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Classical Composers A-Z: Gioachino Antonio Rossini

Peter Wintersgill presents a brief account of the life of Italian composer Gioachino Antonio Rossini who wrote his first opera when he was a teenager.

Born
29th February, 1792, at Pesaro, East Coast Italy.

Father
Giuseppe, town trumpeter and singer; from Lugo.

Mother
Anna, baker's daughter, soprano singer and horn player.

Childhood
This was rather chequered, as parents were often away singing and he was looked after by grandma. He went to school in Pesaro, between apprenticeships to blacksmiths and butchers. He went to Lugo aged 10, his father's home town, where he learnt to play the horn, also had general musical teaching from Padre Matai, a pupil of Padre Martini. Early on he grew especially fond of Haydn and Mozart. He moved to Bologna aged 12, where he played the harpsichord at the theatre.

Adolescence
He entered the academy at Bologna aged 14 the same age as Mozart; while there he wrote his first opera - Demetrio e Polibio - finished it in 1812, followed by the farce La Cambiale di Matrimonio and La Pietra del Paragone (the touchstone), given in Milan in 1812. At 16 he wrote the String Sonatas, at 25 La Gazza Ladra and at 28 the Messa di Gloria.

Early Adult Life
A handsome lad, he was soon a social success, so much so that he contracted VD. L'ltaliane in Algeria (opera Buffa) and Tancredi (opera Seria) were produced in 1813. Next year he became director of the Opera at Naples, which was to become one of his favourite homes.

It was there that he produced Elizabetta Regina D'Ingliterra and II Barbiere di Siviglia, which shared the same overture. The latter recovered after a poor first night and has been a favourite ever since. Although written half a century after Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, about the same characters, the action is set before that of Mozart's.

So keen was he on Haydn's music that he conducted The Creation in Bologna in 1808 and again in Naples in 1821. His Othello, to be overshadowed by Verdi's later on, appeared in Rome in 1816.

He met a prima donna, Isabella Colbran, who appeared in his operas, and made her first his mistress, and later in 1822 his wife. She was seven years older than he and soon after their marriage her voice began to decline. That year he visited Vienna where he met Beethoven, now deaf and rather old. It seems each had a high opinion of the other, but communication was rather difficult. He tried to start a fund for the impoverished master, but without success.

Soon after, he travelled to London via Paris and was a great success and met George IV, who was very impressed. He was well paid for his work in England, visiting also Cambridge and Brighton, but soon returned to Paris to become Director of the theatre there in 1824.

He then wrote Il Vaggio a Reims, a coronation anthem for Charles X, and three operas. These were Semiramide, Le Comte Ory, a revised version of Moses, originally written in 1818, and finally his last and perhaps best known opera Guilliame Tell in 1892. When the revolution started in 1830 he left Paris and returned to Bologna.

Later Adult Life
He had by now become famous all over the musical world and was feted and honoured wherever he went. He was known as the Italian Mozart, being as good at Italian opera as his idol and bridging the gap between the classical style and the more modern romantic period. He wrote a collection of songs and duets in 1835 known as the Soirees Musicales. Meanwhile his mother had died in 1827, his father surviving until 1839.

Though most of his output consisted of operas, he wrote two well-known choral works - The Stabat Mater (1842). which had its premiere in Bologna, and The Petite Messe Solonelle (1864) a rather strange title, as it is neither small nor solemn. He was again a great success in Bologna, both socially and musically, the centre of attention and activity. He met young Bellini in Milan on his journey back, to whom he gave much appreciated advice.

He had a series of health problems about this time: he suffered nervous trouble, arising from mainly financial problems, which was known at this time as neurasthenia. He also had physical symptoms, such as pain in the bladder region, due no doubt, to infection of the water works; this may have been connected with VD he had in his younger days. He visited spas for treatment with doubtful benefit. On one occasion he
had an operation for gall stones.

In 1855 he returned to Paris with his second wife Olympe, Isabella having died in 1845. She seemed to have been a great help to Rossini, who was in need of this on account of his various illnesses.

He wrote very little music during his last 30 years or so; what he did write he called his pieches de vieilles (Sins of old age). He became very fat in his old age, and this was a ready target for cartoonists. He became a grand knight of the Crown of Italy, among other honours that came his way from many different countries.

He got gradually weaker and finally died on Friday, November 13th, 1868, in Paris, aged 76 of a skin infection, following an operation for cancer of the rectum. His funeral was attended by 4,000 people.

His wife Olympe survived him by ten years; at about the time of her death his coffin was disinterred and re-buried in Florence.

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