Sunday 4 December 2016

Classical: Rossini - a man of mighty music and minimal birthdays

George Hamilton

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

Rossini: Born with music in his veins
Rossini: Born with music in his veins

What do a 16th-century Pope, a former Prime Minister of India, a hit singer from the 1940s and the composer of one of classical music's top tunes have in common? The tie that binds Pope Paul III, Morarji Desai, Dinah Shore and the prolific composer who wrote the William Tell Overture - Gioachino Rossini - is that they're all leaplings, born on February 29.

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Not that the absence of an annual birthday seems to have bothered any of them, as they wrote themselves into the history books in their various ways.

Even folk with only a passing interest in music will be familiar with the Rossini masterpiece. The introduction to William Tell earned its place in popular culture when it was chosen as the theme for a hugely successful television series of yesteryear, The Lone Ranger.

That cowboy classic of the 1950s featuring the masked horseman, his faithful steed Silver, and his native American sidekick Tonto - who called his boss "kemosabe" - ran for almost a decade and implanted the climax of Rossini's operatic invention into the public consciousness.

But there's so much more to the overture than the cavalry charge that leads to its conclusion, the bit that ended up as the signature tune. The full version lasts around 12 minutes, and it is well worth a listen.

An overture, by definition, is a presentation of the various themes that will follow through the course of the production, and here William Tell scores highly. It may be the most famous of Rossini's pieces, but there's a great deal more to him that just that.

Rossini was born with music in his veins in the town of Pesaro on Italy's Adriatic coast on Leap Year Day in 1829. His father was the town trumpeter, his mother sang on the stage.

He wasn't much of a student, and he developed a bit of a reputation as a lazybones, but performing came easily to him, and from there it was a short step to actually writing the music.

Mozart and Haydn were big influences, so much so that he was nicknamed "the German".

He was good enough to be recommended to La Scala in Milan, and earned himself commissions in Venice and Naples, the two cities where opera was king.

He wrote his big success, The Barber of Seville, in a matter of weeks in 1816, and though it bombed on its premiere in Rome, it won rave reviews elsewhere, including an accolade from no less a luminary than Ludwig van Beethoven, who told Rossini The Barber was sure to be played as long as there was Italian opera.

Rossini's choice for the role of Figaro, the barber of the title, was the Irish baritone and composer Michael Balfe, and they enjoyed a lengthy and a lucrative collaboration.

The hits just kept on coming. La Cenerentola - his take on the Cinderella story - followed. Then there was La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie), home to another hugely popular overture.

His fame spread. He settled in Paris, and won government sponsorship. William Tell was to be the first of several new productions, but then events took their toll. The July Revolution of 1830 that brought down the French king meant there was no job for him any more.

The composition stopped. He'd produced 40-odd dramas for the musical stage. But though he lived on for another 40 years, William Tell would be the last opera he would ever write.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm each Saturday and Sunday morning from 10am

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