An ear for music

Lest anyone doubts that Rossini’s music was once deemed contemptible by lovers of classical music, English publisher Vincent Novello visited Europe in 1829 with the hope of hearing good music (specifically Mozart) in the land of its birth. He was disappointed.

In Mannheim, he noted in  his  journal, “Heard Rossini’s Overture to “Barbiere de Siviglia” on the Piano Forte. . . I should have preferred hearing something by their celebrated townsman John Cramer, but sterling music appears to be at a very low ebb here, . . .”

In Vienna, he wanted to find Beethoven’s last residence, and was upset to find that people walking within a few yards of it had never heard of him, a mere two years after his death. But everyone knew and liked Rossini’s music. He visited the Volksgarten, where he had been told there would be a wind orchestra. He found only a small, seven-piece military band:

“As we entered, they were playing a poor commonplace waltz [Lanner or Strauss Sr. perhaps?]. On requesting they would be so good as to play something of Mozart or Haydn the man said, ‘O yes, Mozart or Rossini’–but I said, ‘No Rossini–some air of Mozart.’ He accordingly went away for the purpose of telling his companions our wishes–but instead of what we had requested they played the Cavatina in A flat. . . and I really believe that they had not a single piece by Mozart in all their book and probably thought we should not detect the difference.”

Perhaps it is no surprise that Novello, a founding member of the Philharmonic Society of London, would prefer the classics, but even musical amateurs could, too. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the following in 1830:

“An ear for music is a very different thing from a taste for music. I have no ear whatever; I could not sing an air to save my live; but I have the intensest delight in music, and can detect good from bad. Naldi, a good fellow, remarked to me once at a concert, that I did not seem much interested with a piece of Rossini’s which had just been performed. I said, it sounded to me like nonsense verses. But I could scarcely contain myself when a thing of Beethoven’s followed.”

Even today, when Rossini is regarded among the classical masters, I suppose that most concert goers like Rossini well enough, but recognize in Beethoven a far superior musical intellect.


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