If you have a friend who is funny, talented, and very rich there’s a good chance that you look forward to their birthday party every year. When there is a friend to everyone born on this day, the leap year, the least we can do is throw a good party every four years. Today is the 53rd birthday* of one of the great talents in music, food, storytelling, pranks, and general fun – Gioachino Rossini. Though he was born in 1792 in Pesaro, Italy, he is still a good guy to get to know even today – and a good excuse for a party.
The appeal of Rossini goes much further than his music, which was the fluff of his day. All of his successful works were in opera buffa, or comic opera – full of disguises, mistaken identity, and general silliness. What set Rossini apart was the sheer delight of his bouncy scores and simple fun. The earnestness of his many catchy tunes and brilliantly orchestrated pieces is more than a sly wink, it’s a smiling nod to come and join the fun.
The memory of Rossini is only troubling because of the complete lack of trouble – he went completely against the “tortured artist” archetype of a “serious” composer.
Success came early, when at 18 years old his opera “La cambiale di matrimonio” (The Marriage Contract) was performed to great acclaim. He was still a student at the time and pounded the entire score out in just a few days. It led to fame and a few more contracts, and by the time he was 20 he was the toast of Italy with several operas running simultaneously in every big city. One of them, “Il signor Bruschino”, is best known today for the overture where a the violins tap out a rhythm on their music stands – as instructed right in the score.
Rossini became known as “Mr. Cresendo” because so many of his works built excitement with simple repeated phrases gradually getting louder and louder. His works are so simple in foundation that they earned him both scorn as being “juvenile” and praise as “The Italian Mozart”. Both terms are difficult because they seem to take Rossini and his works far, far too seriously.
Rossini is best known today for the overtures to his operas, since these can be done in a concert setting without the big production. This would probably pain him since he always wrote the overture last, in a day or less – supposedly he once told the servants to lock the door and not let him out until it was done, sliding sandwiches in every few hours. Many people know overtures such as “Il barbiere di Siviglia” (The Barber of Seville) from Bugs Bunny cartoons, where music directory Carl Stalling used them heavily. “Oooooh, where do I get dat waaaaabbit?” At least this use of the overtures would have delighted Rossini.
There are many other stories of this life of nearly instant success, such as the time when Pesaro wrote to Rossini asking if they could use his name to raise 20,000 ducats to erect a statue of him (shown above). He replied that they could, but for that much money they should give him a pedestal and he would stand on it. There is also the “Comic Duet for Two Cats”, written as an encore piece.
Small sorrows, however, hit this gentle man hard. News of maestro Ludwig van Beethoven’s failing health reached Rossini he went to Vienna to do what he could to cheer him up, but to no avail. “Beethoven is impossible,” he wrote, and always considered his inability to pull the great composer out of his misery his greatest failing. Rossini also had a failed marriage, but later remarried Olympe Pélissier, who was born into a kind of slavery and known for her sharp tongue.
Rossini is also know for his exit near the height of his power. Despite a great reputation for comic opera, Rossini wanted to write a serious work. William Tell ran over 3 hours and disappointed audiences expecting more fluff and fun. At the age of 36 Rossini retired, never writing again except for a few pieces he called “Sins of My Old Age”. He became known as a gourmet cook and general man about town, living in Paris. He died at age 74, living more than half of his life officially “retired”.
Today, Rossini is not as well known as he probably should be, at least not by name. But that’s no reason we can’t thrown him a party and celebrate the great gifts he gave us. We only get the chance every four years, so why not make it a big one?
(*note: Years 1800 and 1900 were not leap years, as is every century that is not an even 400, like the year 2000, for those of you doing the math. Rossini didn’t even have a birthday when he was 8!)