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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 10338

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The "Swan of Pesaro" is a name linked with some of the most charming musical associations of this age. Though forty years silence made fruitless what should have been the richest creative period of Rossini's life, his great works, poured forth with such facility, and still retaining their grasp in spite of all changes in public opinion, stamp him as being the most gifted composer ever produced by a country so fecund in musical geniuses. The old set forms of Italian opera had already yielded in large degree to the energy and pomp of French declamation, when Rossini poured into them afresh such exhilaration and sparkle as again placed his country in the van of musical Europe. With no pretension to the grand, majestic, and severe, his fresh and delightful melodies, flowing without stint, excited alike the critical and the unlearned into a species of artistic craze, a mania which has not yet subsided. The stiff and stately Oublicheff confesses, with many compunctions of conscience, that, when listening for the first time to one of Rossini's operas, he forgot for the time being all that he had ever known, admired, played, or sung, for he was musically drunk, as if with champagne. Learned Germans might shake their heads and talk about shallowness and contrapuntal rubbish, his crescendo and stretto passages, his tameness and uniformity even in melody, his want of artistic finish; but, as Richard Wagner, his direct antipodes, frankly confesses in his "Oper und Drama," such objections were dispelled by Rossini's opera-airs as if they were mere delusions of the fancy. Essentially different from Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Haydn, or even Weber, with whom he has some affinities, he stands a unique figure in the history of art, an original both as man and musician.

Gioacchino Rossini was the son of a town-trumpeter and an operatic singer of inferior rank, born in Pesaro, Romagna, February 29, 1792. The child attended the itinerant couple in their visits to fairs and musical gatherings, and was in danger, at the age of seven, of becoming a thorough-paced little vagabond, when maternal alarm trusted his education to the friendly hands of the music-master Prinetti. At this tender age even he had been introduced to the world of art, for he sang the part of a child at the Bologna opera.

"Nothing," said Mme. Georgi-Righetti, "could be imagined more tender, more touching, than the voice and action of this remarkable child."

The young Rossini, after a year or two, came under the notice of the celebrated teacher Tesei, of Bologna, who gave him lessons in pianoforte playing and the voice, and obtained him a good place as boy-soprano at one of the churches. He now attracted the attention of the Countess Perticari, who admired his voice, and she sent him to the Lyceum to learn fugue and counterpoint at the feet of a very strict Gamaliel, Padre Mallei. The youth was no dull student, and, in spite of his capricious indolence, which vexed the soul of his tutor, he made such rapid progress that at the age of sixteen he was chosen to write the cantata, annually awarded to the most promising student. Success greeted the juvenile effort, and thus we see Rossini fairly launched as a composer. Of the early operas which he poured out for five years it is not needful to speak, except that one of them so pleased the austere Marshal Massena that he exempted the composer from conscription. The first opera which made Rossini's name famous through Europe was "Tancredi," written for the Venetian public. To this opera belongs the charming "Di tanti palpiti," written under the following circumstances: Mme. Melanotte, the prima donna, took the whim during the final rehearsal that she would not sing the opening air, but must have another. Rossini went home in sore disgust, for the whole opera was likely to be put off by this caprice. There were but two hours before the performance, he sat waiting for his macaroni, when an exquisite air came into his head, and it was written in five minutes.

After his great success he received offers from almost every town in Italy, each clamoring to be served first. Every manager was required to furnish his theatre with an opera from the pen of the new idol. For these earlier essays he received a thousand francs each, and he wrote five or six a year. Stendhall, Rossini's spirited biographer, gives a picturesque account of life in the Italian theatres at this time, a status which remains in some of its features to-day:

"The mechanism is as follows: The manager is frequently one of the most wealthy and considerable persons of the little town he inhabits. He forms a company consisting of prima donna, tenoro, basso cantante, basso buffo, a second female singer, and a third basso. The libretto, or poem, purchased for sixty or eighty francs from some lucky son of the muses, who is generally a half-starved abbé, the hanger-on of some rich family in the neighborhood. The character of the parasite, so admirably painted by Terence, is still to be found in all its glory in Lombardy, where the smallest town can boast of some five or six families of some wealth.

"A maestro, or compo

ser, is then engaged to write a new opera, and he is obliged to adapt his own airs to the voices and capacity of the company. The manager intrusts the care of the financial department to a registrario, who is generally some pettifogging attorney, who holds the position of his steward. The next thing that generally happens is that the manager falls in love with the prima donna; and the progress of this important amour gives ample employment to the curiosity of the gossips.

"The company thus organized at length gives its first representation, after a month of cabals and intrigues, which furnish conversation for the town. This is an event in the simple annals of the town, of the importance of which the residents of large places can form no idea. During months together a population of eight or ten thousand people do nothing but discuss the merit of the forthcoming music and singers with the eager impetuosity which belongs to the Italian character and climate. The first representation, if successful, is generally followed by twenty or thirty more of the same piece, after which the company breaks up.... From this little sketch of theatrical arrangements in Italy some idea may be formed of the life which Rossini led from 1810 to 1816." Between these years he visited all the principal towns, remaining three or four months at each, the idolized guest of the dilettanti of the place. Rossini's idleness and love of good cheer always made him procrastinate his labors till the last moment, and placed him in dilemmas from which only his fluency of composition extricated him. His biographer says:

"The day of performance is fast approaching, and yet he cannot resist the pressing invitations of these friends to dine with them at the tavern. This, of course, leads to a supper, the champagne circulates freely, and the hour of morning steals on apace. At length a compunctious visiting shoots across the mind of the truant composer. He rises abruptly; his friends insist on seeing him home; and they parade the silent streets bareheaded, shouting in chorus whatever comes uppermost, perhaps a portion of a miserere, to the great scandal of pious Catholics tucked snugly in their beds. At length he reaches his lodging, and shutting himself up in his chamber is, at this, to every-day mortals, most ungenial hour, visited by some of his most brilliant inspirations. These he hastily scratches down on scraps of paper, and next morning arranges them, or, in his own phrase, instruments them, amid the renewed interruptions of his visitors. At length the important night arrives. The maestro takes his place at the pianoforte. The theatre is overflowing, people having flocked to the town from ten leagues distance. Every inn is crowded, and those unable to get other accommodations encamp around the theatre in their various vehicles. All business is suspended, and, during the performances, the town has the appearance of a desert. The passions, the anxieties, the very life of a whole population are centered in the theatre."

Rossini would preside at the first three representations, and, after receiving a grand civic banquet, set out for the next place, his portmanteau fuller of music-paper than of other effects, and perhaps a dozen sequins in his pocket. His love of jesting during these gay Bohemian wanderings made him perpetrate innumerable practical jokes, not sparing himself when he had no more available food for mirth. On one occasion, in traveling from Ancona to Reggio, he passed himself off for a musical professor, a mortal enemy of Rossini, and sang the words of his own operas to the most execrable music, in a cracked voice, to show his superiority to that donkey, Rossini. An unknown admirer of his was in such a rage that he was on the point of chastising him for slandering the great musician, about whom Italy raved.

Our composer's earlier style was quite simple and unadorned, a fact difficult for the present generation, only acquainted with the florid beauties of his later works, to appreciate. Rossini only followed the traditions of Italian music in giving singers full opportunity to embroider the naked score at their own pleasure. He was led to change this practice by the following incident. The tenor-singer Velluti was then the favorite of the Italian theatres, and indulged in the most unwarrantable tricks with his composers. During the first performance of "L'Aureliano," at Naples, the singer loaded the music with such ornaments that Rossini could not recognize the offspring of his own brains. A fierce quarrel ensued between the two, and the composer determined thereafter to write music of such a character that the most stupid singer could not suppose any adornment needed. From that time the Rossini music was marked by its florid and brilliant embroidery. Of the same Velluti, spoken of above, an incident is told, illustrating the musical craze of the country and the period. A Milanese gentleman, whose father was very ill, met his friend in the street-"Where are you going?" "To the Scala to be sure." "How! your father lies at the point of death." "Yes! yes! I know, but Velluti sings to-night."

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