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Gioachino Rossini was a prolific Italian opera composer of the Romantic period. His music still fills concert halls and opera stages today. In this lesson we will learn about his life, music, and legacy.

What happened to Rossini?

In 1829, all of Paris was in an uproar. The beloved composer Gioachino Rossini had just announced his retirement from the opera world.

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Tongues were wagging, speculating on the reason for his abrupt departure from the opera stage. What would cause the most popular composer in all of Europe to step down?

Humble Beginnings

Gioachino Rossini
Portrait of Gioachino Rossini

Even though Gioachino Rossini was born into difficult circumstances, he seems to have had just the background that an opera composer would find useful. Born February 29, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy, Gioachino arrived to an impoverished, but musical home. His father, Giuseppe Rossini, was a trumpet player who performed with various orchestras and bands. His mother, Anna Guidarini, was a singer of small opera roles. This meant that throughout his youth, Rossini was hanging out in the theater.

Even some jail time for his father proved beneficial for the young Gioachino. When Giuseppe was imprisoned in 1800 for his political views, Anna took Gioachino with her to Bologna where she had found singing work. Here, Gioachino received his first music lessons, which included harpsichord, horn, violin, cello, singing in parts, and accompanying on the piano.

At age fifteen, Gioachino entered Bologna’s Philharmonic School where he began to study composition. While a student there, he composed his first opera and studied the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, which would have a great influence on Rossini’s musical style.

The Operas

A caricature of Rossini on a French magazine cover
A modern production of The Barber of Seville
Photo of a modern production of

The operas of Rossini had a true charm and grace that had been missing from earlier operas. He embellished the vocal lines, giving the singers more expressive material to work with. This was the beginning of bel canto, literally ‘beautiful singing’. He used a lighter orchestration to better support the singers, and increased the role of the ensemble, providing them with more dramatic music.One of his specialties became known as the ‘Rossini crescendo’. To build excitement and tension, Rossini would repeat a phrase over and over again, getting louder with each repetition.

Another standard Rossini technique was to reunite all the characters for a grand finale with a great deal of overlapping vocal lines and, of course, a Rossini crescendo to end it all.Rossini did compose opera seria, or serious opera. This was the dramatic, often tragic opera of 18th century Italy. Although Rossini is not known for his opera seria today, these works were well-respected and performed in his lifetime.

Tancredi, Otello, and Guillaume Tell are among his best opera seria.

The Overtures

Rossini perfected the opera overture. An overture is an instrumental work that comes before the opera. The overture features tunes from the opera to introduce the music to the audience and to set the proper mood. Rossini’s overtures are so well composed, they have become detached from their operas and are performed frequently on their own in concert halls. The overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie) has far outstripped the opera itself in popularity. The overture to Il barbiere di Siviglia was used for a Bugs Bunny cartoon.

The overture to Guillaume Tell (The William Tell Overture) is possibly the most famous piece of classical music ever written. It became well known when it was used as the theme music for the TV series, ‘The Lone Ranger’.

A modern production of La Cenerentola (Cinderella)
The Rossini tomb in Florence, Italy.

His body was moved here from France in 1887.

Photo of the Rossini tomb in Florence Italy

Rossini did compose a few odds and ends with his remaining 40 years. He wrote sacred vocal works, a few parlor songs, and a collection of piano pieces called P;ch;s de vieillesse (Sins of Old Age). Rossini died in Passy, France on November 13, 1868, wealthy, famous, and happy.

Lesson Summary

Gioachino Rossini was born February 29, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy to impoverished musicians. Rossini composed 39 operas by the time he was 37; most of them were opera buffa. The overtures to the operas have become important concert works themselves. Rossini was extremely successful and became very wealthy; at age 37, he retired from writing opera and spent his remaining years in Paris, composing small works for voice and piano. He died on November 13, 1868 in Passy, France.

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