The most popular opera composer of his time, Gioachino Antonio Rossini is now much less well known, except by opera buffs. Some people may only know him on account of the repurposing of some of his music from his opera William Tell as the theme of the television series The Lone Ranger, while others may simply have heard his name in the Andrea Boccelli song “I Love Rossini” from his 1999 album Sogno.
Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy in 1792 to a father who played the horn and a mother who sang. His musical parents started his musical training when he was young, and his first performance opportunity was playing triangle in a band with his father. The family endured separations after Rossini’s father was imprisoned as a Napoleonic sympathizer, during which time he had some harpsichord instruction.
His musical studies progressed to the point that he was singing church solos at age 10. He took after his father in playing the horn, and his earliest extant compositions date from when he was 12. It was as a young teen of 13 or 14 that he first set music based on a libretto, and though it was not performed until later, this work, Demetrio e Polibio was his first opera.
By the end of his teen years, the latter of which were spent in Bologna, he had learned the cello, received a conservatory prize for a cantata, and had an opera performed, though not the one he’d written first. His songs had immediate popular appeal. He spent some time writing operas in Venice and Milan before returning to Bologna where he became musical director of two theaters in Naples.
Rossini created 20 operas between 1815 and 1823, including Il barbiere di siviglia or The Barber of Seville, which he claimed to have written in 12 days. A flop at its first performance due to a rivalry with an existing opera with a different libretto, but drawing on the same initial source, Pierre Beaumarchais’ play Le Barbier de Séville. This lack of enthusiasm did not last long, and the work became his most enduring hit. Another notable work from this period was La Cerenterola or Cinderella.
After spending a short time in Verona and visiting England, Rossini became musical director of the Parisian Théâtre-Italien and subsequently chief composer to the French king. The year 1829 marked both the production of Guillaume Tell or William Tell, his last opera, and his return to Bologna. After writing a Stabat Mater, he essentially retired from composing.
The end of his life was spent in Paris, after spending some time in Florence, and in Paris he gave more reign to his enjoyment both of cooking and of eating, lending his name to several dishes, including Tournedos Rossini. He did, eventually, return to composing, but focused on small pieces for private performance. He died in France in 1868.