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Gioachino Rossini and the “William Tell” Overture

     Gioachino Antonio Rossini (February 29, 1792 –November 13, 1868) was an Italian composer who wrote 39 operas as well as sacred music, chamber music, songs, and some instrumental and piano pieces.  He was born into a family of musicians in Pesaro, a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy which was then part of the Papal States. 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 musical group.

     Rossini’s father was sent to prison in 1799 for welcoming Napoleon Bonaparte’s troops when they arrived in northern Italy and remained there until June 1800.   His mother took him to Bologna, making a living as a leading singer at various theatres of the Romagna region. Her husband would ultimately join her in Bologna.  While at Bologna, the boy had three years of instruction in the playing of the harpsichord from Giuseppe Prinetti, originally from Novara.  He was eventually taken from Prinetti, but in Angelo Tesei, he found a congenial music master, and learned to sight-read, play accompaniments on the piano, and sing well enough to take solo parts in the church when he was ten years of age.

     In 1805 he appeared at the theatre of the Commune in Ferdinando Paer’s Camilla, his only public appearance as a singer. He was also a capable horn player. 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 Rossini became a cello student under Cavedagni at the Conservatorio di Bologna. The following year he was admitted to the counterpoint class of Padre Stanislao Mattei.

     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 18 years. 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, but in 1813, Tancredi and L’italiana in Algeri were even bigger successes, and catapulted the 20-year-old composer to international fame, and by the age of 21, Rossini had established himself as the idol of the Italian opera public. He continued to write operas for Venice and Milan during the next few years. He would compose one opera a year for each.

     Between 1815 and 1823 Rossini produced 20 operas.  Rossini’s most famous opera, The Barber of Seville, was produced on February 20, 1816, at the Teatro Argentina in Rome.  In 1822, Rossini married the renowned opera singer Isabella Colbran. In the same year, he moved from Italy to Vienna where his operas were the rage of the audiences. In 1824, he became musical director of the Théâtre des Italiens in Paris, France, with a contract to write five new operas a year, and at the expiration of the contract he was to receive a generous pension for life. During his Paris years, between 1824 and 1829, Rossini created the opera Guillaume Tell (William Tell), the production of which in 1829 brought his career as a writer of opera to a close.  At that point, he went into retirement.

     Rossini was thirty-eight years old and had already composed thirty-eight operas.  In 1829 he returned to Bologna. His mother had died in 1827, and he was anxious to be with his father.  Six movements of his Stabat Mater were written in 1832 by Rossini himself and the other six by Giovanni Tadolini, a good musician who was asked by Rossini to complete the work. However, Rossini composed the rest of the score in 1841.  His first wife died in 1845, and on August 16, 1846, he married Olympe Pélissier.  After years of various physical and mental illnesses, he slowly returned to music, composing obscure little works intended for private performance. These included his Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”), which are grouped into 14 volumes, mostly for solo piano, occasionally for voice and various chamber ensembles.  He died at the age of 76 from pneumonia at his country house at Passy on Friday, November 13, 1868.

     While some of Rossini’s operas are still performed, he is probably best known for the overtures written for many of those operas.  Some of his most famous opera overtures include the following:

                The Barber of Seville (Il barbiere di Siviglia, 1816)

                Il Signor Bruschino, ossia Il figlio per azzardo (Signor Bruschino, or The Accidental Son, 1813)

                Il Vlaggio a Reims ((The Journey to Reims, 1825)

                The Italian Girl in Algiers (L’italiana in Algeri, 1813)

                La Cambiale di Matrimonio (The Marriage Contract, 1810)

                La Cenerentola (Cinderella, 1817)

                La Scala di Seta (The Silken Ladder, 1812)

                L’Inganno Felice (The Fortunate Deception, 1812)

                Semiramide (Semiramis, 1823)

                Tancredi (Tancred, 1813)

                The Thieving Magpie (La gazza ladra, 1817)

                William Tell (French: Guillaume Tell, Italian: Guglielmo Tell, 1829)

     Important from Rossini’s early period are six sonate a quattro, or string sonatas, composed in three days, unusually scored for two violins, cello and double bass. The original scores, which dated from 1804 when the composer was twelve, were found in the Library of Congress in Washington D.C. Often transcribed for string orchestra, these sonatas reveal the young composer’s affinity for Haydn and Mozart, yet already showing signs of operatic tendencies, being punctuated by frequent rhythmic changes and dominated by clear, songlike melodies.

     Another solely instrumental work by Rossini is the “Variations for clarinet and small orchestra in C major,” a very early work written in 1809 when he was 17 and still living in Bologna.  The work follows the format of a traditional theme and variations.


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