Rossini vs. [your name here]

In chapter 1 of volume three, Taruskin goes a few rounds with the most popular form of musical entertainment of the early nineteenth century: opera. Right from the starting bell, Taruskin uses contrast as a way to cast his examples, pitting Beethoven’s lone opera against Rossini’s plethora of operas. I have organized the rest of the chapter in similar head to head battles below, with accompanying audio/visual examples. The point? Rossini can hold his own in the ring against pretty much anybody.

Rossini vs. Beethoven—Though Beethoven’s legend long overshadowed Rossini’s talent in the history books, Taruskin follows the recent trend of righting the imbalance. Beethoven wrote only one opera, Fidelio. He tinkered with it for a decade and wrote no fewer than four overtures for it. Rossini, on the other hand, could write an opera almost in the time it took Beethoven to strap on his boots. He wrote his famous Barber of Seville in about three weeks, and its overture is reused wholesale from an earlier opera. These two arias capture well the widely contrasting roles that these two composers played for history. Rossini was Beethoven’s “great counterweight.”

Beethoven, Fidelio, “Gott! welch’ Dunkel hier!”

Rossini, Barber of Seville, “Largo al Factotum”

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Rossini vs. Paisiello—When Rossini wrote The Barber, he was not seizing on an open market. The play by Beaumarchais had already been set, and very successfully so, by Giovanni Paisiello in 1782.

Paisiello, Barber of Seville, Overture

Rossini, Barber of Seville, Overture

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Rossini vs. Rossini—Composers take on their own brand identity to history. Or should I say historians and critics often apply brand-like characteristics to composers. For instance, Mozart is the precocious melodist, Beethoven is the isolated genius, and Stravinsky is the couture modernist. Rossini’s brand is typically informed by his comedies, for which he is best known today, and the excerpt below from L’Italiana in Algeri is representative (can you count how many times they sing “bum bum”?). But in his own day, Rossini was equally known as a composer of serious opera. “Di tanti palpiti,” from his 1913 opera Tancredi, was the most famous aria he ever wrote. These serious operas were a continuation of 18th century seria conventions, not a part of the “innovative” buffa scene, and that is perhaps why they have not been as well remembered.

Rossini, L’Italiana in Algieri, Act I Finale

Rossini, Tancredi, “Di Tanti Palpiti” (The cabaletta of the title starts at 4:28)

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Rossini vs. Bellini and Donizetti—Even though Rossini retired at a young age (and then ate his way through the rest of his life), there were plenty of whippersnappers ready to pick up where he left off. He lived long enough to witness the furor and popularity of both Vincenzo Bellini and Gaetano Donizetti’s careers. Below are two of their most famous scenes: “Casta Diva” is the quintessential example of the bel canto style, and Donizetti’s Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor became an example that every mad scene that followed—and there were many—tried to live up to.

Bellini,  Norma, “Casta Diva”

Donizetti, Lucia di Lammermoor, Mad Scene

3 Comments

  1. Actually, Rossini did not retire early from composing,just from writing operas.
    He went on to write quite a few non-operatic works, such as the piano pieces “Sins of my old age”, and such major choral works as the Stabat Mater and the Petite Messe Solonelle,among other things.

  2. Robert—You’re right in pointing out that Rossini continued to write music off and on throughout the rest of his life. But I meant “retirement” in a strict sense, as one does when ceasing an occupation. A football player may retire from the game, but continue to play for amusement or the occasional benefit game. And when Rossini got out of the opera business, he continued to make and write music, chiefly for amusement, or as Taruskin says, “as a sort of hobby” (III, 12).

    This is demonstrative of yet another contrast between Rossini and the Great Genius types like Beethoven—in some sense, we could never imagine Beethoven “retiring,” because for him, composing was an art, not a business. Not so for Rossini.

  3. Gustav is a composer. For months he has been carrying on a raging debate with Säure over who is better, Beethoven or Rossini. Säure is for Rossini. “I’m not so much for Beethoven qua Beethoven,” Gustav argues, “but as he represents the German dialectic, the incorporation of more and more notes into the scale, culminating with dodecaphonic democracy, where all notes get an equal hearing, Beethoven was one of the architects of musical freedom—he submitted to the demands of history, despite his deafness. While Rossini was retiring at the age of 36, womanizing and getting fat, Beethoven was living a life filled with tragedy and grandeur.”

    “So?” is Säure’s customary answer to that one. “Which would you rather do? The point is,” cutting off Gustav’s usually indignant scream, “a person feels good listening to Rossini. All you feel like listening to Beethoven is going out and invading Poland. Ode to Joy indeed. The man didn’t even have a sense of humor. I tell you,” shaking his skinny old fist, “there is more of the Sublime in the snare-drum part to La Gazza Ladra than in the whole Ninth Symphony. With Rossini, the whole point is that lovers always get together, isolation is overcome, and like it or not that is the one great contripetal movement of the World. Through the machieries of greed, pettiness, and the abuse of power, love occurs. All the shit is transmuted to gold. The walls are breached, the balconies are scaled—listen!” It was a night in early May, and the final bombardment of Berlin was in progress. Säure had to shout his head off. “The Italian girl is in Algiers, the Barber’s in the crockery, the magpie’s stealing everything in singht! The World is rushing together….”

    This rainy morning, in the quiet, it seems that Gustav’s German Dialectic has come to its end. He has just had the word, all the way from Vienna along some musicians’ grapevine, that anton Webern is dead. “Shot in May, by the Americans. Senseless, accidental if you believe in accidents — some mess cook from North Carolina, some late draftee with a .45 he hardly knew how to use, too late for WW II, but not for Webern. The excuse for raiding the house was that Webern’s brother [n.b. actually W’s son-in-law] was in the black market. Who isn’t? Do you know what kind of myth that’s going to make in a thousand years? The young barbarians coming in to murder the Last European, standing at the far end of what’d been going on since Bach, an expansion of music’s polymorphous perversity till all notes were truly equal at last…. What was there to go after Webern? It was the moment of maximum freedom. It all had to come down. Another Götterdämmerung —”

    (…)

    “What’s wrong with Rossini?” hollers Säure, lighting up. “Eh?”

    “Ugh,” screams Gustav, “ugh, ugh, ugh, Rossini,” and they’re at it again, “you wretched antique. Why doesn’t anybody go to concerts any more? You think it’s because of the war? Oh no, I’ll tell you why, old man—because the halls are full of people like you! Stuffed full! Half asleep, nodding and smiling, farting through their dentures, hawking and spitting into paper bags, dreaming up ever more ingenious plots against their children—not just their own, but other people’s children too! Just sitting around, at the concert with all these other snow-topped old rascals, just a nice background murmur of wheezing, belching, intestinal gurgles, scratching, sucking, croacking, an entire opera house crammed full of them right up to standing room, they’re doddering in the aisles, hanging off the tops of the highest balconies, and you know what they’re all listening to, Säure? Eh? The’re all listening to Rossini! Sitting there drooling away to some medley of predictable little tunes, leaning forward elbows on knees muttering, ‘C’mon, c’mon then Rossini, let’s get all this pretentious fanfare stuff out of the way, let’s get on to the real good tunes!” Behavior as shameless as eating a whole jar of peanut butter at one sitting. On comes the sprightly Tancredi tarantella, and they stamp their feet in delight, they pop their teeth and pound their canes—’Ah, ah! that’s more like it!’ ”

    “It’s a great tune,” yells Säure back. “Smoke another one of these and I’ll just play it for you here on the Bosendorfer.”

    from: Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow

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