Gioachino Rossini

1792–1868

Romantic

Rossini’s music is like champagne: bubbly and irresistible. As a teenager, he fell in love with the music of Mozart and ended up with the nickname ‘the Italian Mozart’ – because he too could write sweet, enchanting melodies (and he was from Italy!).

He was born in a town called Pesaro, where since 1980 there has been a ‘Rossini Festival’ every summer. His father was a horn player and his mother a singer, and once Rossini got going with composition he raced along. He wrote a set of ‘string symphonies’ when he was only 12 years old, and they show how talented and keen he was. He played the horn and the cello too.

An opera is complicated to write: it is long, with solos, choruses, and sections for orchestra – all within a drama acted on the stage. Rossini’s first one was put on in Venice when he was only 18. Soon, brilliant operas seemed to tumble out of him, one after another! People in Italy loved them.

His major hit, The Barber of Seville, was produced in 1816 in Rome. After many more Italian operas he went to Paris, where King Charles X made sure he stayed: he paid him a huge salary to write five new operas a year.

At the age of 38, Rossini wrote the brilliant William Tell, and then that was it: no more opera. He was tired out. He’d written 39 operas in 19 years. He had nearly 40 years of his life left, and he managed just two big choral works, some piano pieces and a few songs. It was as if he had sprinted for half his life, using up every bit of energy, and had to sit down for the other half.

Rossini will often start music quietly and then gradually, over a whole minute or more, a melody will repeat, getting louder and louder until it explodes with excitement. He ended up with the nickname ‘Signor Crescendo’! His music is full of fun and energy, and it makes people smile.

Gioachino Rossini, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Get to know Rossini’s music…

Guillaume Tell (‘William Tell’): Overture (Finale)

This is one of the most famous pieces of classical music you’ll find. It is the final section of the Overture to Rossini’s opera William Tell.

Performers: Zagreb Festival Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.578203

Il barbiere di Siviglia (‘The Barber of Seville’): ‘Ma, signor’ (‘But, Signor’)

This comes from the end of Act I of The Barber of Seville. The characters are all confused about what’s happening, and they sing about it in music that is sparkling, rhythmic and non-stop – very typical Rossini!

Performers: Roberto Servile, baritone (Figaro); Sonia Ganassi, mezzo-soprano (Rosina); Ramon Vargas, tenor (Conte); Angelo Romero, bass (Bartolo); Franco de Grandis, bass (Don Basilio); Ingrid Kertesi, soprano (Berta); Hungarian Radio Chorus; Failoni Chamber Orchestra, Budapest; Will Humburg

Taken from Naxos 8.556683

Sonata for String in C major: III. Moderato

Rossini’s string sonatas – for two violins, cello and double bass – were written in the summer of 1804 when he was 12 years old. Swapping and decorating the melody here, the instruments seem to sing cheerfully: this was the music of a man who would soon be composing 39 operas!

Performers: Budapest Rossini Ensemble; András Kiss

Taken from Naxos 8.556683

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 As well as playing the French horn, Rossini’s father had another job – what do you think it was?

a. Building factories
b. Directing films
c. Inspecting slaughterhouses

 Rossini was born in which town?

a. Perugia
b. Mantua
c. Pesaro

 What was Rossini known for writing?

a. Operas
b. Oratorios
c. Masses

 Rossini also played the French horn and which instrument?

a. Cello
b. Flute
c. Trombone

 In which city did Rossini spend many years after he left Italy?

a. Paris
b. London
c. New York


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Rossini composed quickly and easily. He once said ‘give me a laundry bill and I will even set that to music’.
  2. The ‘Rossini crescendo’ is where the music repeats over a long time and gradually gets louder and louder. It was very effective and Rossini did it a lot!
  3. Audiences couldn’t wait for the next Rossini opera: he was very popular.
  4. Rossini agreed to create an opera based on Cinderella only if the magic spells were removed: these were too difficult to show in theatres in 1817.
  5. Rossini is known more for his comic operas than his serious ones, though he wrote both.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Opera


Il barbiere di Siviglia (‘The Barber of Seville’) (extracts)

One of Rossini’s greatest comic operas, The Barber of Seville is full of fun. The story is based on a comedy by a French playwright called Pierre Beaumarchais, and the opera was premiered in 1816 in Rome. Count Almaviva loves the beautiful Rosina, but she has a grumpy guardian who doesn’t let her go out. So the Count asks Figaro, the ‘Barber’, to help him. Figaro is clever, but his plans bring about plenty of funny moments and confusion before everybody is happy at the end. Here are some of the musical highlights of the opera, including the overture and Figaro’s aria ‘Largo al factotum della città’ (‘Make way for the factotum of the city!’ – a ‘factotum’ is a master of everything).

Performers: Roberto Servile, baritone (Figaro); Sonia Ganassi, mezzo-soprano (Rosina); Ramon Vargas, tenor (Conte); Angelo Romero, bass (Bartolo); Franco de Grandis, bass (Don Basilio); Ingrid Kertesi, soprano (Berta); Hungarian Radio Chorus; Failoni Chamber Orchestra, Budapest; Will Humburg

Taken from Naxos 8.553436


La Cenerentola (‘Cinderella’) (extracts)

You probably know the story of Cinderella, though in this version of the fairy-tale there are a few alterations: there is a stepfather, Don Magnifico, instead of a wicked stepmother; Alidoro, philosopher and tutor, replaces the Fairy Godmother; and instead of a glass slipper to identify Cinderella, there is a bracelet. But otherwise the story is the same, about poor Cinderella treated badly by her stepsisters (and stepfather) and eventually winning the Prince. Here are some of the arias, choruses and ensemble numbers (pieces for groups of soloists) from the opera. It has all Rossini’s feel-good bounce. Comedy can come from different places in Rossini’s operas, with a bit of freedom for the singers to play about: listen to track 3 at 2.10 as Magnifico (the stepfather) imitates a bell chiming! And listen from 1.22 to the end of track 10 for an example of the ‘Rossini crescendo’: the music gets louder and louder over a long stretch, with orchestra and voices getting more and more excited. It’s very effective, and audiences love it! Rossini often gave each syllable of a word a separate note, and when the notes are fast and several singers sing the same rhythm, it really catches your attention. This is found again in track 10, at the beginning.

Performers: Joyce DiDonato, mezzo-soprano (La Cenerentola); José Manuel Zapata, tenor (Don Ramiro); Paolo Bordogna, baritone (Dandini); Bruno Praticò, bass-baritone (Don Magnifico); Patrizia Cigna, soprano (Clorinda); Martina Borst, mezzo-soprano (Tisbe); Luca Pisaroni, bass-baritone (Alidoro); Prague Chamber Choir; SWR Radio Orchestra Kaiserslautern; Alberto Zedda

Taken from Naxos 8.660191-92

Orchestral Overtures


Guillaume Tell (‘William Tell’): Overture

Rossini’s overtures – the pieces for just orchestra that happen at the beginning of operas – are famous all on their own, and they are often performed in concerts without the rest of the opera. This is one of the best known of all! It is from his French opera Guillaume Tell – in English, William Tell – which was performed in 1829. It was the last of his 39 operas. It is a folk legend, famous for the bit where William Tell has to shoot an apple that is sitting on his son’s head, in order to save both their lives. He does! The whole overture is in four sections, all describing scenes in the mountains (the Swiss Alps): 1. Dawn, from 0.00 to 3.08. This has, unusually, five solo cellos, with double basses plonking along underneath (playing pizzicato – plucking). At 2.30 you can hear a quiet timpani (kettle-drum) roll, suggesting thunder – a clue of the storm coming… This section ends with a really high cello note (would you have known that was a cello?!) 2. Storm, from 3.08 to 5.33. After a tense introduction, the music explodes as the mountain storm arrives (at 4.06). Can you hear the trumpets, French horns and trombones burst in to create it? 3. ‘Call to the Cows’, from 5.33 to 8.39. This is much calmer, and features a cor anglais solo (at 5.53), which is then imitated by a flute. They alternate, until they play a duet with a tinkling triangle (can you hear it come in at 7.00)? 4. ‘Finale: March of the Swiss Soldiers’, from 8.39 to the end. This is the bit you might recognize. It is the section most people think of as ‘William Tell’: the brilliantly galloping music, introduced by a sudden trumpeting. Horns join in, then drums… then we’re off! It describes the battle of Swiss soldiers defending their land. There are no horses in the opera, but the music sounds so much like horses galloping that the music has often been used to describe exactly that!

Performers: Zagreb Festival Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550236


La gazza ladra (‘The Thieving Magpie’)

If you feel like marching, now is a good time to do it! A massive solo from the snare drum begins this whole piece – that was very bold thing for Rossini to do. The first audience to see this opera would have been quite surprised when that was the first thing they heard. Then there is a military march with a really clear beat. The whole opera, a comedy, is about a girl who is in serious trouble for stealing a silver spoon… until it turns out that it was a bird who stole it. At 8.14, a ‘Rossini crescendo’ begins: a long build-up, as the same melody is repeated and the music gets louder and louder and louder, building in excitement, with the snare drum rolling madly, until it hits a big climax at 9.15 and spends the rest of time finishing in a big flourish!

Performers: Zagreb Festival Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550236


Il signor Bruschino (‘Signor Bruschino’)

This overture, full of Rossini’s typical bubbly music, is also famous for an unusual effect: the second violins in the orchestra have to tap their bows on their music stands. It happens first at 0.35 and you hear it at various other places through the piece. The whole opera is actually quite short. It is a ‘farce’, which basically means it’s all a bit ridiculous. But that is okay, because the main reason people go to see Rossini’s operas is to be entertained! The sparkling music in this overture sets the scene for the entertainment to come.

Performers: Zagreb Festival Orchestra; Michael Halász

Taken from Naxos 8.550236

Other Works


Stabat Mater

After years of hard work, writing 39 operas, Rossini had stopped. He was exhausted. He wrote no more operas in his life after William Tell… but he did find the energy to write this big choral work. Stabat Mater is a 13th-century Catholic hymn to Mary, the mother of Jesus: it describes her suffering as Jesus is crucified. The first line is ‘Stabat Mater dolorosa’, which means ‘The grieving mother stood’. So it is a religious work that Rossini was writing, but his speciality was opera and so we hear a religious piece that sounds quite operatic – a big opening, dramatic choruses, and lots of melodies. Listen to track 2, where the tenor sings about the mother’s sadness: he could be singing about love in an opera! Or the start of track 6, where there is a kind of ‘oom-pah’ beginning from the strings, as if there is going to be a comic song. It is still a serious and superb work, but it seems to have a positive message. It is for four soloists, chorus and orchestra.

Performers: Patrizia Pace, soprano; Antonino Siragusa, tenor; Gloria Scalchi, contralto; Carlo Colombara, bass; Hungarian State Opera Chorus and Orchestra; Pier Giorgio Morandi

Taken from Naxos 8.554443


Sonata for Strings No. 1 in G major

Rossini wrote six ‘string sonatas’ when he was only 12 years old. Even though he was so young, the music shows all the sparkle that would become typical of him. And he apparently wrote them all in three days! They are for two violins, cello and double bass, and this is the first of the six. The violins often have the tune, but not always: listen, for example, in track 1 at 3.58, where he brings the lower cello to the spotlight. Already he knew how to make his music varied. And he knew how to write a good tune!

Performers: Hungarian Virtuosi; Tamás Benedek

Taken from Naxos 8.554418


Péchés de vieillesse (‘Sins of Old Age’). Vol. 5: Album pour les enfant adolescents (‘Album for Adolescent Children’) (extracts)

After Rossini stopped writing operas, he still lived for many years. From 1857 he wrote some piano pieces and vocal pieces called Péchés de vieillesse (‘Sins of Old Age’): the title suggests that writing the pieces was a naughty thing to do, but Rossini was just being funny. Although he hadn’t the energy to write big operas anymore, he still had music going round his head – putting it into pieces for piano like these suited him. They are light-hearted and varied – as suggested by some of the titles (how many other composers have written about peas?!). There are 150 pieces in the entire collection, grouped into 14 volumes. Here is part of Volume 5.

Performers: Alessandro Marangoni, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.572315