Composer (1792 - 1868)
Rossini was born on February 29th, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy to musical parents. His father was a trumpeter in various small bands and orchestras and his mother was a singer so Rossini grew up knowing music and life in the theatre. The child was frequently left with his maternal grandmother while his parents toured opera houses in the region. Gioachino sang and played music with ease. In 1802 the family moved to Lugo and then after a period of time they moved to Bologna where they established permanent residence. In Bologna, Rossini studied music privately. His progress was rapid and in 1806 he entered the Liceo Musicale where he attended courses in singing, the cello, piano and counterpoint. In the same year he followed his father into the Accademia Filarmonica, which was a great honour at such an early age. During his student years Rossini wrote very little. He composed some instrumental pieces, some sacred music and a cantata which although of poor quality, won a prize at the Liceo. The composer's first opera was Demetrio e Polibio, which was staged only in 1812 after four other works had brought the composer advance publicity. In 1810 the composer's career in opera began for real when he was commissioned by the Teatro S Moisè in Venice to compose the music for Gaetano Rossi's one-act farsa, La cambiale di matrimionio. Five of Rossini's first nine operas were written for the same theatre.
Rossini's next opera was L'equivoco stravagante which was performed in Bologna in 1811 and in 1812 the première of L'inganno felice took place in Venice which was Rossini's first truly successful piece of work. Commissions from other theatres followed rapidly. He then composed his sacred opera Ciro in Babilonia which was followed by La Scala di seta. The première of his two-act La pietra del paragone followed in Teatro alla Scala in Milan in 1812. Probably the best of Rossini's farse was Il Signor Bruschino which was composed shortly after La pietra del paragone.
Rossini's first two operas to win international acclaim were written consecutively for Venetian theatres and were Tancredi, performed in 1813 and L'italiana in Algeri which also premièred in 1813. From then on the composer's fame was assured. He spent a period in Milan mounting and revising his two Venetian successes for the Teatro Re and composing two new operas for La Scala, Aureliano in Palmira (1813) and Il turco in Italia (1814).
By 1815 Rossini's operas were played almost everywhere except for in Naples. Here the natives were loath to welcome a northerner into their world of Cimarosa and the still-living Paisello. However, the powerful Domenico Barbaia, impresario of the Neapolitan theatres, seeking to revitalize operatic life in Naples, invited Rossini to the city to work as musical and artistic director and also to compose for his theatres. Rossini's period in Naples opened with his opera Elisabetta, regina d'Inghilterra (1815) but during this period he also wrote several other major works for other cities including two comic operas, Il barbiere di Siviglia (probably the greatest of all comic operas) and La Cenerentola and two semiseria operas, Torvaldo e Dorliska and La gazza ladra. The composer went to Rome soon after the première of Elisabetta and Torvaldo e Dorliska opened the Carnival season there at the Teatro Valle in December 1815.
From 1817 to 1822, most of Rossini's significant operas were written. These include Armida in 1817, Mosè in Egitto in 1818, Ricciardo e Zoraide, again in 1818, Ermione and la donna del lago in 1819, Maometto II in 1820 and Zelmira in 1822. The work composed for Naples was by far superior to all others. Matilde di Shabran, performed in Rome in 1821, is an exception and was also considered to be of high quality.
While in Naples, Rossini began to have personal relations with Isabella Colbran, a soprano who sang in his operas and who appears to have been Barbaia's mistress when the composer arrived in the city. In 1822 Colbran and Rossini were married in Bologna. Around this period both France and England were bidding for Rossini's services as his operas had gained international acclaim. With Barbaia's help, a Rossini festival was organized. He travelled to Vienna and then returned to Italy for a year until the autumn of 1823. He composed two cantatas for the Congress of Verona at the end of 1822, at the invitation of Prince Metternich. His opera Maometto II was revised and performed in Venice and he also wrote his last opera for Italy, Semiramide. In the autumn of 1823 the Rossinis departed for Paris where they stopped briefly and then they continued on to London where a Rossini season was organized at the King's theatre. Many of his operas were unsuccessful however in the British capital. The composer made money by participating in the household musical gatherings of English Aristocrats who paid him for his company and who also employed him to teach music to their children. By the summer of 1824 the Rossinis were in Paris, where Gioachino agreed to become director of the Théâtre-Italien. He was also contracted to produce his older operas there, introduce other Italian operas and compose new operas for both this theatre and the Opéra. They established residence in the French capital and learned French. For the theatre he composed Il viaggio a Reims, performed in 1825 and then in 1828 he wrote Le Comte Ory and in 1829 Guillaume Tell. Italian and French operatic styles are combined in these last two operas. The latter was to be the composer's last opera and was followed by a long period of silence from him.
Relations between the composer and his wife were becoming strained and after having been on vacation in Bologna after the launch of Guillaume Tell, Rossini returned to Paris alone where he spent a great deal of time over the next number of years due to negotiations with the courts about his financial affairs. These affairs were relating to an agreement signed by the government of Charles X which was dethroned in the 1830 revolution. In Paris he composed the Stabat mater and the Soirées musicales but little else of any significance. By 1832 the composer was unwell and his ailments lasted for a period of more than 25 years.
In 1836 Rossini left Paris, after having tidied up his affairs, and returned to Bologna. During the time of Rossini's lengthy illness he was nursed by Olympe Pélissier with whom he had been having an affair since early in the 1830s. She followed him to Bologna at the beginning of the following year. During the winter of 1837-1838 Rossini and Olympe established a music salon in Milan and gave a number of musical soirées. However, his father's death in 1839 furthered weakened the strength of Gioachino and so the only activity he carried out in this period was as honorary consultant to the Bologna Liceo Musicale, regenerating the conservatory and developing its curriculum. Although he played at least a small role there, his poor health required constant attention and treatment.
Rossini's affair with Olympe culminated in marriage in 1846, following the death of Rossini's first wife, Isabella. They moved to Florence when Rossini found himself out of favour with many of the people from Bologna, following the revolutionary movements which swept through Italy in 1848. Finally, after a number of years, the Rossinis made the decision to return to Paris in 1855 and here, his health improved dramatically. He bought some land in the suburb of Passy and there he built a villa. He also governed an elegant salon in Paris and began to compose again. He wrote over 150 piano pieces, songs and small ensembles. He referred to these pieces as his Péchés de vieillesse, the 'Sins of Old Age'. Included in these pieces was his Petite messe solennelle which was his finest work of his late years. It was written for twelve voices, two pianos and harmonium. The influence of Bach can be detected in this piece of work.
In his final years Rossini lived in honoured retirement, a composer whose fame was based on work completed 40 years before. His work after his lengthy silence, was however, greatly acknowledged and pieces like the Petite Messe Solennelle are still played internationally.
Gioachino Rossini fell seriously ill in the autumn of 1868. He died soon afterwards on November 13th in his villa in Passy. Thousands attended his funeral and memorial services were held throughout France and Italy. Initially he was buried in Père Lachaise cemetry in Paris but his remains were transported to Santa Croce in Florence in 1887. The composer left a large endowment to found a conservatory in his birthplace, and also left his remaining autographs to Pesaro.
No composer in the first half of the 19th century enjoyed the measure of prestige, wealth, popular acclaim or artistic influence that belonged to Rossini and his contemporaries recognized him as the greatest Italian composer of his time.