Rossini, the King of opera

19 February 2021

Gioachino [Antonio] Rossini was the greatest Italian composer of his time. A larger than life character with an appetite to match, he is celebrated for his operas of which The Barber of Seville, La Cenerentola and William Tell are among the best known.

Rossini, like many great composers, was born in the right place at the right time. The musical world was still mourning the loss of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart when Rossini was born in Pesaro on 29 February 1792. His parents were both gifted musicians - his father a trumpeter and his mother a singer. In 1804 the family moved to Bologna, where Rossini sang professionally and took engagements as the maestro di cembalo in various local theatres. As a result, Rossini spent his entire childhood in the theatre.

At the age of 14 the young Rossini composed his first opera - Demetrio e Polibio - and entered Bologna’s Philharmonic School. He was so obsessed with Mozart’s music that his friends nicknamed him 'The Little German'.

Success came quickly to the young composer. Not only was he great at composing music and operas quickly and successfully, but his unique style was very appealing to his audience and the people who performed in his operas.

Rossini was 18 when a Venetian theatre (Teatro San Moisè) first gave a public performance of one of his operas - La cambiale di matrimonio; he was not quite 24 when a leading theatre in Rome (Teatro Argentina) performed his 17th opera - The Barber of Seville - which was poorly received on its opening night. By the time the biggest theatre in Europe put on his 24th opera, the Italian version of Mosè in Egitto, he had just turned 26. By his thirtieth birthday, he had reached international acclaim, and had settled in Paris. His 40th and last opera, William Tell, was first performed when he was 37.

With the operatic world at his feet, Rossini laid his theatrical pen to rest. He saw out the rest of his life (nearly 40 years) with a few songs, piano pieces, and two large-scale choral works. Significant works from later years include Les Soirées musicales (1830–35), Stabat Mater (second version 1842) and Petite Messe solennelle (1863).

In 1845, the Spanish opera singer and his wife of 23 years, Isabella Colbran, died and in the following year Rossini married the model Olympe Pelissier, who had been his mistress of 15 years. For his 70th birthday celebrations in 1862, a number of his friends had a statue built in his honour.

Following a short illness, Rossini died on 13 November 1868 and was buried in Paris near Cheubini, Chopin and Bellini. Nine years later his body was taken to Florence's Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze for reburial, when 6,000 mourners, four military bands and 300 choristers attended the ceremony, during which the Prayer from Mosè was performed and encored.

Rossini’s opera buffa are among the finest examples of the genre. In his opera seria he introduced innovations that transformed Italian opera, and would influence generations of French and Italian composers.