Championing a Lasting Youth of Melody

Overtures from The Barber of Seville, The Thieving Magpie and William Tell, by Gioachino Rossini.

Flamboyance, dynamic drama, and a sense of youthful vigor – it is little wonder that Gioachino Rossini’s overtures are long-standing classical favourites of orchestras around the world. The energy of these works have in fame even surpassed the operas from which they came, much like power and novelty combined by trapping a hurricane in a jar. In some cases that becomes as much literal as metaphorical, with the overtures to The Barber of Seville and William Tell both incorporating orchestral depictions of storms.

Rossini was as colourful a character as one of those in his operas. He originally combined a career in music with that of selling liquor, and later was a blacksmith’s apprentice. He had a trademark twirl of his hat and produced not only famous music, but famous macaroni. At the height of his career, having trailblazed a more liberalized view of music, Rossini was approached by a young composer who suffered from a lack of originality. While asking for an opinion on his music, the young man noted that Rossini kept taking off his cap, and when asked why, Rossini slyly remarked, “I always remove my head-covering when I meet old acquaintances.”

Rossini’s ability to charm in his time and in ours is derived from his mastery of two particular musical elements. First was that of melody – as an author known only as J.B. mentioned in the Musical Times on the occasion of the Rossini centenary celebrations in 1892, “Nothing can deprive Rossini of his right to be regarded as one of the most astonishing and brilliant figures in musical history, or of his claim to stand first among those in whom Melody, the ‘soul of music’ has enshrined herself.” The opening of the Barber of Seville overture, while wordless, still conveys purely in its melody the coupling of revelation, premonition and breathless excitement of two of the opera’s main protagonists, Rosina and Lindoro in the second act. The arresting opening of William Tell’s five cellists is all their own, as an independent prelude, while the English horn solo following the orchestral tempest acts as a ‘call to the dairy cows’.

The second was the ability to construct those basic musical building blocks, the trademark patterns we call motives. Bizet noted: “Rossini is the greatest of them all, because like Mozart, he has all the virtues: elevation, style, and, in a word – the motif… which is very mistakenly called the ‘idea.’” Even beyond the beauty of melody, it is these motives which open our eyes with recognition, from the violins opening the main section of the Barber of Seville overture, or the trumpets and horns heralding the final section of the William Tell overture, which later gained new fame as the theme song of television’s Lone Ranger, not to mention appearances on the Animaniacs and the Flintstones. It is a mark of Rossini’s ability that a continual sense of spontaneity emerged from a repeated formula of composition: the introduction of motivically strong themes by strings, followed by lyrical writing showcasing a wind instrument.

The overture to The Thieving Magpie is somewhat unique in that it intertwines these two elements, and provides prominence to the snare drum. It first produces stark dotted rhythms evoking the martial atmosphere of the sentencing of a servant girl for stealing a spoon. Then strings and upper winds bring forth a tarantella-like atmosphere depicting the true criminal: a thieving magpie, having brought the spoon for her nest. More importantly, this overture is a prime example of Rossini’s trademark: an extended crescendo over an ostionato (or repeated) theme, building in intensity leading to an eruption of sound.

Playing with dynamics was not only intended to create dramatic effects, but as with many other aspects of overtures served to have practical usage within the context of the opera. Openings, for example, tended to follow one of two models exploiting dynamic contrast: loud chords followed by immediately softer sections (such as in The Barber of Seville overture), or a quiet opening section rising to a forte (as in that of The Thieving Magpie overture). Philip Gossett noted that the intention was quite simply to marinate the audience: “These contrasting extreme dynamics are theatrically and psychologically apt: loud passages impose themselves on a fidgeting audience, quiet ones demand their closer attention.”

This combination of the aesthetic and the practical was emblematic of the composer’s versatility. The brilliance of his popular works traveled past borders, earning him praise from the King of England, while his Stabat Mater earned him a more serious place in the music history books. The “Italian Mozart,” “Signore Crescendo,” and the “Swan of Pesaro” was hailed, a hundred years from his birth, as one who “made melody as though he would never grow old”. Well over yet another hundred years after, he continues to be celebrated in concert halls today, with melodies and motives that remain young to the ear.

~ Andrew Filmer
with principal references to “The Overtures of Rossini” by Philip Gossett, and “The Rossini Centenary” by J. B. (in The Musical Times and Singing Class Circular).

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