During the last decade of his life, Gioachino Rossini, the “Swan of Pesaro” and composer of some of the most popular operas of the nineteenth century, held regular Saturday evening receptions at his Paris apartment at 2 Chaussée d’Antin or, during the summer, at Beau Séjour, his house in Passy, then in the countryside outside the city.

Although this sort of salon was fairly typical (the well-connected could easily attend different salons almost every night of the week), within a few months of the Rossinis’ first samedi soir in December 1858, an invitation was the city’s highest social prize. Musicians, danseuses, critics, and authors mixed with the great bankers and politicians of the Second Empire and purple-clad members of the Holy See, all cramming into the reception rooms hoping to hear a snatch of the great man’s causeries charmantes. Admission was by ticket only, surrendered at the door to the formidable Madame Rossini who was described (anonymously, of course) in the Moniteur as la femme à trois têtes.

Rossini would often serve Italian delicacies, then rare in Paris, to favored guests beforehand, but the real focus of the samedis was neither conversation nor cuisine, but music— particularly the music written after Rossini’s return to Paris in 1855. Many of these songs and piano pieces that he called his Péchés de Vieillesse (Sins of Old Age) were performed from manuscript, with Rossini contributing praise and the more-than-occasional barbed comment when played by others. Afterwards, Madame collected the Péchés and, in an ironic foretaste of their future, hid them away in a large mahogany cabinet in Rossini’s bedroom. Delightful to listen to and play, the Péchés are extraordinary, in part because they were the last creative flowerings of Rossini’s life, but even more because they bloomed after decades of deep physical and mental suffering.

Delightful to listen to and play, Rossini’s  Péchés are extraordinary.

As starts go, few got off the line faster than Rossini. From boyhood, music poured from him, first as a singer, then as accompanist, then as composer. At twelve, he wrote his Sei sonate a quattro (Six String Quartets), heard even now with pleasure. Despite indifferent training, he was a maestro di cembalo at fourteen and composed his first opera, Demetrio e Polibio, at eighteen. At twenty-one, he hit the trifecta of Tancredi, L’Italiana in Algeri, and Aureliano in Palmira, the latter performed at La Scala where he was (and may still be) the youngest composer to have premiered there. And he was still warming up. At twenty-four came the most famous of them all, The Barber of Seville (“the most beautiful opera buffa there is,” according to Verdi). Then, starting at twenty-six (in 1818), Otello, La Cenerentola (Cinderella), La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie), Semiramide, Armida, and Mosè in Egitto (Moses in Egypt). Several of these were written at unbelievable speed—and it is difficult to understand how one could even recopy them as fast as they were written!

The Theatre des Italiens, where Rossini lived and worked in the 1820s. Photo: James Penrose

Lichtenberg’s aphorism that “there are people who possess not so much genius as a certain talent for perceiving the desires of the century, or even of the decade, before it has done so itself” could easily have been written with Rossini in mind. In the long hangover following the Napoleonic years, Rossini’s glittering music caught the Zeitgeist with its catchy themes, sparkling orchestration, and overall hilarity. Much of his appeal was due to the freshness of his sound, so different from that of his contemporaries. One Italian nobleman summed things up by saying, “Teutonic accompaniments do not constitute a guard of honor for the melody, but rather a police escort.”

And the Teutons were in full agreement. Hegel and the grimly pessimistic Arthur Schopenhauer were thrilled by Rossini’s operas. Schopenhauer was so enraptured that he played Rossini arias on his flute. When Rossini visited Vienna in 1822, even grumpy Beethoven turned on the charm, congratulating him for the Barber, saying that “it will be played as long as Italian opera exists.” During that same visit to Vienna, Carl Maria von Weber, who enviously had called Rossini “the Lucifer of music,” confessed to a friend during a performance of La Cenerentola, “I have to get out of here—even I’m beginning to like his stuff!” Stendahl offered a précis when he started his 1824 biography of Rossini:

Napoleon is dead, but a new conqueror has already revealed himself to the world; from Moscow to Naples, from London to Vienna, from Paris to Calcutta, his name is constantly on every tongue.

And, as with many red-hot celebrities, the adulation could be wonderfully inappropriate—as when the Largo al factotum (Figaro’s comical self-introduction in the Barber) was once performed during Mass at the elevation of the Host.

Rossini was nothing less than a force of nature. He transformed Italian opera in a remarkably short period of time from a mix of regional styles to a national one, with his own style and innovations as a unifying force. In social settings—there were many of these—he was extremely amusing, with a chameleon-like sense of humor that flickered from the urbane to the cynical (certainly the widest subcategory) to the deadly. After the death of Rossini’s friend Giacomo Meyerbeer, the German composer’s nephew asked Rossini to listen to a funeral march he had written for his uncle. “Very good, very good,” mused Rossini with a half-smile, “but wouldn’t it have been better if you had died, and your uncle had written the march for your funeral?”

By 1823 when he arrived in Paris, he was at the height of his compositional powers. After a fortnight of welcoming receptions, he wrote the delightful Il viaggio a Reims (Journey to Rheims) for the coronation of Charles X. This was followed, among other works, by the proto– grand opera, Le siège de Corinthe, and Moïse et Pharaon, whose last act preghiera, Stendhal claimed, caused forty women to succumb to nervous prostration. Then came Le Comte Ory (reworking much of the music from Il viaggio), which effectively created the modern operetta archetype in France and England. It would be the inspiration for Jacques Offenbach and even Arthur Sullivan (compare the “patter” singing in The Pirates of Penzance).

His work at the Théâtre Italien as impresario and director helped establish the bel canto singing style in France and prepared the public for Bellini, Donizetti, and Verdi. And he could spot talent, introducing Il Crociato in Egitto (The Egyptian Crusade) by Meyerbeer, whose huge works would, from the 1830s, dominate European opera until the arrival of Richard Wagner and which would, incidentally, push Rossini’s own works off stage. To keep Rossini in Paris, Charles X awarded him a handsome government pension and a titled sinecure, making him, by 1829, the most powerful figure in European music. His advice would be asked even outside of opera, as when the conductor François-Antoine Habeneck sought Rossini’s counsel when preparing the first performances of Beethoven’s symphonies in France. Rossini was then a mere thirty-eight—an age when many composers are just finding their strides.

Of course, it couldn’t last. Even when young, Rossini’s health had been tenuous, causing him several physical breakdowns and relapses. The crushing burden of writing and performing all those operas, supporting his much-loved but feckless parents, his hectic social life and libidinous (libidinissimo, in fact) lifestyle, his mother’s decline and death in the late 1820s, his father’s dislike of Paris, and the wearing effects of an unhappy marriage had weakened his constitution.

There were other factors as well. Despite his reputation as a musical mercenary (“I write for the rabble,” he liked to say), he had firm aesthetic principles. The greatest melodist of his generation, he intensely disliked the increasingly predominant style, in France at least, of singers’ unnaturally forced projection, the infamous urlo francese (French screaming). Although he revolutionized opera by his increasingly sophisticated and pervasive use of the orchestra, he recognized that these innovations would (and in other composers’ hands did) exacerbate this very trend, and would eventually supplant the balance he thought proper between orchestra and singers. And just perhaps, following the somewhat cool reception to his most recent opera, Guillaume Tell, he realized that his sense of the Zeitgeist was slipping—and he found that he didn’t care. All that notwithstanding, few could have imagined that in August 1829, when Rossini left Paris for what many thought would be just a short break in Bologna, he would never compose another opera.

Few could have imagined that when Rossini left Paris, he would never compose another opera.

At first, it looked like his time in Bologna was going to be relaxing but productive. After all, Rossini was relatively young and, though married, still very much the man-about-town. He was wealthy (helped by his state pension) and propertied; he benefitted from excellent financial advice. He attended performances of his operas and those of his friends. He kept an eye out for suitable libretti and traveled, including visits back to Paris, extensively. And yet on one of these trips, a train journey from Amsterdam to Antwerp so terrified him that he refused to set foot in a train again. After separating from his wife, he soon became seriously involved with Olympe Pélissier, the redoubtable ex-mistress of Honoré de Balzac, whom he would eventually marry after the death of his estranged wife. And he composed after a fashion, completing his stirring cantata Giovanna d’Arco, the delightful chamber songs called the Soirées Musicales, and a first version of his Stabat Mater.

This buoyant state of affairs lasted at most for a couple of years. Though famously able to take care of himself in business and in social settings, his psychological makeup was of little use in dealing with the events that were shortly to befall him.

They started with the overthrow of Rossini’s royal patron Charles X in the July Revolution of 1830. The frugal new government of Louis-Philippe quickly moved to terminate Rossini’s state pension. In view of the lucrative offers he had refused to stay in Paris, Rossini viewed this as a terrible betrayal, and the termination forced him into a prolonged and highly stressful litigation. Although he prevailed after five years, a second high-stakes litigation, this one concerning his ownership rights of the Stabat Mater, flared up immediately afterwards. He was eating and drinking far too much: contemporary illustrations show him as having gained a huge amount of weight (“who would ever recognize this enormous man,” one account went, “who seems to be afflicted with what the Egyptians would call elephantiasis”).

Then there were the deaths: his protégé Vincenzo Bellini; his close friend Roberto Severini, who died when the Théâtre Italien burned down in 1839; his financial advisor and confidante Alexandre Aguado; and, finally, his father and his first wife. All these depressed him further, as did his precipitous exit from Bologna, where he was working to establish the local conservatory, to Florence during the politically tumultuous years of 1848–49.

The gonorrhea he had caught in his younger years worsened. Untreated, it can lead to a nasty death by restricting the flow of urine from the body through urethral adhesions; even in its non-lethal forms, it is painful and debilitating. His correspondence from the time clearly shows his shame and disgust at his condition. After a partially effective medical intervention in Paris, he was forced to self-catheterize frequently and to live as a celibate. The primitive medications prescribed for the disease appear to have created further problems: intense mood swings, chronic nervousness, irritability (what some writers have described as manic depression), and auditory hallucinations so severe that he could not bear to hear music. Everything he heard was accompanied by overtones in the major third and the condition was so severe that Olympe had to keep their porter in funds to pay street musicians to keep away.

Étienne Carjat, Photo portrait of Giochino Rossini, 1865, Harvard Art Museum

While Rossini had been in decline for a generation, things got particularly bad in the early 1850s. Rumors of his death began circulating, forcing Olympe to publish a denial in the Gazette Musicale. Things were so bad that Olympe sent a lock of Rossini’s hair to a sonambula (soothsayer) for diagnosis. When that failed, she had his nightcap dipped in a magnetic potion in the hope of producing a cure. By 1855, Rossini was spending his days in a darkened room in their house in Florence, sobbing hysterically about suicide. At her wits’ end, she brought Rossini back to Paris to see if the doctors there could help.

By some miracle, they could. New treatments, the stimulus of cosmopolitan life, and the visits from old friends and musicians all helped Rossini’s mood swings to lessen. His physical and mental demons, those constant companions for a generation, began to quieten. The overtones disappeared and music again became bearable. His sense of humor returned, as did the urge to compose. After two years, he felt well enough to set six songs to Metastasio’s mournful verse Mi lagnerò tacendo della mia sorte amara (“I will lament my bitter fate in silence”) in honor of Olympe—perhaps not the most cheerful of birthday presents, but certainly an improvement over suicide threats. Under the obscure but significant title of Musique anodine (variously, “Soothing,” “Mild,” “Harmless,” but, in this context, probably “Therapeutic” Music), this little volume ushered in the extended series of works that Rossini would collect into his Péchés de Vieillesse.

Though Rossini never spoke about his refusal to continue writing operas, the Péchés, particularly those written for piano alone, may contain a few clues. As a group, they are highly varied in mood, form, rhythm, theme, and difficulty. Listeners and performers alike, however, cannot help being struck by Rossini’s constantly beautiful balance of melody and accompaniment, the melodic lushness of the Péchés (for instance, Un enterrement en carnival, Volume VI) as well as their bel canto expressiveness. They share a sense of repose, a pensive, backward-looking quality (Première communion, Volume V) sharply at odds with the predominant Wagnerian ethos of a “music of the future,” or even the rugged progressivism of Brahms. We sense from the Péchés that Rossini saw where stage music was heading, wanted no part of it, and was content to privately develop his own lyrical style, with his own, often startling, structural innovations and enharmonic and chromatic modulations, all outside mainstream musical life and all performed in the congenial surroundings of his samedis. Camille Saint-Saëns thought that Rossini stopped composing because he had nothing left to say, but the Péchés suggest otherwise; he was simply not prepared to say it publicly.

We sense from the Péchés that Rossini saw where stage music was heading, and wanted no part of it.

A difficulty in any thematic analysis of the Péchés is that despite their considerable individual interest, they lack a firm organizing principle. While Rossini grouped the Péchés into fourteen volumes, each with its own gnomic title (Album pour les enfants adolescents, Album pour les enfants dégourdis, etc.), within those volumes the pieces show little family resemblance. The exception is Volume XII, Quelques riens pour album, containing twenty-four miniatures. Originally projected by Rossini to be in all the major and minor keys, (a time-tested formula for success), these pieces cohere so well that Ottorino Respighi orchestrated several of them for his ballet La Boutique Fantasque and for his Rossiniana suite.

A number of the Péchés have piquant titles and a subset of these—Prélude convulsif, Valse lugubre (both Volume V); Un profond sommeil—Un réveil en sursaut (Deep Sleep and Startled Awakening, Volume VII); Valse torturée and Etude asthmatique (both Volume VI); and Un cauchemar (A Nightmare, Volume VII)—might well have been evoked by his illness, despite their often saucy humor. In that respect, perhaps the most vivid is the (we hope) non-autobiographical Little Castor Oil Waltz (Volume VII) that appears to describe, in crashing left-hand chords, the groaning weight of the victim’s suffering giving way, after a few bars, to a quickening crescendo mimicking his urgent progress to faire ce qu’on doit faire là-bas and concluding with happy arpeggios. Or perhaps runs.

There is plenty more humor in the Péchés. Even the mournfully beautiful Memento Homo (Volume VI) has as its sequel an Assez de memento, dansons (Enough of the Memento—Let’s Dance!). The composer Jacques Offenbach, who parodied Rossini’s style in his own La Belle Hélène, was reputed to possess the mal’occhio (evil eye). Bad things allegedly happened when Offenbach was around, violin strings broke during performance, theaters burned down, etc. When Rossini returned the parody in his Petit Caprice (Style Offenbach) (Volume X), he addressed the mal’occhio problem by fingering the first sixteen measures solely for the index and little fingers of each hand, conveniently forming the corna which—as all New Criterion readers know from experience—effectively wards off the eye. Marked allegretto grotesco, it is probably the most famous of the Péchés.

Some Péchés concern forms of travel. In Un petit train de plaisir comico-imitatif (Volume VI), Rossini makes light of his fear of trains through a pianistic description of a chuggy departure from the station, the “satanic whistle,” the attempted seduction of lady passengers at a stop, a derailment and deaths (one passenger goes to heaven, the other to hell), and their funeral march. It ends with a section marked “The Bitter Grief of the Heirs,” a lively, skipping C-major waltz. And in the Tarantelle pur sang (avec traversée de la procession) (Volume VIII), we joyfully gallop down the road on a thoroughbred (pur sang) slowing to a halt as a funeral procession crosses ahead of us; we find that the road obviously curves around because after the horse resumes its tarantella-gallop we come across the procession one more time before we disappear off into the distance. And the Impromptu anodin (Soothing Impromptu, Volume V) is anything but, with its frenzied, electrifying conclusion. In these particular Péchés, though some may find the concept of program music unappealing, the piano and melodic writing is so witty and clever that we are surprised to find that these themes add considerably to our enjoyment.

Though Erik Satie would later be famous for the bizarre titles of his own piano works, he lagged well behind those in the Péchés. Thus we have the Hachis romantique (Romantic Hash, Volume V), a moto perpetuo built around familiar operatic harmonies and melodies, all chopped up and mixed together in rapid broken-hand playing. Or Volume IV, titled Quatre Hors d’œuvres et quatre mendiants, the hors d’œuvres consisting of “Radishes,” “Anchovies,” “Cornichons,” and “Butter” (all being real firecrackers to play), the mendiants being “Dried Figs,” “Almonds,” “Raisins,” and “Hazelnuts,” as well as the lyrical Ouf! Les petits pois (Oh those little peas!, Volume V).

While the piano Péchés certainly offer us musical glimpses of Rossini’s wonderful humor, they also show the depth of his knowledge of other composers’ music. The grace of the Péchés recalls Mozart, Rossini’s favorite composer, whose music he played every day. Rossini was one of the first subscribers to the Bach Gesellschaft and Bach’s structural influence is present throughout the Péchés, particularly in the Prélude convulsif and Prélude blagueur (Volume X), and the Prélude fugassé (Volume VII). Similarly, we hear gentle echoes (Valse lugubre, Volume V) and parodies (Barcarole, Volume VI) of Chopin, as well as of Schumann (Une caresse à ma femme and Mon prélude hygiénique du matin, both Volume VI).

Four volumes of the Péchés are dedicated solely to the voice and contain song settings for soloists and ensembles who performed at the samedis. Some of these songs are other settings of Mi lagnerò tacendo (Rossini set the text dozens and dozens of times), leading one to wonder if Rossini might have composed during his lucid moments. As lusciously attractive as many of these songs and ensemble pieces are (especially the militant Giovanna d’Arco (Volume XI) from the Miscellanée; La passeggiata and L’Ultimo ricordo (Volume I); the Toastpour le Nouvel An, with its celebration of the Virgin Mary and champagne (Volume II); the Palestrina-like Preghiera (Volume III); the dolorous Mi lagnerò tacendo setting on a single note from Musique anodine (Volume XIII); and the extraordinarily lovely L’ Amour à Pékin (Volume III) preceded by four minutes of preluding by the accompanist in rising and falling arpeggiated chords, their qualities are quite different from the piano Péchés. But throughout, Rossini’s sense of mission is clear: melody and rhythm are paramount; progress to the future but do not lose contact with the past—as he further shows in the contrasting but unified styles of the three greatest Péchés: the Spécimen de l’Ancien Régime, the Spécimen de mon temps, and the Spécimen de l’avenir (From Old Times, From My Time, From the Future, all Volume VIII).

Curiously, despite the numerous famous pianists who attended the samedis over the years, Rossini rarely asked them to perform the Péchés. That honor Rossini largely reserved for himself, as well as to gifted young performers, principally Saint-Saëns, Louis Diémer, and a few others, who were coached extensively by Rossini.

From his early days, Rossini had little patience for interpretive license.

He wanted the Péchés played as written. From his early days, he had little patience for interpretive license, and when Liszt experimented with some suggestions at one of the samedis, Rossini hid his annoyance under a smiling compliment (“This man is a demon”) in much the same way as he did when, after Adelina Patti sang a heavily ornamented version of one of his arias, he joined the applause and asked, “Lovely! And who wrote that? I don’t think I know it!” Rossini’s protégés were never allowed to take copies of the Péchés from the house as they were collected and locked up after performance. It was almost as if Rossini intended to create a cult of acolytes who would remember the Péchés exactly the way they were taught to them, and play them that way forever.

Before her death in 1878, Olympe put the Péchés up for auction. They were published by Éditions Heugel in sanitized form with many titles altered to make them a little less startling. The manuscripts were left to the Liceo Musicale in Pesaro, Rossini’s birthplace, and eventually found their way to the Fondazione Rossini, which sat on them for years before starting to publish a critical edition. This has undoubtedly deprived the Péchés of a better following.

When Rossini finished his Musique anodine album, his title page dedication thanked Olympe for her care during his “long and terrible illness,” and went on to damn the medical profession. If he thought he was somehow settling scores, he was mistaken because the same sort of iatrogenic neglect that helped make his lost years so miserable resurfaced in 1868. He died in Passy shortly after his September 1868 samedi from the consequences of a botched operation. He passed on Friday, November 13, a date with a certain morbid appeal, if only because it would have validated his life-long superstitions.

What would also have appealed to his sense of irony was that his “final samedi,” his funeral, was his best attended ever. It was held in La Trinité church, just up the street from the Chaussée d’Antin apartment eight days after his death, when his music was played one last time and from where he was laid to rest.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 16
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