Rossini, as his music suggests, was one of the most flamboyant composers in the history of music; world—famous as a composer after just five birthdays, he retired from composing before his tenth birthday and subsequently became a gourmet of note, inventing, amongst other dishes, the steak dish Tournedos Rossini. You will have guessed, of course, that he was born on 29 February, and that his fame actually arrived when he was in his early twenties. By the age of 38 he had written thirty-eight operas, but in 1829 he put down his pen and wrote little thereafter except the odd private chamber work until his death nearly forty years later.
His masterpiece The Barber of Seville was written and premiered in 1816 when he was only 24 (6!) and in 1817 he completed no less than three operas, including The Thieving Magpie; where certain geniuses such as Beethoven laboured long and hard over their creations, chipping and honing their way towards perfection, Rossini achieved a reputation as one of the most prodigiously swift of all composers, although he was also known for world-class laziness, and the tale he told of the composition of the Thieving Magpie Overture is a prime example.
Very often he recycled material from other compositions for his overtures but on this occasion he chose to write a piece which reflected the plot of the opera; unfortunately, as his story shows, he left it rather late: I wrote the overture to The Thieving Magpie on the day of its opening in the theatre itself (La Scala, Milan) where I was imprisoned by the director and under the surveillance of four stage hands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below . . . In default of pages, they were ordered to throw me out of the window.
Semiramide (Sem—i—ram—i—day) is one of Rossini’s finest operas. Based, like Tancredi, on a tragedy by Voltaire and set in Babylon, the work is one of a series of more serious operas (Opera Seria) inspired by the dramatic sbprano Isabella Colbran, following his line of comic operas (Opera Buffa), which had included The Barber of Seville and Cinderella (La Cenerento/a). Colbran became his mistress and then his wife, and she created the principal female roles in many of his Opera Seria.
The plot concerns Semiramide, Queen of Babylon, who wishes to marry Arsace and make him King, only to discover that he is her son. Eventually Arsace does succeed to the throne reluctantly when he kills Semiramide, “mistaking her in the dark for his rival Assur.
The overture to Semiramide too is, fittingly, one of Rossini’s finest, again using material from the opera, making it un-recyclable. It begins with solo timpani followed by quietly obsessive lower strings and crescendi, then there is a beautiful horn serenade with pizzicato accompaniment in the strings. The Presto begins with first violins in a theme which is at once softly energetic and elegant and shortly punctuated by brilliant woodwind comments, which leads to a strident climax with flashing upward scales. The second subject, marching strings accompanying virtuosic woodwind solos, leads then to scampering first violins in Rossini’s signature crescendo towards a further climax with military brass and woodwind — not for nothing was Rossini known as ‘Il Signor Crescendo’. All this repeats in the home key before a tragic ending.
Notes by HDJ