Gioachino Antonio Rossini (February 29, 1792 – November 13, 1868) was a popular Italian composer who created 39 operas as well as sacred music and chamber music. His best known works include Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), La Cenerentola and Guillaume Tell (William Tell).
Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born into a family of musicians in Pesaro, a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy. His father, Giuseppe, was a horn player and inspector of slaughterhouses, his mother, Anna, was a singer and a baker's daughter. Rossini's parents began his musical training early, and by the age of six he was playing the triangle in his father's band.
Rossini's father was sympathetic to the French Revolution and welcomed Napoleon's troops when they arrived in Northern Italy. This became a problem when the Austrians restored the old regime in 1796. Rossini's father was sent to prison, and his mother took him to Bologna, earning her living as a leading singer at various theatres of the Romagna region, where she was ultimately joined by her husband. During this time, Rossini was frequently left in the care of his aging grandmother, who was unable to effectively control the boy.
He remained at Bologna in the care of a pork butcher, while his father played the horn in the orchestras of the theatres at which his wife sang. The boy had three years' instruction in the harpsichord from Giuseppe Prinetti of Novara, who played the scale with two fingers only. Combined with his musical profession was his business of selling liquor, and his propensity to fall asleep while standing; these qualities making him a fit subject for ridicule by his pupil.
In 1805 he appeared at the theatre of the Commune in Ferdinando Paer's Camilla at age thirteen — his only public appearance as a singer. He was also a capable horn player in the footsteps of his father. Around this time, he composed individual numbers to a libretto by Vincenza Mombelli called Demetrio e Polibio, which was handed to the boy in pieces. Though it was Rossini's first opera, written when he was thirteen or fourteen, the work was not staged until the composer was twenty years old, premiering as his sixth official opera.
In 1806, at the age of 14, Rossini became a cello student under Cavedagni at the Conservatorio of Bologna. In 1807 he was admitted to the counterpoint class of Padre Stanislao Mattei (1750-1825). He learned to play the cello with ease, but the pedantic severity of Mattei's views on counterpoint only served to drive the young composer's views toward a freer school of composition. His insight into orchestral resources is generally ascribed not to the strict compositional rules he learned from Mattei, but to knowledge gained independently while scoring the quartets and symphonies of Haydn and Mozart. At Bologna he was known as "il Tedeschino" ("the Little German") on account of his devotion to Mozart.
Through the friendly interposition of the Marquis Cavalli, his first opera, La cambiale di matrimonio, was produced at Venice when he was a youth of eighteen. But two years before this he had already received the prize at the Conservatorio of Bologna for his cantata Il pianto d'Armonia sulla morte d’Orfeo. Between 1810 and 1813, at Bologna, Rome, Venice, and Milan, Rossini produced operas of varying success. All memory of these works is eclipsed by the enormous success of his opera Tancredi.
The libretto was an arrangement by Gaetano Rossi of Voltaire’s tragedy Tancrède. Traces of Ferdinando Paer and Giovanni Paisiello were undeniably present in fragments of the music. But any critical feeling on the part of the public was drowned by appreciation of such melodies as "Di tanti palpiti... Mi rivedrai, ti rivedrò," which became so popular that the Italians would sing it in crowds at the law courts until called upon by the judge to desist.
Rossini continued to write operas for Venice and Milan during the next few years, but their reception was tame and in some cases unsatisfactory after the success of Tancredi. In 1815 he retired to his home at Bologna, where Domenico Barbaia, the impresario of the Naples theatre, concluded an agreement with him by which he was to take the musical direction of the Teatro San Carlo and the Teatro Del Fondo at Naples, composing for each of them one opera a year. His payment was to be 200 ducats per month; he was also to receive a share from the gambling tables set in the theatre's "ridotto", amounting to about 1000 ducats per annum. This was an extraordinarily lucrative arrangement for any professional musician at that time.
Some older composers in Naples, notably Zingarelli and Paisiello, were inclined to intrigue against the success of the youthful composer; but all hostility was made futile by the enthusiasm which greeted the court performance of his Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra, in which Isabella Colbran, who subsequently became the composer’s wife, took a leading part. The libretto of this opera by Giovanni Schmidt was in many of its incidents an anticipation of those presented to the world a few years later in Sir Walter Scott’s Kenilworth. The opera was the first in which Rossini wrote the ornaments of the airs instead of leaving them to the fancy of the singers, and also the first in which the recitativo secco was replaced by a recitative accompanied by a string quartet.
Rossini's most famous opera was produced on February 20, 1816 at the Teatro Argentina in Rome. The libretto by Cesare Sterbini, a version of Pierre Beaumarchais' infamous stage play Le Barbier de Séville, was the same as that already used by Giovanni Paisiello in his own Barbiere, an opera which had enjoyed European popularity for more than a quarter of a century. Much is made of how fast Rossini's opera was written, scholarship generally agreeing upon two weeks. Later in life, Rossini claimed to have written the opera in only twelve days. It was a colossal failure when it premiered as Almaviva; Paisiello’s admirers were extremely indignant, sabotaging the production by whistling and shouting during the entire first act. However, not long after the second performance, the opera became so successful that the fame of Paisiello's opera was transferred to Rossini's, to which the title The Barber of Seville passed as an inalienable heritage.
Between 1815 and 1823 Rossini produced 20 operas. Of these Otello formed the climax to his reform of serious opera, and offers a suggestive contrast with the treatment of the same subject at a similar point of artistic development by the composer Giuseppe Verdi. In Rossini’s time the tragic close was so distasteful to the public of Rome that it was necessary to invent a happy conclusion to Otello.
Conditions of stage production in 1817 are illustrated by Rossini’s acceptance of the subject of Cinderella for a libretto only on the condition that the supernatural element should be omitted. The opera La Cenerentola was as successful as Barbiere. The absence of a similar precaution in the construction of his Mosè in Egitto led to disaster in the scene depicting the passage of the Israelites through the Red Sea, when the defects in stage contrivance always raised a laugh, so that the composer was at length compelled to introduce the chorus "Dal tuo stellato Soglio" to divert attention from the dividing waves.
In 1822, four years after the production of this work, Rossini married the coloratura soprano Isabella Colbran. In the same year, he directed his Cenerentola in Vienna, where Zelmira was also performed. After this he returned to Bologna; but an invitation from Prince Metternich to come to Verona and "assist in the general re-establishment of harmony" was too tempting to be refused, and he arrived at the Congress in time for its opening on October 20, 1822. Here he made friends with Chateaubriand and Dorothea Lieven.
In 1823, at the suggestion of the manager of the King’s Theatre, London, he came to England, being much fêted on his way through Paris. In England he was given a generous welcome, which included an introduction to King George IV and the receipt of £7000 after a residence of five months. In 1824 he became musical director of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris at a salary of £800 per annum, and when the agreement came to an end he was rewarded with the offices of Chief Composer to the King and Inspector-General of Singing in France, to which was attached the same income. At the age of 32, Rossini was able to go into semi-retirement with essentially financial independence.
The production of his Guillaume Tell in 1829 brought his career as a writer of opera to a close. The libretto was by Étienne Jouy and Hippolyte Bis, but their version was revised by Armand Marrast. The music is remarkable for its freedom from the conventions discovered and utilized by Rossini in his earlier works, and marks a transitional stage in the history of opera. Though a very good opera, it is rarely heard uncut today, as the original score runs more than four hours in performance.
In 1829 he returned to Bologna. His mother had died in 1827, and he was anxious to be with his father. Arrangements for his subsequent return to Paris on a new agreement were upset by the abdication of Charles X and the July Revolution of 1830. Rossini, who had been considering the subject of Faust for a new opera, returned, however, to Paris in the November of that year.
Six movements of his Stabat Mater were written in 1832 and the rest in 1839, the year of his father's death. The success of the work bears comparison with his achievements in opera; but his comparative silence during the period from 1832 to his death in 1868 makes his biography appear almost like the narrative of two lives — the life of swift triumph, and the long life of seclusion, of which biographers give us pictures in stories of the composer's cynical wit, his speculations in fish culture, his mask of humility and indifference.
A characteristic mannerism in his orchestral scoring, a long, steady build of sound, creating "tempests in teapots by beginning in a whisper and rising to a flashing, glittering storm" earned him the nickname of "Signor Crescendo".