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Great Italian and French Composers By George T. Ferris Characters: 13657

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04

The same year (1816) was produced at Naples the opera of "Otello," which was an important point of departure in the reforms introduced by Rossini on the Italian stage. Before speaking further of this composer's career, it is necessary to admit that every valuable change furthered by him had already been inaugurated by Mozart, a musical genius so great that he seems to have included all that went before, all that succeeded him. It was not merely that Rossini enriched the orchestration to such a degree, but, revolting from the delay of the dramatic movement, caused by the great number of arias written for each character, he gave large prominence to the concerted pieces, and used them where monologue had formerly been the rule. He developed the basso and baritone parts, giving them marked importance in serious opera, and worked out the choruses and finales with the most elaborate finish.

Lord Mount Edgcumbe, a celebrated connoisseur and admirer of the old school, wrote of these innovations, ignoring the fact that Mozart had given the weight of his great authority to them before the daring young Italian composer:

"The construction of these newly-invented pieces is essentially different from the old. The dialogue, which used to be carried on in recitative, and which, in Metastasio's operas, is often so beautiful and interesting, and now cut up (and rendered unintelligible if it were worth listening to) into pezzi concertati, or long singing conversations, which present a tedious succession of unconnected, ever-changing motives, having nothing to do with each other; and if a satisfactory air is for a moment introduced, which the ear would like to dwell upon, to hear modulated, varied, and again returned to, it is broken off, before it is well understood, by a sudden transition in an entirely different melody, time, and key, and recurs no more, so that no impression can be made, or recollection of it preserved. Single songs are almost exploded.... Even the prima donna, who formerly would have complained at having less than three or four airs allotted to her, is now satisfied with having one single cavatina given to her during the whole opera."

In "Otello," Rossini introduced his operatic changes to the Italian public, and they were well received; yet great opposition was manifested by those who clung to the time-honored canons. Sigismondi, of the Naples Conservatory, was horror-stricken on first seeing the score of this opera. The clarionets were too much for him, but on seeing third and fourth horn-parts, he exclaimed: "What does the man want? The greatest of our composers have always been contented with two. Shades of Pergolesi, of Leo, of Jomelli! How they must shudder at the bare thought! Four horns! Are we at a hunting-party? Four horns! Enough to blow us to perdition!" Donizetti, who was Sigismondi's pupil, also tells an amusing incident of his preceptor's disgust. He was turning over a score of "Semiramide" in the library, when the maestro came in and asked him what music it was. "Rossini's," was the answer. Sigismondi glanced at the page and saw 1. 2. 3. trumpets, being the first, second, and third trumpet parts. Aghast, he shouted, stuffing his fingers in his ears, "One hundred and twenty-three trumpets! Corpo di Cristo! the world's gone mad, and I shall go mad too!" And so he rushed from the room, muttering to himself about the hundred and twenty-three trumpets.

The Italian public, in spite of such criticism, very soon accepted the opera of "Otello" as the greatest serious opera ever written for their stage. It owed much, however, to the singers who illustrated its r?les. Mme. Colbran, afterward Rossini's wife, sang Desdemona, and Davide, Otello. The latter was the predecessor of Rubini as the finest singer of the Rossinian music. He had the prodigious compass of three octaves; and M. Bertin, a French critic, says of this singer, so honorably linked with the career of our composer: "He is full of warmth, verve, energy, expression, and musical sentiment; alone he can fill up and give life to a scene; it is impossible for another singer to carry away an audience as he does, and, when he will only be simple, he is admirable. He is the Rossini of song; he is the greatest singer I ever heard." Lord Byron, in one of his letters to Moore, speaks of the first production at Milan, and praises the music enthusiastically, while condemning the libretto as a degradation of Shakespeare.

"La Cenerentola" and "La Gazza Ladra" were written in quick succession for Naples and Milan. The former of these works, based on the old Cinderella myth, was the last opera written by Rossini to illustrate the beauties of the contralto voice, and Madame Georgi-Righetti, the early friend and steadfast patroness of the musician during his early days of struggle, made her last great appearance in it before retiring from the stage. In this composition, Rossini, though one of the most affluent and rapid of composers, displays that economy in art which sometimes characterized him. He introduced in it many of the more beautiful airs from his earlier and less successful works. He believed on principle that it was folly to let a good piece of music be lost through being married to a weak and faulty libretto. The brilliant opera of "La Gazza Ladra," set to the story of a French melodrama, "La Pie Voleuse," aggravated the quarrel between Paer, the director of the French opera, and the gifted Italian. Paer had designed to have written the music himself, but his librettist slyly turned over the poem to Rossini, who produced one of his masterpieces in setting it. The audience at La Scala received the work with the noisiest demonstrations, interrupting the progress of the drama with constant cries of "Bravo! Maestro!" "Viva Rossini!" The composer afterward said that acknowledging the calls of the audience fatigued him much more than the direction of the opera. When the same work was produced four years after in London, under Mr. Ebers's management, an incident related by that impresario in his "Seven Years of the King's Theatre" shows how eagerly it was received by an English audience.

"When I entered the stage door, I met an intimate friend, with a long face and uplifted eyes. 'Good God! Ebers, I pity you from my soul. This ungrateful public,' he continued. 'The wretches! Why! my dear sir, they have not left you a seat in your own house.' Relieved from the fears he had created, I joined him in his laughter, and proceeded, assuring him that I felt no ill toward the public for their conduct toward me."

Passing over "Armida," written for the opening of the new San Carlo at Naples, "Adelaida di Borgogna," for the Roman Carnival of 1817, and "Adina," for a Lisbon theatre, we come to a work which is one of Rossini's most solid

claims on musical immortality, "Mosé in Egitto," first produced at the San Carlo, Naples, in 1818. In "Mosé," Rossini carried out still further than ever his innovations, the two principal r?les-Mosé, and Faraoni-being assigned to basses. On the first representation, the crossing of the Red Sea moved the audience to satirical laughter, which disconcerted the otherwise favorable reception of the piece, and entirely spoiled the final effects. The manager was at his Avit's end, till Tottola, the librettist, suggested a prayer for the Israelites before and after the passage of the host through the cleft waters. Rossini instantly seized the idea, and, springing from bed in his night-shirt, wrote the music with almost inconceivable rapidity, before his embarrassed visitors recovered from their surprise. The same evening the magnificent Dal tuo stellato soglio ("To thee, Great Lord") was performed with the opera.

Let Stendhall, Rossini's biographer, tell the rest of the story: "The audience was delighted as usual with the first act, and all went well till the third, when, the passage of the Red Sea being at hand, the audience as usual prepared to be amused. The laughter was just beginning in the pit, when it was observed that Moses was about to sing. He began his solo, the first verse of a prayer, which all the people repeat in chorus after Moses. Surprised at this novelty, the pit listened and the laughter entirely ceased. The chorus, exceedingly fine, was in the minor. Aaron continues, followed by the people. Finally, Eleia addresses to Heaven the same supplication, and the people respond. Then all fall on their knees and repeat the prayer with enthusiasm; the miracle is performed, the sea is opened to leave a path for the people protected by the Lord. This last part is in the major. It is impossible to imagine the thunders of applause that resounded through the house: one would have thought it was coming down. The spectators in the boxes, standing up and leaning over, called out at the top of their voices, 'Bello, bello! O che hello!', I never saw so much enthusiasm nor such a complete success, which was so much the greater, inasmuch as the people were quite prepared to laugh.... I am almost in tears when I think of this prayer. This state of things lasted a long time, and one of its effects was to make for its composer the reputation of an assassin, for Dr. Cottogna is said to have remarked: 'I can cite to you more than forty attacks of nervous fever or violent convulsions on the part of young women, fond to excess of music, which have no other origin than the prayer of the Hebrews in the third act, with its superb change of key.'" Thus by a stroke of genius, a scene which first impressed the audience as a piece of theatrical burlesque, was raised to sublimity by the solemn music written for it.

M. Bochsa some years afterward produced "Mosé" as an oratorio in London, and it failed. A new libretto, however, "Pietro L'Eremito,"* again transformed the music into an opera.

* The same music was set to a poem founded on the first

crusade, all the most effective situations being

dramatically utilized for the Christian legend.

Ebers tells us that Lord Sefton, a distinguished connoisseur, only pronounced the general verdict in calling it the greatest of serious operas, for it was received with the greatest favor. A gentleman of high rank was not satisfied with assuring the manager that he had deserved well of his country, but avowed his determination to propose him for membership at the most exclusive of aristocratic clubs-White's.

"La Donna del Lago," Rossini's next great work, also first produced at the San Carlo during the Carnival of 1820, though splendidly performed, did not succeed well the first night. The composer left Naples the same night for Milan, and coolly informed every one en route that the opera was very successful, which proved to be true when he reached his journey's end, for the Neapolitans on the second night reversed their decision into an enthusiasm as marked as their coldness had been.

Shortly after this Rossini married his favorite prima donna, Madame Colbran. He had just completed two of his now forgotten operas, "Bianca e Faliero," and "Matilda di Shabran," but did not stay to watch their public reception. He quietly took away the beautiful Colbran, and at Bologne was married by the archbishop. Thence the freshly-wedded couple visited Vienna, and Rossini there produced his "Zelmira," his wife singing the principal part. One of the most striking of this composer's works in invention and ingenious development of ideas, Carpani says of it: "It contains enough to furnish not one but four operas. In this work, Rossini, by the new riches which he draws from his prodigious imagination, is no longer the author of 'Otello,' 'Tancredi,' 'Zoraide,' and all his preceding works; he is another composer, new, agreeable, and fertile, as much as at first, but with more command of himself, more pure, more masterly, and, above all, more faithful to the interpretation of the words. The forms of style employed in this opera according to circumstances are so varied, that now we seem to hear Gluck, now Traetta, now Sacchini, now Mozart, now Handel; for the gravity, the learning, the naturalness, the suavity of their conceptions, live and blossom again in 'Zelmira.' The transitions are learned, and inspired more by considerations of poetry and sense than by caprice and a mania for innovation. The vocal parts, always natural, never trivial, give expression to the words without ceasing to be melodious. The great point is to preserve both. The instrumentation of Rossini is really incomparable by the vivacity and freedom of the manner, by the variety and justness of the coloring." Yet it must be conceded that, while this opera made a deep impression on musicians and critics, it did not please the general public. It proved languid and heavy with those who could not relish the science of the music and the skill of the combinations. Such instances as this are the best answer to that school of critics, who have never ceased clamoring that Rossini could write nothing but beautiful tunes to tickle the vulgar and uneducated mind.

"Semiramide," first performed at the Fenice theatre in Venice on February 3, 1823, was the last of Rossini's Italian operas, though it had the advantage of careful rehearsals and a noble caste. It was not well received at first, though the verdict of time places it high among the musical masterpieces of the century. In it were combined all of Rossini's, ideas of operatic reform, and the novelty of some of the innovations probablv accounts for the inability of his earlier public to appreciate its merits. Mme. Rossini made her last public appearance in this great work.

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