Walking Around with Rossini in the Ear

Rossini! © Charles Thibo

Decades ago, around 1985, I possessed a thing called “walkman”. It was the must-have gadget at the time: a small cassette player with earphones. Actually the first wearable device to listen to music. I was so proud of my white Sony WM-22 – later I had a black DD II model, the Rolls-Royce edition in a metal housing. And I listened to Rossini all the time.

I remember walking from the bus stop to my college (see my second post dated August 5, 2015) down the alley towards the main entrance and being stopped by Serge, one of my class mates. “What is it that you are listening to?” Now, would I admit listening to Rossini’s overtures “Guillaume Tell”, “Il Barbieri di Siviglia” or “La Gazza Ladra”? Or rather pretend to listen to Pink Floyd or Queen? What if he would ask to listen?

“Didn’t know you liked classical music.”

Serge was the sunny boy of our class, admired by the girls and always knowing the right thing to say, to do or to have. Quite unlike the timid loser I felt I was at the time. I opted for the truth and said with a defiant voice: “Rossini.” Silence. “Cool”, he finally said and smiled. “Didn’t know you liked classical music. May I?” So I handed over the earphones, but before he had a chance to listen to the music, other class mates showed up and I hastily stashed the walkman away.

I still like Rossini. And I still like his overtures. That cassette was one of the first I owed, and at that time I imagined myself a conductor sometimes, especially when I listened to “Semiramide”. 2:02 minutes into the overture – string pizzicato*, accompanied by the woods, a minute later the full orchestra sets in for a few bars, then again string pizzicato and the woods, finally the central theme introduced by the strings, picked up by the flutes, then by the brass – wonderful! Such vitality, such energy. This vitality can also be found in “Guillaume Tell” in the finale and the opening of “La Gazza Ladra”.

I find it hard to sit still when Rossini unleashes the orchestra on the audience! And I firmly belive that if you want to foster the interest of children in classical music, Rossini’s overtures are safe bet. In “Guillaume Tell” you can actually hear the Swiss soldiers galloping into battle, and the theme has often been incorporated into movie soundtracks.

Belcanto and the castrati

Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote the overture to begin the opera in two acts “Semiramide”, first performed in 1828 in Venice. The Italian composer composed the soprano part – Queen Semiramide of Babylon – for his wife Isabella Colbran. It was Rossinis last opera seria (dramatic opera as opposed to the opera buffa, a comical opera). “Semiramide” is rarely performed nowadays, while other operas by Rossini like “Il Barbieri di Siviglia”, “Guillaume Tell” and “La Cenerentola” are more popular.

Rossini is one of the best known Italian composers and the foremost representative of the “Belcanto” (literally: nice singing) tradition. His operas met such a success during his lifetime that his style and his operas blasted away all other European opera composers. One of the reasons has been aptly described by the French writer Stendhal, a great admirer of Rossini: Rossini’s music is not mirroring the feelings of the different characters of his operas, it rather expresses the feelings that cannot be described with words i.e. through the “Belcanto”, but exclusively by instruments.

However, the “Belcanto” relied to a high degree on high-pitched, mannered male voices – the voices of the Italian castrati. When they vanished, the “Belcanto” tradition had to make place for a more natural style of singing.

Harsh words from Berlioz

It is interesting that one of my favourite French composers, Hector Berlioz, absolutely loathed Rossini. Rossini represented a style that Berlioz could not accept from aesthetic point of view. In his opinion, Rossini tried to impose with his opera buffa a style that was dishonouring the legacy of Mozart! And since Berlioz was a gifted journalist and music critic, he started a polemic campaign against the Italian. Rossini stayed rather aloof of the criticism as he had the audience on his side. Later Berlioz would admit that his harsh words against Rossini and his operas often were unjustified and resulted at least partly from his jealousy.

Rossini, the son of a horn player and a singer, started his career as a soprano singer – when he was a boy in local Italian churches. Apparently he had a lovely voice. No one would have thought at that time that he would quickly become the master of Italian “Belcanto”. What a talent! What a career!

Abbado versus Bonynge

There is an excellent recording by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe conducted by Claudio Abbado with the overtures of the five mentioned operas and the overtures of “L’Italiana in Algeri” and “La Scala di Seta”. Of course, the operas are also available, and I am very pleased with the recording of “Semiramide” by the London Symphony Orchestra or the recording of “La Cenerentola” featuring the Orchestra e coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna and my favourite opera singer Cecilia Bartoli. The recording of the entire opera “Semiramide” is interesting on two accounts: First, a comparison of the two versions of the overture nicely shows the differences in the interpretation of the partition by the two conductors: While Abbado puts a lot of emphasis on the pizzicato*, you can barely hear it on the recording of Richard Bonynge and the London Symphony Orchestra. Personally, I think the interpretation of Abbado is more harmonious. Secondly, it also demonstrate very nicely how Rossini uses the different themes introduced in the overture as a signature all over the opera.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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5 thoughts on “Walking Around with Rossini in the Ear”

  1. Ah, Rossini, I’m still not 100% comfortable with this composer. I need to check out the recordings you mention, as I’d like to reassess my position on him (in my mind, nice but a bit superficial)

    1. Superficial? That depends on the scale you use… But it is precisely one of the things that is commonly said about Rossini. But what is the problem with superficiality? That leads us to the question of the purpose of music. Is music meant to please the ear and to be entertaining? Then, superficiality is not an issue. Or is the purpose of music to keep our mind busy and make us stand in awe before Bach and Beethoven? Perhaps music could serve both purposes and each “category” would have its own merit.The discussion about the “superficiality” of such and such composer reminds me of the discussion “opera versus operette”, which makes little sense in my eyes/ears. Look at the score of Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld”. Demanding as far as the orchestra is concerned, and yet oh so entertaining! 😉

      1. All good questions. And I don’t have a simple answer. What I personally noticed is that I need a certain level of complexity in order to enjoy the music. A local radio station. For example plays a lot of the minor and more unknown composers. And every time I hear them blindly I think to my self “sounds a bit like Mozart but more boring” and it ends up being one of those minor composers.

        This is not to say this applies to Rossini, it maybe just my prejudice in the back of my head.

  2. I was cleaning the house the other day, and actually found my old cassette walkman. Unfortunately, it didn’t work anymore. I still have a working CD walkman though, last time I checked 🙂

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