Born to two musicians in 1792, Gioachino Rossini was easily able to immerse himself in learning about music and theatre from a very young age. By the time he was 15, Rossini had already learned to play three instruments, sung in public, and even composed an opera series. His youth was spent in Italy composing and performing music and revolutionizing the traditional Italian opera buffa with embellished melodies, animated ensembles and new rhythms and dynamic effects.
After becoming bored with the Italians, Rossini chose to move to Paris in 1823 where he received a warm welcome. Rossini composed his final opera in 1829 and by this time had written one opera for each of the 38 years of his life. While he would continue to produce a handful of religious and instrumental works, the second half of Rossini’s life was spent largely in a self-imposed isolation. This relative solitude allowed the maestro to cultivate his other hobbies, such as playing piano and cooking, which he would pursue until his death in 1868.
The Europe in which Gioachino Rossini spent his life was a continent on the peak of modernization. At the time Rossini was born, the United States of America had been an independent country for four years, and before he celebrated his tenth birthday, the composer had lived through the French Revolution. At age 20, the Napoleonic Wars were nearing their end and the Industrial Revolution was running at full-steam, churning out inventions and innovations in areas such as textiles, steam power, and iron production, and bringing with it numerous problems for human welfare, such as extensive pollution and harsh child-labor. Although Rossini’s father was imprisoned for his support of Napoleon’s failed claim to empire, the life of the composer himself seems to have been somewhat untouched by the political and economic tensions felt elsewhere in Europe at the time. Perhaps we ought to think of Rossini’s comic operas as a means used by the upper-class for distracting themselves from the social problems all around them.
At the time of his death, Rossini left the world with a powerful legacy in his music having composed a total of 279 works over his lifetime. These works consist of 23 instrumental pieces, 18 cantatas, 10 sacred works, 38 secular pieces, 40 operas and theatrical works, and a collection of 150 vocal and solo piano salon pieces intended for private performance in Rossini’s sitting room. Given this prolific output, it comes as no surprise that a number of Rossini’s compositions have become famous components of the early Romantic canon. Perhaps the most well-known of these are the operas Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), La Cenerentola (Cinderella), La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) and Guillaume Tell (William Tell), whose melodies have frequently featured in both film and television and are known to the young and old alike.
Despite what its grandiose music may lead you to believe, Rossini claimed to have composed The Barber of Seville in a matter of just a few weeks!
In a morning visit paid to the composer, it is claimed that Sir Arthur Sullivan observed Rossini working on a small piece of music. When asked what the music was for, Rossini is said to have gravely answered, “It’s my dog’s birthday and I write a little piece for him every year.”