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Rossini The Humorist

Epigrams and Wit of the Most Whimsical of the Italian Composers


[Editor’s Note—The following article from the pen of a representative English writer appeared first in the London Musical Opinion.]

Rossini was the prince of humorists among composers. The good stories told of him would fill a small volume and I wonder that no writer has thought of bringing them together under one cover.

rossini.jpgFirst let us describe Rossini as he appeared to some of his friends. Madame Arditi, the wife of the well- known conductor, whom I first encountered at  Covent Garden Promenade Concerts many years ago, says that he was “the queerest looking old thing” that she ever saw; “such a quaint ungainly figure; such sharp piercing eyes; such a vivacious quick manner with it all.” Usually he was clad in a very shabby loose shooting jacket and wore a conspicuously ill-fitting and ugly colored wig. The wig was a great feature. Signor Arditi had once rendered him a slight service and, calling on him one afternoon, Rossini was profuse in his thanks. He was anxious to prove his gratitude in a tangible way and glancing round the room he caught sight of his wigs. “I am sorry, Arditi,” he said, “that I cannot give you an actual proof of my gratitude; but, if you would like to have one of my wigs, you can take any color that you fancy would suit you.” Arditi never wore a wig—that was the joke!

Rossini was an epicure and several of the stories connected with his name bear on the pleasures of the table. He had a fastidious palate and declared that he could cook rice and macaroni better than anyone he knew. “Maestro,” said someone to him, “do you remember that famous dinner given you in Milan, when they served a gigantic macaroni pie? Well, I was seated next you.” “Indeed!” replied Rossini; “I remember the macaroni perfectly, but I fail to recognize you.” On another occasion at a dinner in Paris at which he was observed to remain silent and absorbed, a banker who was on anything but friendly terms with him, passed savouries to the lady on his right, saying: “I have already eaten as many of these as Samson slew Philistines.” “Yes, and with the same weapon,” retorted Rossini.


Of course, Rossini was not always in what he called epicurean form. Adolphe Crémieux gave a sumptuous breakfast partly in honor of Meyerbeer, to which he invited Rossini. The latter occupied a place of honor next to the wife of his host, but refused one after another all the dainties offered to him. Madame noticed this with surprise and regret and presently asked him whether he was unwell. “I rarely eat breakfast,” he explained, “nor can I depart from that rule to-day; although, should anything go wrong with to-morrow night’s representation of ‘Les Huguenots,’ Meyerbeer will believe to the day of his death that my refusal to partake of this feast brought him bad luck. The position that I now occupy at your table reminds me of an odd experience that befell me some years ago in a provincial town of Italy.” He then told the story. It was connected with a performance of “The Barber of Seville,” given in Rossini’s special honor in a local theatre. While the overture was in full swing, Rossini noticed a big trumpet in the orchestra, manifestly blown with remarkable force and continuity by a member of the band. But not a note in the least like the trumpet could Rossini hear. So, at the close of the performance, he interviewed the conductor and asked him about the noiseless trumpet. His reply was: “Maestro, in this town there is not a living soul who can play the trumpet, therefore I specially engaged an artist to hold one up to his lips, binding him by an oath not to blow into it; for it looks well to have a trumpet in an orchestra.”

Rossini, who was as fat as Falstaff, used to tell this story when admiring ladies asked him to breakfast and he ate nothing. “I am like the trumpet,” he would say; “I look well at your table.”

Rossini was often given to characteristic remarks and criticisms concerning other composers. He spoke his mind freely about everybody and never cared whether he gave offence or not. Still, what he said was mostly taken as a good joke, especially by intimates. He seldom went to the opera but he could not resist the temptation of hearing one of Wagner’s works. It was Tannhäuser.” Afterwards, when asked to give his opinion of the opera, he said: “It is too important and too elaborate a work to be judged after a single hearing, but I shall not give it a second.” Somebody once handed him a score of one of Wagner’s latest music dramas and presently remarked that he was holding it upside down. “Well,” said Rossini, “I have already read it the other way and am trying this as I really can make nothing of it.”

I have mentioned Meyerbeer. It was one of Rossini’s pleasantries to say that he and this composer could never agree, because Meyerbeer liked sauer kraut better than macaroni. He imagined that Meyerbeer disliked him. Meeting Meyerbeer one day,  Rossini replied, in answer to an enquiry on the subject, that his days were numbered, as he must soon succumb to an alarming catalogue of maladies which he glibly unfolded to the ready ear of his listener and to the utter astonishment of a friend that Rossini had with him at the time. After Meyerbeer’s departure, the friend remonstrated with Rossini for his levity and mendaciousness. “Well,” replied Rossini, “it is every good man’s duty to contribute to the peace and comfort of his fellow-men; and you know that nothing would delight Meyerbeer more or afford him more fully this peace and comfort than to hear of my early decease.” As a matter of fact, Meyerbeer died before him; and when Rossini heard the news he fainted.

A few days after Meyerbeer’s death a young admirer of his called upon Rossini with an eulogy which he had written in honor of his dead idol. “Well,” said Rossini, after hearing the composition played, “if you really want my honest opinion, I think that it would have been better if you had died and Meyerbeer had written the eulogy.” Rossini had scant patience with amateur composers. One such once accompanied the manuscript of his latest composition with a Stilton cheese, of which he knew Rossini to be fond. He hoped, of course, to have a letter praising his work. A letter came, but all it said was “Thanks! I like the cheese very much.” Prince Poniatowski, the composer of the popular “Yeoman’s Wedding Song,” had written two operas and wanted very much to have Rossini’s opinion as to which of the two he should choose for production in public. Rossini fought shy of the matter for a long time, but Poniatowski’s importunity at last prevailed. Highly elated, he accompanied Rossini home. Rossini settled himself in his easy chair with his feet on another and placed a huge bandana handkerchief over his eyes. Poniatowski sat down to the piano and worked away lustily for an hour. When, almost exhausted and bathed in perspiration, he was about to begin on the second opera, Rossini awoke from a doze into which he had fallen and touched him lightly on the shoulder so as to arrest his progress. “Now, my good friend, I can advise you,” he said sleepily; “have the other opera performed.” A kindred joke was tried on Liszt, who had just played one of his so-called “symphonic poems” to Rossini. “I prefer the other,” said Rossini enigmatically. Liszt naturally asked which “other.” “The Chaos in Haydn’s ‘Creation,’ ” was the withering reply.


Rossini’s witticisms indeed bubbled forth at all times and under all circumstances. On one occasion a gentleman called upon him to enlist his aid in procuring for him an engagement at the opera. He was a drummer and had taken the precaution to bring his instrument. Rossini said he would hear him “play,” and it was agreed that he should show off in the overture to “Semiramide.” Now, the very first bar of the overture contains a tremolo for the drum; and when this had been performed the player remarked, “Now I have a rest of seventy-eight bars— these, of course, I will skip.” This was too good a chance to be lost. “Oh, no,” said the composer; “by all means count the seventy-eight bars; I particularly want to hear those.” Rossini’s whimsicality  extended even to his birthday. Having been born on February 29th, in leap year, he had of course a birthday only once in four years, and when he was seventy-two he facetiously invited his friends to celebrate his eighteenth birthday! The late Sir Arthur Sullivan made his acquaintance in Paris. One morning, when Sullivan called to see him, he found him trying over a small piece of music. “What is that?” asked Sullivan. “It’s my dog’s birthday,” he replied very seriously, “and I write a little piece for him every year.” All his life he had a dread of the number thirteen, as well as of Fridays. He never would invite more than twelve to dinner, and once when he had fourteen he made sure of an “understudy” who would, at a moment’s notice, have been ready to come should one guest have missed. And—though this was a double superstition—he died on Friday, November 13.

Of miscellaneous anecdotes there are quite a number. When Rossini was once rehearsing one of his operas in a small theatre in Italy he noticed that the horn was out of tune. “Who is that playing the horn in such an unholy way?” he demanded. “It is I,” said a tremulous voice. “Ah, it is you, is it? Well, go right home.” It was his own father! Like  Ruskin, Rossini detested railways. When these were instituted he registered a vow that he would never adopt a means of locomotion so little suggestive of art and so entirely at variance with Nature. In this connection a good story is told by Mr. Kuhe, the veteran Brighton musician. About the middle of the sixties Mr. Kuhe took his family to Kissingen. One day, to the surprise of the promenaders, a huge traveling carriage was seen approaching, heavily laden with luggage. This marvelous equipage contained a very stout old gentleman with a remarkably fine head, by whose side was an elderly lady, while the coachman’s seat was shared by a valet de chambre. In those days road traveling being already considered an eccentric mode of progression, much speculation was aroused as to the identity of the occupants. The old gentleman proved to be none other than Rossini.—Musical Opinion.



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