Portrait of italian composer Gioachino Rossini (1792 - 1868)
Portrait of italian composer Gioachino Rossini (1792 - 1868)

Gioachino Rossini : 10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about the composer of William Tell

The "Rossini Tournedos" and the opera William Tell both have one thing in common: they are both the creations of prolific composer and hearty eater, Gioachino Rossini.

Fantasy, vivacity and levity: the three key ingredients required to create the maestro Gioachino Rossini. The composer revolutionised by himself the codes and traditions of Italian opera, leaving behind several of the greatest works of the operatic and lyrical repertoire, including The Barber of Seville, The Italian Girl in Algiers, and of course William Tell.

Born on 29 February 1792 and died on Friday 13 Novembre 1868, the composer's life was far from uneventful: as proof, here are ten (little) facts that you (perhaps) do not know about one of the masters of Italian opera.

A legendary procrastinator

Rossini composed around 40 operas in less than twenty years, which seems far from lazy, though it is important to note that the composer recycled frequently! The maestro often used the same themes and melodies in his operas: for example the overture from The Barber of Seville (1816) could already be found in Aureliano in Palmira (1813), and Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra (1815). 

The anecdotes surrounding Rossini's laziness are numerous and amusing. For example, while composing his opera _Il Signor Bruschino (_1813) in his warm and comfortable bed, a sheet from his score slipped off the bed onto the floor. Rather than get out of bed to pick it up, he decided to re-write the entire page despite having forgotten its contents, ultimately composing a new passage. A unique form of procrastination, which turns into a novel source of motivation and inspiration.

Gluttonous 

Rossini Tournedos, William Tell cake… One need look no further than the culinary preferences of the Italian composer to find the origins of these delicious (and filling) recipes. The maestro was a hearty eater! He often enjoyed adding foie gras and truffles to his dishes (light and simple additions, no?)...all washed down with the finest wines available, naturally. 

Shortly after his arrival in Paris in 1848, his gastronomic meals quickly become legendary. When not filling himself at the finest restaurants in the capital such La Tour d’argent or La Maison Dorée, he often invited guests to his home for dinner. Not only remembered for the success of his operas, Rossini also managed to join the extensive but exclusive history of French gastronomy. 

Tournedos Rossini : un filet de boeuf agrémenté d'une tranche de foie gras et d'une truffe.
Tournedos Rossini : un filet de boeuf agrémenté d'une tranche de foie gras et d'une truffe.  © AFP  /  Fabrice Subiros / Mood4Food

A character from a novel

Not only novelesque in itself, the life of Rossini even inspired one of the greatest authors of the Romantic period: Henri Beyle, better known by the name Stendhal. The French author was spellbound by the life of Rossini and even dedicated an entire work to the subject: The Life of Rossini.

Published in 1823, The Life of Rossini according to Stendhal is somewhat romanticised, even concerning the author's first encounter with the composer, supposedly in Rome in 1827. However, historians have since proven that this encounter could simply never have taken place, and that Rossini and Stendhal first met years later in Paris. Period. 

Premier paragraphe de la préface de "Vie de Rossini", écrite et publiée par Stendhal en 1824.
Premier paragraphe de la préface de "Vie de Rossini", écrite et publiée par Stendhal en 1824.  /  Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The fiasco of the Barber of Seville

The Barber of Seville is perhaps today Rossini's most famous opera. And yet, during its premiere in Rome in 1816, the performance was a veritable catastrophe. The Count Almaviva's guitar fell continuously out of tune and even required a change of string, a cat walked across the stage, Don Basilio fell and broke his nose...when the audience were not whistling, they were cheering with laughter. 

Seated at the piano in the orceshtra pit, Rossini stood with dignity at the end of the first act to acknowledge and applaud the singers, his back to his audience. Already irritated by the various mishaps, the crowd wasted no time in expressing their resentment at being snubbed by the composer. Fortunately, The Barber has come a long way since this disastrous first performance, and has earned its place today amongst the most famous Italian operas. 

Rossini and the vocal embellishments

To this day, almost every vocal student has come across the Rossini arpeggio, a long arpeggio used as a warmup exercise allowing for great vocal flexibility. It is worth noting that the maestro composer was extremely demanding: his singers wer required to have total mastery of their voices, know their parts by heart and, under no circumstances, change the notes written for their specific character.

So as to ensure the full respect of his musical intentions, Rossini transcribed every single embellishment and ornament in his score (until then improvised on-stage by the singers). He sought to protect his works from any possible complications since, in his opinion, not all musicians were  gifted with the same musical talents as Velluti (famous 19th century castrato) or Manuel Garcia (first performer of the role of Almaviva in the Barber of Seville).  

Extrait de la partition du Barbier de Séville (air Ecco ridente in cielo). On peut voir toutes les vocalises écrites par Rossini pour l'interprète du Comte Almaviva.
Extrait de la partition du Barbier de Séville (air Ecco ridente in cielo). On peut voir toutes les vocalises écrites par Rossini pour l'interprète du Comte Almaviva.  /  IMSLP

"The little German"

Macché! Preposterous! Was Gioacchino Rossini, the Swan of Pesaro, one of the most important Italian composers, really nicknamed the "little German"?

E, sì ! It's true! During his musical studies in Bologna, the young Rossini was quite litteraly absorbed by the music of Haydn and Mozart, the two great German representatives of the Classical style. A fascination which earned Rossini the nickname the "little German", and whose trace is often found in the composer's earlier works.

"Tancredi's first air is strangely evocative of Cherubino's Voi Che Sapete in The Marriage of Figaro [by Mozart, editor's note]"

René Jacobs (Libération, 02/06/07)

Le jeune Rossini en 1820.
Le jeune Rossini en 1820.  /  Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Slightly opportunistic

One thing is certain, Gioachino Rossini had a flair for success. As an adolescent music student in Bologna, he understood that, to become agreat composer in Italy, one must dedicate oneself to opera wholeheartedly and assuredly. During the 19th century, in Italy, every town had its own theatre, its own singers, its own orchestra. Opera was law.

Rossini therefore dedicated himself completely to the composition of lyrical works. He composed close to 40 works in under 20 years. And when a work needed a revision so as to be updated, nothing simpler for Rossini. In 1826 for example, when the Parisian public supported the independance of the Greek people (against the Ottoman Empire), Rossini dug out an old work from his catalogue and changed the libretto; thus was born the The Siege of Corinth.

Caricature de Rossini par Benjamin, publiée dans le journal "Le Charivari" en 1839.
Caricature de Rossini par Benjamin, publiée dans le journal "Le Charivari" en 1839.  /  Bibliothèque Nationale de France

An early retirement

At the age of 37, without prior notice or indication, Rossini put an end to his career. Done with operas! The composer now dedicated himself solely to living, travelling, eating (his favourite activity), and entertaining friends.

However, he was not inactive. Between 1835 and 1868, the year of his death, Rossini composed many works including the Soirées Musicales (1835), a Little Solemn Mass (1864), and even the light and amusing Sins of Old Age, songs for voice and piano with distinctively evocative titles: Ouf! Les petits pois [Oh! The Little Peas], Boléro tartare [Bolero tartare], Hachis romantique [Romantic Hash], Toast pour le nouvel an [Toast for the New Year] and even Valse boiteuse [Limping Waltz]… 

My Olympus

Though Rossini moved away from the lyrical genre following the success of his famous William Tell  in 1830, it was not solely to watch time go by. The composer was increasingly tired and ill. Furthermore, Rossini's first marriage was drawing its final breath: his wife, the singer Isabella Colbran, had remained in Italy whilst the composer now lived in Paris.

The couple eventually split in 1837 and, ten years later, following the death of Isabella, Rossini married his second love: Olympe Pélissier. In Paris, Olympe is an artistic muse. Her salon was a place of reference within every artistic circle, and those fallen prey to her charms are numerous: the writer Honoré de Balzac, the painter Horace Vernet (for whom she posed), and of course Rossini.

Portrait d'Isabella Colbran (1785 - 1845), chanteuse d'origine espagnole et première femme de Rossini.
Portrait d'Isabella Colbran (1785 - 1845), chanteuse d'origine espagnole et première femme de Rossini.  © Getty  /  De Agostini

Director of the Théâtre-Italien

Following the success of his opera Il viaggio a Reims in 1825, Rossini became one of the most high-profile composers in the French capital. He was eventually made director of the Théâtre-Italien, dedicated to performing Italian opera in Italian. Here more than elsewhere, his priority was to take care of the singers, stars in the public eye. Rossini finds their capricious behaviour tiresome, but dedicates nonetheless his time and talent to the human voice. 

Rossini overthrew early 19th-century traditions, removing himself from the well-established styles of opera seria and opera buffa. In his music, the orchestra accompanies the recitative and the grand lyrical airs follow one another, sometimes as many as five one after the other. This, however, was not to impress the public but for another reason entirely: for Rossini, the human voice is like an orchestral instrument with its own dramatic strengths, and must be treated as such. In doing so, unknowingly, Rossini left behind an indelible influence upon the long history of music.

Photographie de Rossini en 1862.
Photographie de Rossini en 1862.  /  Bibliothèque Nationale de France

By Nathalie Moller

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