The ironies in Rossini’s life and career are many:
- By the time he composed his last opera, William Tell, in 1829, he had long been the most popular operatic composer all over Europe. Then he stopped writing operas entirely.
- He composed 38 operas by the time he retired–at age 38–and yet he has an abiding reputation for laziness.
- While today we think of opera as a part of “classical” music, during his lifetime lovers of classical music uniformly despised Rossini. Although he had some formal study, he did not complete it, and his part-writing and counterpoint were full of errors.
- Despite the scorn he endured from the better-trained composers and theorists of his time, he taught composition himself and was very hard on his pupils.
- Traditionally, singers of his time ornamented the arias they sang. Rossini disapproved of the habit. He wrote out the ornaments he wanted and insisted that they sing his music exactly as written. So did he prefer simple melodies? Certainly not. It would be possible to find a simple melody in all of the coloratura he wrote, and it would be possible to imagine different ornamentation. It is hard to imagine that very many singers could have come up with anything very much more ornate.
- As the separate audiences for classical music and what has been called high-status popular music grew closer together and eventually merged at about mid-century, Rossini’s overtures found their place on orchestra concerts, but except for The Barber of Seville, his operas all dropped out of the repertoire for more than a century. And he hated writing the overtures.
Here are some anecdotes, paraphrased mostly from A Thing or Two about Music by Nicolas Slonimsky, that illustrate these points.
Rossini loved to write music in bed. One morning, he finished writing a duet and then dropped it on the floor. He couldn’t reach it without getting up, so he grabbed a new sheet of blank staff paper and wrote another duet. A friend dropped by later, and Rossini asked him to retrieve the first version. Comparing the two, he liked both of them, but preferred the second. Not wanting to waste all the effort he put into the first version, he added another part to it so he could use it for a trio in the same opera.
Rossini meets Fétis
Long after he retired from composing operas, Rossini ran into theorist, pedagogue, and musical journalist François-Joseph Fétis. Fétis, by the way, had been one of Rossini’s most scathing critics, but unlike others I have read, also found some good things to say about his music. One of Fétis’ books, his Treatise on Counterpoint and Fugue, was on display. Remember that Rossini had stopped his formal study of music before learning counterpoint. He asked, “Must all this be learned, dear Fétis?” The critic retorted, “Not at all. You are living proof to the contrary.” Slonimsky says that for once the quick-witted Rossini was speechless.
Rossini takes pity on a student
Rossini always indicated mistakes on his students’ music with crosses. He returned one manuscript to a mediocre student with only a few crosses. The young man, greatly encouraged, expressed his happiness that he had made so few mistakes. Rossini retorted, “If I had marked all the errors in the music with crosses, your score would be a cemetery.”
By the way, Rossini seems to have been something of a tyrant as a conductor. He once sent his own father home from rehearsal for playing a wrong note. One clarinetist in Rome made mistakes with impunity. Rossini never said a word to him. And that was prudent, the clarinetist was the barber who shaved Rossini after every rehearsal.
Rossini and the soprano
I said it was hard to imagine any singer starting with a bare melody and coming up with anything any more florid than Rossini’s own ornamentation. Of course, nothing stopped them from using his ornamentation as a starting point and fancying it up even more. One soprano treated him to a very elaborate rendition of “Una voce poco fa.” When she sought his approval, he said, “That was very nice. And whose was the music?”
Rossini and overtures
After Rossini retired from composing operas, a young composer wrote to ask whether it was better to write the overture first, or after finishing the opera. As Slonimsky translates, Rossini responded:
- I composed the overture to Otello in a little room in which the most ferocious of all managers, Barbaja, shut me up with a dish of macaroni and told me that he would let me out only after the last note of the overture had been written.
- I wrote the overture to La Gazza Ladra on the very day of the first performance of the opera, in the wings of La Scala Theater in Milan. the manager had put me under the guard of four stage hands who were ordered to through down thematic pages, sheet by sheet, to copyists seated below. As the manuscript was copied, it was sent page by page to the conductor who then rehearsed the music. If I had failed to keep the production going fast, my guards were instructed to throw me in person to the copyists.
- I made my task easier in the case of the overture to the Barber of Seville,which I left unwritten; instead I made use of the overture to my opera Elisabetta,which is a very serious operas, whereas the Barber of Seville is a comic opera.
- I composed the overture to Le Comte Ory while fishing in the company of a Spanish musician who the whole time talked incessantly about the Spanish political situation.
- I composed the overture to William Tell in the lodgings on the Boulevard Montmartre milled night and day with a crowd of people smoking, drinking, talking, singing, and bellowing in my ears whiled I was laboring on the music.
- I never composed any overture to my opera Moses, which is the easiest of all.