Music in the Present Tense: Rossini's Italian Operas in Their Time

Music in the Present Tense: Rossini's Italian Operas in Their Time

by Emanuele Senici

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In the early 1800s, Rossini’s operas permeated Italy, from the opera house to myriad arrangements heard in public and private. But after Rossini stopped composing, a sharp decline in popularity drove most of his works out of the repertory. In the past half century, they have made a spectacular return to operatic stages worldwide, but this recent fame has not been accompanied by a comparable critical reevaluation.

Emanuele Senici’s new book provides a fresh look at the motives behind the Rossinian furore and its aftermath by examining the composer’s works in the historical context in which they were conceived, performed, seen, heard, and discussed. Situating the operas firmly within the social practices, cultural formations, ideological currents, and political events of early nineteenth-century Italy, Senici reveals Rossini’s dramaturgy as a radically new and specifically Italian reaction to the epoch-making changes witnessed in Europe at the time. The first book-length study of Rossini’s Italian operas to appear in English, Music in the Present Tense exposes new ways to explore nineteenth-century music and addresses crucial issues in the history of modernity, such as trauma, repetition, and the healing power of theatricality.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226663685
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/13/2019
Series: Opera Lab: Explorations in History, Technology, and Performance
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
File size: 9 MB

About the Author

Emanuele Senici is professor of music history at the University of Rome La Sapienza, Italy. He is the author of Landscape and Gender in Italian Opera: The Alpine Virgin from Bellini to Puccini and the editor of the Cambridge Companion to Rossini.

Read an Excerpt



In preparation for the imminent premiere of Rossini's Semiramide at the Teatro La Fenice in Venice in February 1823, the Gazzetta privilegiata di Venezia published an extended discussion of Rossini's oeuvre to date. This article is a fruitful point of departure for my investigation into Rossinian discourse for two reasons. First, Semiramide would turn out to be the last work composed by Rossini for an Italian theater, followed only by Il viaggio a Reims, an occasional piece performed at Paris's Théâtre Italien in 1825 to celebrate the coronation of Charles X. The Venetian reviewer's comments, coming at a crucial turn in the composer's career, function as a retrospective overview of Rossini's prior operatic output. Second, this text not only discusses Rossini's operas but also summarizes some of the most prominent themes of the critics who wrote about them. Especially noteworthy are recurring objections to the composer's style:

For a while Rossini has been the one who annoys to the highest degree if not all, at least the most serious and severe among our journalists. For these critics, he is a dangerous innovator who corrupts music and taste; a plagiarist who is so busy stealing that he even steals from his own and constantly repeats himself; a trickster who deafens the ears, so that the bewildered spectators are unable to boo him; a reckless operator who puts cannons in churches and bells in theaters in order to get the public's attention; and, finally, a frenzied gatherer of sounds, always deafening, sometimes brilliant, and never suited to the sentiment that they should express.

Although the critic was evidently a supporter of the composer, his summary of objections is an accurate list of the themes that had dominated Rossinian discourse in Italy since the early 1810s.

These themes concerned the corruption of musical taste as commonly conceived at the time, plagiarism and self-borrowing, repetition, noisiness and its benumbing effect on audiences, and the fit between words and music. More abstractly, they could be formulated as questions of aesthetic novelty or tradition, of stylistic repetition or invention, of dynamics and the impact of sound on human bodies and minds, and of the musical setting of the Italian language. I will come back time and again to these themes, exploring their formulations and ramifications, as well as their imbrication with larger issues debated at the time. In fact, they will act as the backbone for my overall investigation into the Rossinian discourse in early nineteenth-century Italy. It makes sense to begin this investigation with the last of these themes — the connection between words and music — since it was probably the most fiercely debated question at the time, and it opens up a particularly wide spectrum of concerns and positions.

In the general context of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century aesthetic of vocal music, the relationship between words and music fell under the rubrics of "imitation" or "expression." According to this aesthetic, the sentiments conveyed by a text should be expressed by appropriately imitative, and therefore expressive, musical gestures: only by following this principle could a composer achieve what was considered the ultimate goal of music, the emotional involvement of listeners. It should be noted that expression was conceived as a necessary correlative of imitation: only music that stood in a properly imitative relationship with the words it set could be considered properly expressive, and therefore conducive to emotional involvement. This general aesthetic principle did not, however, stipulate which kinds of musical gestures could be deemed appropriate to particular words, images and concepts: such specifics could and did change over time, and within the context of different national musical traditions.

Whatever the general agreement on this front in the world of Italian opera around 1810, even a superficial reading of critical reactions to Rossini's works in the following decade demonstrates that, when it came to imitation and expression, these works were heard as radically innovative: they did something profoundly different from what had been done until then. The Venetian journalist's lapidary statement that hostile critics heard Rossini's sounds as "never suited to the sentiments they are supposed to express" may be extreme, but no doubt the issue of imitation was critical to all evaluations of Rossini's operas. Here are a few sample opinions, both pro and contra, from Milan, Venice, and Florence between 1816 and 1826:

In a situation where, in order not to be discovered, the characters say, "Hush hush, softly softly" ["Zitti zitti, piano piano," Il barbiere di Siviglia, Act 2], our composer explodes with music to be heard a thousand miles away. (Milan, 1816)

Original ideas, heartfelt images, reasoned and word-sensitive harmony: these are the features that made us acknowledge this score [Torvaldo e Dorliska] as one of the happy productions of Rossini's genius. (Milan, 1818)

Music must be suited to the passions that one wants to awaken. Didn't you hear how [in La gazza ladra] at times jollity spreads where words invite weeping, and at other times a character sings calmly where desperate accents should be heard? My heart remains arid, and my ears are pitilessly tortured. (Florence, 1818)

The opera [Mosè in Egitto] begins with an introduction that admirably prepares the soul for the deep, touching, profound harmony, well suited to the subject, that reigns in all that follows. ... The best answer to those who pretend that Rossini's genius is limited to sparkling and light things is his Mosè. (Florence, 1821)

In general this score [Ricciardo e Zoraide] has met with favor, which it deserves, because it contains beautiful melodies, albeit not always suited to the situation and the nature of the characters, and despite the fact that orchestral sound often overwhelms voices rather than accompanies them. ... The music of our times, although highly honorable, does not enact the same wonders [that it did in ancient Greece], and this is because of the lack of coordination between sounds and words, so that ideas and feelings are not awakened. (Milan, 1823)

[The problems with Torvaldo e Dorliska are] vocal parts chopped up and instrumental-like, excessive richness of the accompaniments, ideas that sometimes do not correspond with the words, and motives repeated from other scores. (Venice, 1824)

It was eventually acknowledged that Semiramide abounds in the sublime and the pathetic, and that here more than in other operas by Rossini notes and words mutually answer each other, as if they were two languages expressing the same concept. (Florence, 1826)

Each new opera by Rossini was evaluated in terms of its musical setting of the text. Critics either praised it as suited to the words or, more insistently, voiced their concern over a perceived lack of connection between text and music. Moreover, commentators often noticed, as the last two quotes suggest, that the serious operas from the latter years of Rossini's Italian career seemed to make an effort toward what was perceived as a tighter, more direct relationship between words and their musical setting, framing this observation in terms of a change from the composer's standard practice in his previous works, both serious and comic. These earlier operas were of course those that had contributed most to the general perception that Rossini maintained a cavalier attitude toward the images, emotions, and situations in the libretto.

Rossini's practice was often cast in opposition to that of his predecessors, especially those "Neapolitan" masters of the recent past already well on their way to mythologization such as Giovanni Paisiello, Domenico Cimarosa, and Nicola Zingarelli. In their music these composers supposedly never forgot the text and were always imitative and expressive, and thus able to move listeners to tears. Whether for or against, everybody seemed to agree that Rossini did something remarkably different not only from these earlier masters but also from many of his more conservative contemporaries. In 1818 a Neapolitan critic, for example, praised Francesco Morlacchi for composing expressive music along the lines of his teacher Zingarelli — unlike Rossini, who should learn from this colleague something about the true nature of dramatic music.

The question of imitation again emerges as the central bone of contention when we move from newspaper criticism to the numerous pamphlets, treatises, and polemical tracts on Rossini's operas published at the time. Among the various authors who contributed to the debate before 1830 — Adriano Lorenzoni, Andrea Maier, Michele Leoni, H. Franceschini, Geltrude Righetti Giorgi (the first Rosina in Il barbiere di Siviglia and the first Cenerentola), "Eleuterio Pantologo" (a pseudonym), Ferdinando Giorgetti, Marco Santucci, and Pietro Brighenti — the most explicit is Giuseppe Carpani, perhaps Rossini's staunchest defender, and certainly the most articulate.

Far from denying the critics' accusations about Rossini's music's lack of proper imitation, Carpani defends the composer in terms of music's duty to follow its own logic rather than that of the text:

Expression is not rarely very appropriate both in the comic and in the serious genre; and when it is not exactly so, this is due precisely to the wisdom of the composer, who, forced at times to sacrifice either expression or cantilena ["beautiful melody" or "proper melody"], abandons the former rather than losing the latter; this is because in music the first to be rescued must be music, since where cantilena ends, there is no longer a thread to the musical discourse, there is no thought. Music disappears, and noise takes over.

To this idea Carpani devoted a long appendix to his collection of writings on Rossini, the well-known Le Rossiniane, ossia Lettere musico-teatrali (1824), entitled "Sulle differenze e caratteri morali degli stili, e sul linguaggio musicale" (On the differences and moral characters of styles, and on musical language). Carpani synthesized his view in the famous formulation that Rossini's music had such enormous success because it was full of "cantilena, and eternal cantilena, and beautiful cantilena, and new cantilena, and magic cantilena, and rare cantilena."

Carpani's position is particularly noteworthy because of its clever rhetorical maneuver. Whereas Rossini's defenders generally subscribed to the principle of imitation, arguing that, after all was said and done, his music was suited to the words it set, Carpani proclaimed instead that "unsuited" music could be a good thing, since it rightfully placed music at the helm, where it should always be. What is more, the writer constructed a historical pedigree for this stance, with Rossini as the modern follower of a tradition whose older representatives included Giovanni Battista Pergolesi, Antonio Sacchini, and Domenico Cimarosa. This constitutes a rather tendentious interpretation of the discourse of this tradition, which usually revolved around not only the primacy of melody but also its simplicity and its imitative relationship with the text it set.

I will return to Le Rossiniane and Carpani's discursive strategies in other chapters. For the moment, having placed imitation at the center of the Rossinian discourse in early nineteenth-century Italy, and having observed the rhetoric of such discourse, we might well ask whether the composer ever contributed to it not only in deeds but also in words. I have found only two references from the years of his Italian career, both from the early months of 1816, which suggest that he was aware how, in this aesthetic climate, calling operatic music "imitative" meant saying it was good.

Shortly after the premiere of Il barbiere di Siviglia Rossini wrote to his mother that the opera "is a masterpiece and I am sure that, if your heard it, you would like it, since this is a most spontaneous and imitative music." The coupling of spontaneity and imitation sounds rather odd in the context of contemporary discourse, and it must have done so back then as well, at least to somebody. Rossini's mother was evidently asked by a person to whom she had read her son's letter what these words meant exactly, and passed the question on to him. He replied, evidently joking, that "spontaneous means Polish, and imitative whore" ("Spuntanea Vuol dir Polacca e imittativa Puttana"). The least it can be said about this sentence is that the composer must have not been particularly attached to the precise meaning of the words "spontaneous" and "imitative." This conclusion is confirmed by the second occurrence of "imitative," used (also in a letter to his mother) to characterize the music of the cantata Le nozze di Teti e di Peleo, which is filled with pieces from earlier works adapted to new words, and for which, therefore, "imitative" seems a strange choice of adjective to say the least. Rossini would address rather more coherently the issue of imitation many years later, long after he had given up operatic composition and in a different aesthetic climate, as we will see in another chapter. For the moment, I think it is fair to conclude that Rossini's few recoverable words on the matter when he was active as an opera composer in Italy, while far from conveying a recognizable aesthetic stance (as it is only to be expected), confirm the central place held by the notion of imitation within the contemporary discourse of his operas.

In Rossini's operas, then, the music related to the text in new, previously unheard ways, and even the composer's staunchest supporters agreed that this relationship was perceived as looser than in the works of his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, the music tending to follow its own logic and keeping a certain distance from the words. Few failed to notice that this feature placed Rossini's operas outside the terms not only of contemporary compositional practice but also of widely accepted music-aesthetic principles. If these operas' musical ideas could not be heard as appropriately imitative, how should they be heard? If Rossini's music did not attempt to represent the emotions depicted by the words, at least not in the way such representation was normally conceived, what was its function, what its concern?

The critic of the Gazzetta privilegiata di Venezia quoted above had some interesting suggestions to this question. Following his summary of the themes dominating Rossini's reception, he insisted that the enormous success of these operas was a fact that simply could not be ignored, one that rather demanded its own aesthetic theorization:

Should we then say that Rossini's operas are masterpieces? — Yes, in their own genre. — And which is this genre? — Not the imitative genre, but simply the harmonic one. — How so? Can there exist a beautiful music that imitates nothing? — There is modern music. This is the point on which musical connoisseurs and the general public have not quite understood each other so far.

He continued that, when listening to "modern music," the public could not understand whether this music tried to be imitative but failed, or did not try at all. In Rossini's operas, the epitome of modern music, it was quite difficult to understand the words — also on account of the "modern school of singing." Since it was difficult to understand the text properly, how could imitation be detected, even if it were present? If we cannot quite catch what the characters are saying, how can we judge whether the music suits the words or not? And where does this state of affairs leave librettos? Would it not be possible to sing nothing but vowels? No, it would not, argues our critic, since this would prevent spectators from entertaining the illusion that something is being represented on the stage, and "this is the only real illusion entertained in theaters, and the only one necessary in order to feel pleasure."

Whatever we may think of this reviewer's argument, his effort to take seriously the aesthetic consequences of what he and others perceived as Rossini's innovative stance on musical imitation — including the attempt to discuss its implications in terms of representation — is remarkable. In the context of early nineteenth-century Italian operatic discourse, the supposed inability to relate music to text in Rossini's operas signaled a potential representational impasse. One crucial consequence of maintaining that, to recall Carpani's words, "in music the priority goes to the music," is the trouble such a credo provokes for any attempt to connect operatic representation to reality — whatever we may mean by this most problematic of terms. In Rossini's operas, then, the link between reality and its musical representation on the stage is looser than in the works of his predecessors and contemporaries. The issue of imitation becomes an issue of representation, and therefore ultimately of dramaturgy: not only of the techniques, procedures, and conventions that characterize Rossini's operas and make it possible for audiences to recognize them as different from those by other composers, but also of the relationship between reality and representation promoted by such techniques, procedures, and conventions.


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Table of Contents

Introduction 1. Imitation 2. Repetition 3. Borrowing 4. Style 5. Genre 6. Dramaturgy 7. Noise 8. Modernity 9. Theatricality 10. Repertory 11. “Di tanti palpiti” 12. Memory 13. Pleasure 14. Movement 15. Belief

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