Overture to the Barber of Seville

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            There are any numbers of great composers who have been able to produce overtures that entertain, lift the spirits, and bring musical “sizzle” to a symphony concert.  But almost none excel those of Gioachino Rossini in sparkle, wit, and vivacity.  Their droll wit, sly contrasts of mood, and careening drive to the end are simply inimitable.  From their conception for Italian opera audiences primarily in the first decade of the nineteenth century, to their familiar use as springboards for movie and television high jinks today, they simply endure. 

            Rossini was the most important composer of nineteenth-century Italian opera before Giuseppe Verdi.  And while he is historically significant for his innovations in serious Italian opera, clearly his opere buffe, or comic operas, are his lasting contributions for opera fans everywhere.  These are works of his early maturity, roughly before 1820, before he began to focus upon a more serious style.  American audiences are most familiar with The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813) and The Barber of Seville (1816), but there are other masterpieces, as well.  After wide European success in the 1820s, Rossini wangled a lifetime annuity from the French government about the time of the composition of his crowning achievement, William Tell (1829)—a French grand opera—and promptly retired at the age of thirty-seven.  For the next forty-odd years he enjoyed the largess of the French government, and composed very little, certainly no major operas.  It’s not that he was lazy, although a famous anecdote relates that while composing in bed (which he usually did) he dropped an unfinished aria on the floor, and rather than go to the trouble of getting up to retrieve it, he simply composed another one!  In his defense, we should recognize how much work that he had accomplished early:  34 operas by the time that he was 31.

            Rossini’s first opera was composed in 1810, and by the time of the composition of The Barber of Seville, his fame and recognition was formidable. The Barber of Seville is perhaps the greatest comic opera ever written, and the overture is a perfect reflection of all that made it a masterpiece of élan, sparkle, and wit.  To be sure, his early operas gradually developed in quality, but he was a master of the composition of their overtures from the beginning.  It must be observed that the overture to The Barber of Seville was not composed for the opera with which it is associated, but was used earlier in two other of his operas.  It contains no themes from the eponymous opera.

            Most of his overtures generally follow a pattern, beginning with a slow introduction, usually featuring a cantabile melody in a woodwind instrument.  The main, fast section soon follows, in which the first tune is usually taken by the strings (but not always, as in this particular overture), and the second one by the winds.  There is no development in this truncated sonata form, with the work ending with a recapitulation.  The most striking and beloved characteristic is the famous “Rossini crescendo” -–most often featuring the winds—that keeps repeating a main motive, gradually getting louder and louder, as the harmony swings like a pendulum between the tonic and dominant.  Arias in his operas often use the technique to stunning dramatic effect, and its appearance in the overtures is no less smashing.  It’s easy to see why Rossini is perhaps the non plus ultra of composers who makes the most of simple ideas.

--Wm. E. Runyan

©2019 William E. Runyan