Some Striking Pen Pictures of Rossini.
The prominent place in Italian music attained by Verdi was perhaps only equalled by Rossini. The composer of William Tell did a great deal towards lifting Italian opera music out of the depths of banality into which it had fallen. He saw that the music of Italy was retrogressing, while the German composers were carrying it forward to undreamt of realms. He had a great appreciation of the work of German opera composers. Some one once asked Rossini who, in his opinion, was the greatest musician. "Beethoven," was the immediate reply. "But what of Mozart?" "Oh," replied Rossini, "Mozart is not the greatest, he is the only musician in the world."
Rossini was one of the wittiest musicians that ever lived. His death did not occur till 1868, and his last great composition, the Stabat Mater, was written in 1832. During the years which elapsed after this work Rossini dwelt in Paris, and his home became the rendezvous of all the most distinguished artists and musicians in the French capital. His kindness of heart and cynical good humor are admirably illustrated is a story told of him in Crowest's book of Musicians' Wit. Among his numerous visitors there was once a poor artist who desired to have the great Italian composer listen to a rendering of the Prayer from Rossini's Mosé on the musical glasses. Not wishing to disappoint the man, Rossini consented, and, in Crowest's words, "the tray and man arrived, the glasses were set, a few buckets of water were supplied, the requisite puddles made, and the poor man turned up his coat-sleeves, wetted his fingers and began. Rossini had taken up a position on the sofa. In the middle of the forty-fifth variation a friend arrived with news of importance. He was shown in, when Rossini beckoned him to a place by him, saying in an undertone, 'I shall be only too glad to hear what news you have brought me—after this gentleman has finished washing my prayer!'"
Rossini was a great authority on singing, and said many things which the singing student might well take to heart. Among other things he told Moscheles, who visited him in 1860, his views on the singers of the day. "I don't want to hear any more of it," he said; "they scream. All I want is a resonant, full-toned voice—not a screeching voice. I care not whether it be for speaking or singing—everything ought to sound melodious." What would he have said to Salome or Elektra?
He is often portrayed as an exceedingly lazy man, but this conception of Rossini is inaccurate. He had composed thirty-seven operas when he was thirty- seven years old. He was, however, very dilatory, and frequently occasioned his managers a great deal of trouble owing to his habit of putting things off until the last minute. He could, upon occasion, write an opera in a fortnight. The fortnight, however, was usually at the end of the time assigned to him, and never at the beginning. When he did compose, he preferred, like our own Mark Twain, to do his work in bed. The Barber of Seville was written in thirteen days. The librettist lived on the premises with the composer, and not infrequently the composer had completed his work ahead of the poet, They had a famous singer in the next room, and kept a number of copyists on hand, to whom Rossini threw the music sheets as quickly as they were completed. During the whole time Rossini did not shave, and when someone suggested that it was curious the Barber should have been responsible for his growing a beard, he replied that if he had shaved he would have gone out, and if he had gone out he would not have returned as soon as he ought. This opera, which eventually proved one of his greatest successes, was a terrible failure on its production in Rome. The friends of Paisiello, himself the composer of a Barber of Seville, had organized to hiss the work. A tenor (Garcia) forgot to tune a guitar upon which he was to accompany himself. While tuning the instrument a string broke, and was the occasion for much tumult and ironical laughter. Even the favorite singers were but coldly received, and the worst results seemed inevitable.
After the performance everyone went to condole with the unfortunate composer. They found him enjoying a highly luxurious supper in the best of spirits.
Perhaps, with the exception of Wagner, no musician was more severely criticised for his "innovations" than was Rossini. He was a great reformer. Bevan, in his life of Rossini, tells us that "Rossini's reforms (including the total suppression of the male sopranist—the curse of Italian opera for more than a century—employment of bass singers in leading parts and replacement of the justly-named "secco" recitative by recitative with orchestral accompaniment) had in Italy the effect of driving all other composers off the stage. In comic opera Rossini's melodies were brighter and more rhythmical than those of his predecessors, but the principal changes he introduced in this department, as into that of serious opera, were in connection with the orchestra, into which, to the dismay of the more pedantic among his countrymen, he introduced new instruments of wood and brass, including all the instruments of the military band."
His development of the use of the opera may be noted in the significant fact that of all Italian composers Rossini alone has written overtures to his operas which are attractive as orchestal (sic) pieces for concert use, the overtures to The Barber and to William Tell both being still popular, especially the latter.
Rossini was a man of generous instincts, confident in his genius and humorous in his outlook on life. His generosity is attested by the fact that he endowed a school of music at Pesaro, his birthplace, and his wife, at her death, in accordance with his wishes, left 5,000,000 francs ($1,000,000) for the establishment of a home for aged and distressed French and Italian musicians at Auteuil, France.