known works. You can even hear them in the context of, for example, the music of some his now obscure contemporaries. Performances are given in various places, such as the 850-seat Teatro Rossini (image above) built in 1818, or, since 1988, the modified sports arena (Palasport) which holds 1,500, and now, since 2006, the Vitrifrigo Arena, with over 10,000. The main square of Pesaro, the Piazza del Popolo, also hosts outdoor performances.

(image, left):
Casa Rossini, his birthplace, now a museum with displays about his life.

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