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Rossini’s Abstract Comedy

Josh Borths – March 13, 2017

Rossini desperately wanted to be successful, respected, and loved. While every composer shares these ambitions, rarely do all three come to fruition in his or her lifetime. However, Rossini did just that.

Rossini’s Ambition

Born into a musical family that could barely make ends meet, Rossini’s difficult childhood—and his homeland’s foreign occupation—motivated his pursuits. At a time when food was scarce and secular art seemed frivolous, Rossini was determined to succeed. He was determined to create music that glorified his country and built his personal fortune. In short, Rossini was driven to take the world by storm.

He did just that.

In just a few short years, Gioachino Rossini was synonymous with Italian opera, and his musical innovations, codified systems, and personal style would dictate the structure of Italian bel canto operas for decades to come. In fact, Rossini was so successful in his lifetime that French critics worried Rossini’s popularity would singlehandedly destroy French opera. By the late 1820s, Rossini was the most famous composer in the world, rivaled only by Beethoven.

Rossini and Beethoven

Rossini loved Beethoven’s music from the moment he first heard the Eroica Symphony, and legend has it that after diplomatic communication, Beethoven and Rossini met face-to-face.

Walking up the rickety stairs to Beethoven’s shabby apartment, the well-dressed, well-fed Rossini—entourage in tow— was euphoric. He was going to meet his idol. When he finally opened the door to his Beethoven’s abode, Rossini was shocked that such a great composer was living in squalor. Rossini vowed to help Beethoven’s circumstances. The master was now totally deaf, and his finances were in shambles. Beethoven politely declined Rossini’s offer.

As the meeting came to an end, Beethoven changed the course of Italian bel canto opera. The Teutonic master simply said, “I love your comedies. They suit you. Don’t trouble your soul with serious music…” or something to that affect.

Rossini was devastated. He was loved, respected, and successful, but despite the world’s adulation, the greatest living composer didn’t take him seriously. Not long after these events, Rossini retired from the stage. He lived another 40 years, but he never wrote another opera. And besides a Stabat Mater, he never wrote a note of music again.

But centuries later, Beethoven’s remarks seem curious. After all, how can an artist whose compositional approach never wavered be better at writing comedies versus tragedies? How can one be preferable over the other since they are—in fact— the same?

Rossini’s Music

In his short and wild career, Rossini wrote almost 40 operas. Some opera were serious. Some were comic, and some contained elements of opera seria and buffa. He wrote all of these pieces with unprecedented speed, completing Cinderella in a little over 20 days. He was able to accomplish these monumental feats of composition because his music did not change based on the specific opera he was writing at any given time.

For example, the famous overture to The Barber of Seville, which immediately brings to mind the comedic hijinks of Bugs Bunny, was originally written for a serious opera called Aureliano in Palmira. An opera about the Roman Empire’s conquest of Syria. In terms of story, The Barber of Seville and Aureliano in Palmira couldn’t be more different. And yet, they both received the same musical treatment, and the music adequately serves both contexts. How is this possible?

It is possible because Rossini wrote abstract music. He wrote music that was divorced from its dramatic situation and devoid of specificity. He wrote music that was graceful, witty, and thrilling, but lacked meaning. Rossini wrote balanced melodies that surge with energy, but not passion. His music carries beauty, but not emotion.

But, his operas are not meaningless. In fact, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Simply put, Rossini’s operas find meaning in interpretation. They become true pieces of theater by performers endowing the melody with pathos and individual audience members synthesizing what they see and hear onstage. Meaning is not found in the notes on the page. It is found in the experience of the opera itself.

Rossini wrote during the beginning of the Romantic Era, an era famous for its sentimentality. But, Rossini resisted these impulses. Inspired by the Baroque and Classical masters, Rossini kept his own feelings at arm’s length, preferring instead to make room for amazing performers to give life to his wonderful music. Rossini believed in singers, and so only through the act of performing can Rossini’s art thrive.

So for audiences today, Rossini’s serious music can seem mannered and distancing. A point that Beethoven noted earlier in the 1800s. And especially when the dramatic specificity of Verdi exists, Rossini seems remote by comparison. But even centuries later, Rossini’s beautiful blank slates are perfect for sparkling comedy.

Rossini’s Comedy

Comedy is about timing. Comedy is about reacting. Comedy is about soliciting a smile, laugh, or groan from an audience in the moment that it occurs. This makes Rossini’s musical approach perfect for style.

Because his music is abstract, every production has to be fresh. It has to be contemporary. It has to be interpreted in the moment. Unlike the works of other composers, Rossini’s comedies rarely feel stilted because they thrive on energy exchanged between the singers, orchestra, and audience. Each production has to justify its pratfalls, double takes, and vocal ornaments. The score cannot live on its own. It must live through embodiment, timing, physical humor, and visual wit.

In performance, Rossini lives anew. And since each production requires new interpretations to succeed, these abstract scores are filled with a world of possibilities just wanting to be discovered.

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