Composer. He was the dominant force in Italian music for half a century, particularly celebrated for his comic operas. His "Il barbiere di Siviglia" ("The Barber of Seville", 1816) stands as the greatest operatic farce ever written and is still popular today. The scintillating overtures of some of his other operas, including those for "William Tell" and "The Thieving Magpie", have been so widely used in different media they are known even by people unfamiliar with classical music. Gioacchino Antonio Rossini was born in Pesaro, the son of musicians, and studied at the Bologna Conservatory from 1806 to 1810. At 18 he had his first opera performed in Venice, the one-act farce "La Cambiale di matrimonio" ("The Marriage Contract"), and within three years he had written eight more. The twin triumphs of "Tancredi" (1813) and "L'italiana in Algeri" ("The Italian Girl in Algiers", 1813) made Rossini a star of Italy's opera scene. From 1815 to 1822 he was based in Naples as music director of the San Carlo and Del Fondo theatres, while composing additional works for Rome, Milan, and Venice; operas flowed from his pen at the rate of two or three a year. "The Barber of Seville" was based on one of the "Figaro" trilogy of French comedies by Pierre Beaumarchais. There was already a very popular opera on the subject by Giovanni Paisiello (1782), so Rossini initially titled his version "Almaviva: or The Futile Precaution". Fans of the original conspired to make the opening night in Rome a noisy fiasco, but the second performance was a smash and Rossini's masterpiece soon usurped Paisiello's work in the repertory, along with its name. "La Cenerentola" ("Cinderella", 1817) was another huge hit and Rossini was firmly established as Italy's foremost composer. Other successes included "Il turco in Italia" ("The Turk in Italy", 1814), "Otello" (1816), "La gazza ladra" ("The Thieving Magpie", 1817), "Mosè in Egitto" ("Moses in Egypt", 1818), "La donna del lago" ("The Lady of the Lake", 1819), and "Semiramide" (1823). Rossini composed many of the great female roles in his serious operas for soprano Isabella Colbran, whom he married in 1822. That same year he began to set his sights outside of Italy. Rossini mania had spread throughout Europe (and after 1825 it would invade the United States as well). He was all the rage during his 1822 visit to Vienna, Austria, where Beethoven praised "Barber" and advised him to stick to opera buffa; in England he was introduced to King George IV and paid a huge sum for a five-month residency (1823) overseeing his operas at London's King's Theatre. In 1824 he moved to Paris to assume directorship of the Théâtre-Italien and to write for that venue and for the Paris Opera. After revising two of his Italian operas to French words (as "Le siége de Corinthe" in 1826 and "Moïse et Pharon" in 1827), he created his last two masterpieces to French texts: the brilliantly witty "Le comte Ory" (1828) and the grandiose historical drama "Guillaume Tell" ("William Tell", 1829). The latter is considered his magnum opus. With that, at the age of 37, Rossini retired from opera. He was independently wealthy, often in poor health, and disturbed by the political situation in France after the July 1830 Revolution. He returned to Italy in 1837, living first in Bologna, then in Florence. His wife Isabella, from whom he had separated in the late 1830s, died in 1845; the following year he married his longtime mistress, former model Olympe Pélissier. He maintained a lively interest in musical trends but wrote very little himself, primarily the "Stabat Mater" (1842). In 1855 he settled permanently in Paris, a wry but beloved elder statesman of music. His private musical salons attracted the highest society, as did his passion for gourmet food and his biting wit. (At one soiree a guest ventured to play two of his own piano pieces; after hearing the first Rossini quipped, "I like the other one better". And his opinion of Wagner is still a favorite with musicians: "He has beautiful moments, but awful quarters of an hour"). Rossini's health improved during his last decade and he resumed composing with the "Petite Messe Solennelle" (two versions, 1863 and 1867) and a series of 150 salon pieces called "Sins of Old Age" (1857 to 1868), though they were not published or publicly performed in his lifetime. Rossini was both superstitious and ironic about the fact he was born on February 29th of a leap year. He observed the occasion only once every four years, and when he turned 76 in 1868 he invited friends to celebrate his 18th birthday. He died eight months later - on a Friday the 13th - and was interred in Pere Lachaise Cemetery. In 1887 he was reinterred in the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, at the request of the Italian government. His monument there dates from 1900. Rossini turned out 39 operas between 1810 and 1829. This involved finding or adapting suitable librettos, determining the specific needs of the casts, supervising the productions - and contending with the usual intrigues of the theatre world. To meet his deadlines he composed with astonishing speed. He wrote his first opera in three days, "The Barber of Seville" in two weeks. His facility - summed up in his famous boast, "Give me a laundry list and I will set it to music" - and habit of reusing old material in new works, led some to dismiss him as a talented hack. Rossini was in fact a serious and self-conscious artist who resuscitated Italy's moribund bel canto tradition with the strength of his creative personality. He introduced a popular spirit in his song-like melodies, which had their roots in his country's folk and pop idioms, and in his irreverent humor. He gave greater prominence to the orchestra and added sheer excitement to the fun with his signature crescendos, a device that never lost its freshness in his hands. In addition he wrote his own vocal embellishments instead of leaving them up to the singers, asserting a greater measure of control for the composer. At a time in Italian opera when even tragedies had to have happy endings, Rossini dared to preserve the original denouments of Voltaire's "Tancrède" and Shakespeare's "Othello" in his adaptations (though he provided alternative upbeat finales just in case - he was always practical). In France he simplified his vocal lines and made the accompaniments more colorful and sophisticated, not simply as a concession to French taste but as a natural stage of his development. As he was first to admit, Rossini's true forte was comedy, and in serious opera he remained in many ways tied to the previous century. The more emotional qualities Donizetti, Bellini, and later Verdi strove for were not for him, and his retirement at the dawn of the Romantic era in music now seems remarkably astute. His impact on Italian music during the first half of the 1800s was neverthess seminal, while "William Tell" influenced French grand opera for a generation.
Bio by: Bobb Edwards