Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)

Rossini from his 20's through his 70's

Some out there may find it difficult to class Rossini among the very great composers. I think by the time I'm finished, many might change their minds. Part of the difficulty lies with this composer's primary concentration being opera, regarded as a specialization that has always been more directly tied to entertainment and commercialism than other more academic or purely musical forms. Rossini becomes the first, but certainly not the last, of the vast arsenal of talented Italian composers, to attain international fame and considerable worldly fortune. He wrote 39 operas and a half dozen of the best are still regularly performed. 

Isabella Colbran
With Rossini, we are also dealing with a many faceted personality, one that was generally happy, and a completely competent and thoroughly accomplished musician on many levels, who rose out of the obscurity of Bologna to become by his twenties, an international icon, whose operas were so widely known that people sang from them in the streets.
Rossini was widely travelled, enjoyed a great financial success and lived to the ripe old age of 76. Look at his dates. He was 22 years younger than Beethoven, whom Rossini would meet in Vienna, one of the cities he would become familiar with on his travels, in 1822, when Rossini was 30 years old and in his prime as a composer. Beethoven advised him to stick to writing comic opera, since he was so good at it and it apparently paid well. Rossini would continue doing what he was good at until, by the time he was four years in Paris at age 37, he decided to retire.

Olympe Pélissier
Rossini's mother had died a couple of years back, the same year Beethoven had died. His father was back home in Bologna and he longed to spend the last years of his father's life with him and after all, he had made enough money by then. So he lived in Bologna for nearly twenty years in relative obscurity and didn't compose very much. Rossini had been married for 23 years to the apparently quite stunning Spanish opera singer, Isabella Colbran (1785-1845)  -note she was older than him, though the two had separated when Rossini was 45 in 1837. We may safely assume there was some theatricality to their relationship. A year after his wife's death, they had been separated for a few years, Rossini married Olympe Pélissier (1799-1878) , a famous French artists' model (which means she frequently sat or held poses in the nude for them). They'd met shorty after the separation from his first wife and we can probably safely assume that she was for him all that a wife would be. Nevertheless, times being what they were, they observed conventions as facts of life; they could only marry after the death of the first wife, a year later in fact. They married in 1846. Rossini was by that time 54 years old.

In order to understand Rossini's contribution to music, it is necessary to place his life as a transparency over the lives of many other composers. Rossini, as did Haydn, benefited from a long life, so it is not true that all great composers die young, indeed relatively few have. Nor is it necessarily true that they die poor.  This one didn't.  Anyway, during his lifetime, Rossini was to become eclectic in both musical and cultural terms. He spent many years working as an opera composer in Italy, Vienna, Paris and even after almost 20 years away in Bologna, finally returning to spend the rest of his life in what was then, can one imagine?, a countryside within the 16th Arrondissement of Paris, known, of course, as Passy.

In his 20's, Rossini had been drawn to Vienna, because his operas were enormously popular there and eventually he met Beethoven. That the Vienna scene left its stamp on some of his music demonstrates Rossini's familiarity with Mozart's operas and Haydn's symphonies, even more familiar with Beethoven's symphonies, from which Rossini routinely steals, not melodies or rhythms, but instrumental combinations and orchestral effects for which Rossini became well known. You also notice that at some points, there wouldn't be much that is stylistically different between Rossini and early works by Verdi, who was in many ways his successor.

First and foremost, the difference between Rossini and those composers academics lump together artificially as the 1st Vienna School, derives from an Italian notion when it comes to music education; "Se non puoi cantare, non puoi suonare" : "If you can't sing it, you can't play it." (Notice too the origins of the musical forms Sonata and Cantata). The result is going to be an emphasis on musical line, on melody, and all of it will derive one way or another from a human voice with a natural range. There are traditions that are built up over time, and in the case of Italy during the 18th century, an idea took form that would spread from there very considerably over the next century, the conservatory of music, the idea that schools of musical education, involving training in instrument specific musical skills, could produce more widespread professional musical competence. Much of this effort in Italy devolved to providing musicians for two natural and competing institutions; the Opera and the Church.

The subjects of opera frequently operate on several social levels, as they do in many of the comedies of Shakespeare. Opera became where those from any class or station in life might find amusement. Opera houses were often also places where food and drink were offered and where gambling establishments occasionally operated at the fringes of the often elaborate lobbies of the opera houses which began to spring up from the early 17th century onward, often becoming the biggest buildings in town, except of course for the church. Operas were sung dramatic productions with orchestral accompaniment, made out of many sources, including Shakespeare. The subjects were usually royals with their subservient layers of servants, tradesmen, soldiers, peasants and priests. Operatic subjects occasionally turned to fantasy and myth for inspiration.

The subjects of the Church were also traditional and everyone in society was able to come together and participate in the Mass. There are of course many instances of great opera and great church music from Italy and elsewhere during this period. Some of it is still performed today. Rossini, as Mozart did before him, contributed to both these genres, the opera and the mass.

But another thing happens sometimes when one has done something long enough, has become good at it, has done it well, even in a routine kind of way, has seen much of the world, has become even rather well off, even a bit over indulgent in a few vices, like cooking and eating, and has met many goodly famous people and acquired the habits of society, including seeing through its vanities. One might very well become a cynic, or with any talent, a satirist. Here's where we come to Rossini's great final treasure troves, for while on retirement in Paris with his ample artist model wife, he was still writing music. He called them his péchés de vieillesse or sins of old age. Rossini composed them during the last nine years of his life. They are a collection of 150 pieces in 14 volumes, unpublished during his lifetime and coming out into critical editions, which we hope preserve his original titles. They are variously vocal and solo piano music designed specifically to be performed in a salon, a concert in a private home rather than an opera house; private music, the nature of which might or might not be private. Many of these are in a frankly cynical vain and the best part is that the laughter is often made with music alone rather than aided with words. Just how Rossini accomplishes being able to sing before playing much of this remains part of his greatness as a composer.

So, I could have told those who've never heard of Gioachino Rossini, to go have a listen to some of his opera overtures, particularly those to The Barber of Seville or William Tell. These would recall to memory just the kind of “spaghetti music” this composer is best known for. And of course, since history is as full of jokes as ever modern life is, as Rossini gathered and stole his props from others to create his operas, others have taken his music to represent to the public anything from pasta to camp TV Westerns. Rather, I would prefer and suggest that Rossini will eventually be best known for these late works of his, which should be both better known and more widely performed. Yes, it's time to make Rossini's private music more public.

The last of these compositions, which really is the last of Rossini's major works, lies just outside the 14 aforementioned volumes, and is not too surprisingly, a religious work, a Mass. But in it we hear religious music as it will be written, particularly by Verdi many years to come. Rossini calls it in his adopted French, Le Petite Messe Solennelle, a little solemn mass indeed. It is neither small nor particularly solemn. Originally he'd written it in 1863 for chorus and singers backed up by a couple harmoniums. But then considering someone would orchestrate it eventually and might get it wrong, Rossini decided to do that too in 1866-1867. Both versions were published simultaneously and both are often performed, the harmoniums being replaced by pianos or a piano and an organ. This is Rossini's last orchestration and it is a storehouse of technique that draws from the Viennese composers who were a generation or more his elders, now long gone, from obscure Italian opera composers too, also you hear snippets of Mendelssohn, Schumann, Wagner, and of course Rossini widely anticipates Verdi. The orchestration is brilliant throughout and often thrilling and by turns, even breathtaking.

The parts of this Mass (and the videos) are as follows:
Gioachino Rossini - Petite Messe Solennelle (1863-1867)

1. Kyrie (the whole section is scored for chorus).
2. Christe.
3. Kyrie. 

4. Gloria in excelsis Deo (chorus & quartettino for all soloists).
5. Gratias (terzettino for the same).
6. Domine Deus (aria for tenor). 

7. Qui tollis (duet for soprano and contralto).
8. Quoniam (aria for bass; in all three posted masses this movement is given to a bass soloist).

9. Cum sancto spiritu (chorus).

"After a repeat of the very first chords of the "Gloria", the piece, acting almost like an act finale, settles into an extended fugue. This is a real tour de force of musical craftsmanship, reflecting the thorough classical training in harmony and counterpoint that Rossini received all those years ago at the Bologna Academy.” [Agreed! This Gloria can stand alone as a concert piece quite easily.] 

PART 5. 
10. Credo (chorus & quartettino for all soloists).
11. Crucifixus (aria for soprano). 

PART 6. 
12. Et resurrexit (chorus & quartettino for all soloists). 

PART 7. 
13. Il preludio religioso.
14. Sanctus - Benedictus (chorus with soloists' interjections).

15. O salutatis (aria for soprano).
PART 9. 
16. Agnus Dei (aria for contralto with extensive choral interjections). 

The musicians in this outstanding performance are:
Alexandrina Pendatchanska, soprano
Manuela Custer, mezzo soprano
Stefano Secco, tenor
Mirco Palazzi, bass
Choir of the Leipsig Opera
Gewandhausorchester, Leipsig, Germany
Conductor: Riccardo Chailly
It was recorded live on Nov 16, 2010.


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