by Sebastiano Bazzichetto
TORONTO – Gioacchino Rossini passed away on November the 13th of 1868. Hence this year marks the 150th anniversary from his death, and I thought it was compulsory to spend a few words, and some more than a few to remember him.
To say that Rossini was quite the genius it’s an easy task: he granted the world 42 operas, 17 cantatas, 8 hymns and choruses, 17 religious pieces, 29 vocal scores and 20 sonatas, for a total of 133 masterworks.
Gioacchino had an intense, rather short, musical public career that spanned from 1810 to 1829. Many of the operas staged and performed nowadays from the Italian repertoire are Rossini’s.
He was born into a family of musicians in Pesaro, a town on the Adriatic coast of Italy which was then part of the Papal States, in 1792, three years after Mozart’s death. His father was a horn player and his mother was an opera singer, performing in small provincial theatres. As a child, thanks to the teaching of Angelo Tesei, he learnt to sight-read, play accompaniments on the piano and sing well enough to take solo parts in the church when he was ten years of age. As a boy, he was a contralto and became part of the choir of San Giovanni in Monte – now Accademia Fiorentina in Bologna –, and he was such a gifted singer that he barely avoided the destiny of being emasculated, as his teacher wanted for him a brilliant career as evirato cantore, that is a castrato.
Like Mozart, he was quite the genius and composed his first opera when he was only 14. As he turned 18, he was able to stage La cambiale di matrimonio in Venice in the tiny Teatro di San Moisè. At the young age of 23 he was the musical director of the Teatro San Carlo in Napoli. In 1823, at 31, he left Italy for France where, in 1829, turning 37, he composed his last opera, the Guglielmo Tell. In the 40 years preceding his death, he got into a period of depression, with which he struggled by becoming a refined foodie, composing chamber music, oratorios and religious pieces. He was buried in the cemetery of Père Lachaise in Paris, but later moved to Santa Croce in Firenze, the temple that houses the remains of all Italian glories, artists and intellectuals.
After the Guglielmo Tell, the maestro suddenly fell silent. He did not touch a pen to compose an opera for nearly 40 years. In a way, Rossini retired from the scene, but kept composing chamber music and the like. He was now composing for his own pleasure, without the urgency to please the public, greedy impresarios or the prima donna of the moment. What did Rossini do in those long years before dying? As I said, he went composing for the pianoforte and smaller musical ensembles, but he also devoted himself to one of his greatest passions: food.
Gioacchino Rossini was a superb gourmet, taking delight in dishes, recipes and wines. His creativity sprang in the kitchen, orchestrating pots and plates, in the gastronomic field.
“I do not know a better occupation than eating, that is, eating in the proper sense of the term – he wrote to a friend – The appetite is to the stomach like love is to the heart.The stomach is the director who leads the great orchestra of our passions”.
His biographers recount that as a child he was an altar boy who used to drink the wine after the liturgy. Or that in his youth he often had problems with money because he could not resist the temptation of trying new restaurants and excellent, expensive wines.
He was probably the greatest culinary expert among the artists of his time. At breakfast he used to have a cup of coffee and a sandwich, although in later years he would have preferred two soft-boiled eggs and a glass of Bordeaux.
At the top of his scale of values lay the maccheroni, that he loved to cook personally celebrating his rituals. This is what one of his friends recounts: “It was then that appeared Rossini, who, with his delicate plump hand, chose a silver syringe. He filled them [the maccheroni] with truffle purée and, patiently, injected this divine sauce into each roll of pasta. Then he placed the maccheroni in a saucepan like a baby in the cradle […] Rossini remained there, motionless, spellbound, watching his favorite dish and listening to the murmur of his dear maccheroni as if he listened to harmonious notes.”
In his beautiful Parisian house the composer used to host lavish dinner parties, serving up to 14 courses, welcoming politicians, intellectuals and artists, such as Dumas, Liszt and Verdi.
For them the maestro wrote culinary harmonies made of choral arrangements to which the fields and the artisans of half of Europe contributed. From Naples he was sent maccheroni, from Seville the hams, from Gorgonzola (a little town in Lombardia) the homonymous cheese, from Milan the panettone. The most appreciated gifts were mortadella and zamponi, or at least something to eat. Indispensable for the Rossini opera, especially on salads and macaroni, were the truffles sent from Ascoli by his friend and admirer Giovanni Vitali.
Rossini seems to have confessed to have cried only three times in his life: when his first opera was booed, when he heard Paganini play, and when, during a boat trip, a turkey stuffed with delicious truffles was dropped into the water.
Rossini proved to be very demanding even in the choice of wine. At the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana in Florence there is a menu, written by the very composer, particularly interesting for the careful pairing of wines with dishes: Madera with cured meats, Bordeaux with fried meails, Reno with cold pie, Champagne with roasted meat, Alicante and Lacrima with fruit and cheese.
During his exceptional Parisian life Rossini also met Antonin Carême, the most famous chef of his time.
The occasion was a gathering at the Rothschildt’s, and since then the chef claimed that no one in the world understood his cuisine better than the Italian composer.
Once Rossini was in Bologna, Caréme, perhaps out of nostalgia for such a fine connoisseur, sent him a diplomatic mess of truffle pheasant accompanied by the message: “From Caréme to Rossini”.
The Maestro answered with a musical composition addressed: «From Rossini to Caréme».
In the trendy restaurants a table was always reserved for the musician and his friends. When Gioacchino entered a room, he used to shake hands with the maître, to greet the sommelier, all the waiters, and finally, before sitting at the table, to pay homage to the chef.
His biographer Giuseppe Radiciotti tells that one evening, at the end of a concert to which the composer had assisted, a lady approached him: «Oh, Maestro! I can finally contemplate that brilliant face, which I did not know except in portraits!
You can not go wrong: you have the bump of music in your skull; There it is”. We should recall that, back then, it was believed that a musical genius, for example, also in the case of Mozart, would have had a little bump on his forehead.
“What do you think of this other bump, milady? – Rossini answered, tapping his stomach – You cannot deny that it is even more visible and developed. And in fact my real bump is that of the throat “.
In Passy, on the outskirts of Paris, the maestro composed his final masterwork, la Petite Messe Solennelle.
Rossini wrote it in 1863 at the request of Count Alexis Pillet-Will for his wife Louise to whom the mass is dedicated. The composer, after more than 30 years of musical silence, described it as “the last of my péchés de vieillesse” (my old-age sins).
The extended work is a missa solemnis, but Rossini labeled it, not without irony, petite (little). It is composed for twelve singers, four of them soloists, two pianos and harmonium, a very typical conformation in the Neapolitan harpsichord tradition of the 18th century.
The mass was first performed in March of 1864 at the couple’s new home in Paris, the hôtel of Louise comtesse de Pillet-Will. Rossini later produced an orchestra version, including an additional movement, a setting of the hymn “O salutaris Hostia” as a soprano aria. This later version of the mass was not performed during his lifetime because he could not obtain permission to perform it with female singers in a church. It was first performed three months after Rossini’s death, at the Salle Ventadour in Paris by the company of the Théâtre-Italien on 24 February 1869.
To Rossini and his brilliant inspiration, my gratitude to have penned some of the most memorable and enjoyable pieces of music – and art – of all time.