The composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was born into a family of musicians in Pesaro, a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy. His father was a horn player and his mother a singer. Rossini’s parents began his musical training early and by the age of six he was playing the triangle in his father’s musical ensemble.
After certain political difficulties involving the Austrians and the French, the Rossini family moved to Bologna where in 1806 Rossini enrolled as a cello student in the local conservatory. There he studied composition and counterpoint, earning himself the nickname of “Il Tedeschino” (the Little German) on account of his devotion to Mozart. When he was just 24, Rossini’s most famous opera was produced in Rome on 20 February 1816. The Barber of Seville was based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ popular play, and Rossini made the astonishing claim that he wrote the music in just 12 days. Scholars now agree that it probably took him at least two or three weeks!
Rossini went on to compose a total of 39 operas as well as sacred music, chamber music, songs, and a few instrumental and piano pieces. His best-known stage works include Il Barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), La Cenerentola (Cinderella), L’Italiana in Algeri (The Italian Girl in Algiers), La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie), Semiramide, Tancredi, and Guillaume Tell (William Tell). The production of William Tell in 1829 brought his career as a writer of opera to a close.
With the exception of The Barber of Seville, Rossini’s operas fell out of favour during the late 19th and early 20th century as the technique of his vocal style was lost and Wagner began to dominate theatres. It was Maria Callas who began a revival of Rossini’s early operas in the mid-20th century. Following her lead, Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horn championed revivals by major opera companies around the world. Today, even the most obscure Rossini operas have been performed and recorded.
During the 1950s Carlo Maria Giulini conducted memorable performances of La Cenerentola, Il Barbiere di Siviglia and L’Italiana in Algeri for the Italian stage, recording only the latter for EMI. Fortunately, he also recorded nine of the overtures in elegant and highly stylistic interpretations. Riccardo Muti has also made a point of performing Rossini’s operas in new editions scraped clean of the barnacles of time and tradition.
Muti is one of few conductors to have recorded William Tell (although in Italian, rather than the original French). Its overture is one of Rossini’s best known and most loved pieces. The exciting part has been used in the 1930s radio and 1950s television series “The Lone Ranger”, in several TV adverts, and quoted ironically by Shostakovich in the first movement of his Symphony No. 15. Rossini would have approved. A bon viveur, he is said to have remarked, “Eating, loving, singing and digesting are, in truth, four acts of the comic opera known as life, and they pass like the bubbles in a bottle of champagne. Whoever lets them break without having enjoyed them is a complete fool!”