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”


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


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)


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

Distracted Listening

Noise levels astonished diarists from abroad, nobility arrived with servants who cooked whole meals, talked, played [at cards], and relieved themselves in the antechambers that stood in back of each lavish box.  (II, 174)

It would be natural to assume that the scenario above refers to a sporting event. One can picture a gaggle of the privileged gossiping away about which noblewoman is in bed with which nobleman, noshing on treats, sharing the latest dirty joke, sipping wine and laughing. It’s like a baseball game today: you go for the camaraderie over hot dogs and beer and when you hear a sharp “crack,” you look down onto the field to see what just happened. It’s all about the socializing; the ostensible reason for the event is secondary.

Of course, there was no baseball in 17th/18th century Italy; instead, the landed classes amused themselves in the opera house. The passage above comes from Martha Feldman’s article “Magic Mirrors and the Seria Stage,” which meticulously describes the fascinating social milieu that existed around opera seria performances in the early 18th century. The performance halls were fully lit, giving spectators just as good a view of the other spectators than of the stage. People came to see and be seen, to chat amongst themselves, and to eat. (Indeed, a standard item in the seria opera was the “sherbet aria,” a tune sung while audience members devoured their dessert.) The music was entirely incidental to the partying, which makes sense when one learns that patrons typically rented their opera boxes for the whole season, and a season consisted of only a few operas, each performed 20-30 times. After the first couple of performances, audiences would be familiar enough with the plot and the music to mentally check out and still know what’s going on. When the virtuoso castrato onstage begin belting his signature tune, audiences would stop their conversations to enjoy a moment of music.

Taruskin comments that there is nothing in today’s world of classical music similar to this sort of socio-musical event. (One would have to go to a bar with a bad cover band for something resembling the opera seria culture.) Indeed, he likens it more to today’s TV set, which passively lights up the background to so many peoples’ lives (II, 175). It is used less for concentrated recreation than it is for distracted ambiance. To the modern person, steeped as we are in the 19th century idea of darkened concert halls, sublimity and transport, and the private contemplation of musical art, the opera seria can seem more like circus than Kultur. The carnivalesque element is perhaps what makes seria such a marginal player in today’s repertory, but it also makes it queerly fascinating.

Prof. Mitchell Morris likes to tell his undergrads that one reason why the 20th century has so few fantastic operas is that, to write an opera that truly “works,” the composer has to “have the courage to be boring.” When you’re dealing with a musical form that can easily stretch for 3 or more hours, a composer needs to “let the audience go,” to free them up for staring blankly at the ceiling, checking their iPhones, and people watching. One does not have the cognitive capacity to deal with hours straight of concentrated brilliance; they need some mental downtime. In the 20th century, only the courageous composer has the guts to be boring.

It might be easy to forget this today, but distracted listening has a long and distinguished history in the western art music tradition (not to mention all the rest of human musical cultures out there). You could receive a dirty look for coughing in some esteemed concert halls today, but throughout most of music history, the coughing, distracted, socializing audience member was the norm, not the decorum-destroying exception. This is perhaps what makes opera seria so interesting – it is so utterly different from what we think of opera now. Taruskin lowers the curtain: “.. it is just those aspects of bygone art that are most bygone from which we can learn the most about ourselves and our present world, and the place of art within it” (II, 176).

The High Cost of Musical Extravagance

It is easy to marvel at the grand feats of human creativity and ingenuity without stopping to consider whence these achievements came. This is only natural, I suppose; after all, the slaves who constructed the pyramids are long gone, but the pyramids remain. Similarly, the era of “cocaine cowboy” drug trafficking in Miami is over, but the shining glass towers downtown stand as a silent testament to all the laundered cash dumped into development during the 90s. Feats of construction, imagination, and intelligence endure in the form of magnificent structures and artwork. The sometimes dark forces that underwrite them, however, are usually lost in the sands of time.

In any extravagant human achievement that takes great amounts of resources and labor to produce, the wealth required for its creation must come from somewhere. This introduces a fundamentally ethical question. For instance, the money required to build Steve Jobs’s house came from Macs and iPods, and most would say that this is a fair trade. However, the wealth required to build Bernie Madoff’s house in West Palm came from bilked investors. Madoff’s beautiful mansion, then, is a physical manifestation of illegality, abuse, and treachery.  The question of funding, therefore, is critical whether one is contracting a new condo tower or commissioning a symphony. Behind any sign of material power is the ethical question of where that power came from, and at whose expense.

The same is true for music. At the beginning of the 17th century, court favolas (or early operas, depending on how you’d like to look at them) provided opportunities for powerful families to flaunt their influence, status, and wealth. The more extravagant, the better. We’ve talked about complexity arms races before on this blog; in the case of early opera, it was an arms race of lavish excess. From costumes to special effects, stage settings to musician fees, noble families spared no expense to put on a magnificent spectacle. A work like Monteverdi’s Orfeo is typically seen as the positive artistic outcome of such noble largesse. What typically isn’t accounted for, however, is the question of just how these noble families procured the funds to throw such lavish musical extravaganzas. This sort of question should be of paramount concern to us music historians, however far it might be from a purely musical matter.

As historian Manfred Bukofzer has shown, the ever more exorbitant costs of bankrolling extravagant music spectacles led many nobles to apply oppressive taxes to the lower classes. But the exploitation didn’t stop there. To take an example: “The Duke of Brunswick, for one, relied not only on the most ingenious forms of direct and indirect taxation but resorted even to the slave trade. He financed his operatic amusements by selling his subjects as soldiers [in the Thirty Year’s War] so that his flourishing opera depended literally on the blood of the lower classes.” (II, 15)

Wow. This duke makes Madoff look positively saintly. After learning this, it’s hard to listen to Orfeo and other early operas in quite the same way. But knowing the high social costs of high musical extravagance shouldn’t plague the opera lover with guilt, either. It is a somewhat sad but inescapable fact that the passing of time neuters human suffering; we are left with Orfeo, and all the unfortunate slave-soldiers who died so their duke could have his opera are preserved only in scholarly footnotes.