Monday, February 29, 2016

An Apology for Rossini

Gioachino Rossini, who was born 224 years ago in Pesaro, turns 54 today. The explanation is simple, albeit paradoxical.

Now, this is as good a time as any to review the reasons why Rossini was a godly composer. I don’t want to argue that he was the greatest opera composer of the nineteenth century: that title is reserved to Wagner, who wrote with far greater gravity, and with a wildness that has never been surpassed. Nor was he the most beautiful: that laurel is for Donizetti, whose melodies are more lingering and touching. Nor the most exquisite: that was the mournful Bellini.

But he was a son of the gods nonetheless. I’ve reached this conclusion by a back door. First it’s necessary to concede the most serious charge of Rossini’s critics: that his music is bubbly and frivolous. That is, of course, true. All of his music is a dance; there is nothing in it—even in a tragedy like Otello or Tancredi—that is mournful, or even somber. Rossini at his slowest and most plaintive is still tinged with joy. Joyce diDonato, for example, once made me tear up with the opening cavatina in La Donna del Lago. This song is melancholy on the surface. But the reason I went misty-eyed was that, for some reason, it filled me with untellable happiness. This is one of Rossini’s magic tricks: under a screen of wistfulness, he whispers things of tremendous mirth. Here he does it again:

This isn’t deep music, but it’s lovely and delightful music. It is endlessly sweet, even though it never reaches the bottom of your soul.

The sheer copiousness of Rossini’s music is part of this lightness. Music flowed incredibly easily through Rossini: he wrote dozens of operas, and countless cantatas, songs, masses, etc. Rossini supposedly said that he could set a laundry list to music; this is barely hyperbole. Rossini’s prolific revelry is exactly what Erasmus describes in his book On Abundance: it displays an ease of variation, an extemporized eloquence, that resists the ordinary gravity of nature and spins in the higher realms of human invention. Music like Rossini’s, just like Erasmus’ (or Luther’s) rhetoric, can only be composed quickly. Pause to think, and the product is liable to be mired in gloom.

This rapid lightness is the stuff of happiness. And his happiness is what sets Rossini apart. Almost all the Romantic opera-composers wrote with thorns in their souls: as I’ve written before, Donizetti wasted with nostalgic madness, and Bellini and Wagner were on fire with longing. Something similar is true of Verdi, Beethoven and Weber. Only Rossini was sanguine and joyful. Everything about him, from his whimsical birthday to his ruddy cheeks, expressed a chuckling approach to life. He refutes singlehandedly the superstition that the artist must suffer. Unlike any of the composers who sit with him in the pantheon, he was, to the core, healthy.

Health is an extremely underrated virtue. Lots of art—Caravaggio’s paintings, for example, or Swinburne’s poetry—is ravishingly beautiful, but passionate and horribly sick. You can only contemplate it for so long before its somber emotion infects you. The temptation to feverishness in art is great: the extreme passions are, after all, the surest guides to beauty. Only someone so strong as Rossini was able to resist this temptation, which has seduced many better artists than him. He remained hale in body, mind, and music throughout his life.

Now, back to what I said about Rossini being a godlike man. I mean this in the Greek, not the Hebrew sense. He was serene and joyful, untouched by gloom, and immune to the fires of death. Like the Greek gods, he lacked a certain sense of gravity; life as expressed in his music is a thin and colorful tissue. (Wagner, by contrast, took up the mortal and terrified Norse gods as his models.) Olympian godliness is blithe. Mortals find the sight of the gods terrible, and they are driven to madness by them; the gods themselves, though, are relaxed and happy. Rossini, buttery and superficial as he was, joined their number.

This jollity is why we like to be scornful of Rossini. Most of us do suffer terribly, and his lightheartedness seems false as a result. I myself usually prefer Wagner to Rossini: I’m often morose and pessimistic enough to need the former’s angry wildness. Or Bellini’s sad languor, or Mozart’s mysticism. But to every thing there is a season and a time to every purpose under heaven. Trivial joyfulness has its own days, and I think the twenty-ninth of February is one of them. On these days, we can bring ourselves under the spell of joy—the spark of the gods—and convince ourselves that mirth is what really goes deep, and sorrow just a foggy illusion.

Thanks to our calendar, Rossini is as long-lived as a demigod too. Wagner is in his decrepit 130s; Mozart is an ancient 223. At fifty-four, Rossini is still in the summer of life.

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