Composer Gioachino Rossini: Biography, Music, Operas & Style

Instructor: Charis Duke

Charis has taught college music and has a master's degree in music composition.

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. 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 Rossini caricature

Rossini began his opera composition career upon graduation from the Philharmonic School. His first commission was for a one-act opera buffa, or comic opera. Opera buffa was a popular Italian style of opera that involved comic characters pitted against a romantic couple. For this commission, Rossini composed La cambiale di matrimonio (The Bill of Marriage). Rossini became so skilled at this genre that most of his 39 operas are opera buffa.

Rossini had many opera buffa hits, including La scala di seta (The Silken Ladder), La Cenerentola (Cinderella), and his most beloved opera even today, Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville). By the age of 21, his work was being performed in Bologna, Rome, Venice, and Milan, for which he was very well paid. Rossini was a bonafide rock star of his time.

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.

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