Rossini, having composed no fewer than forty operas between the ages of nineteen and thirty-seven, wrote none in the next forty years. However these years were not barren of music. Rossini’s Soirées Musicales and Péchés de vieillesse or ‘Sins of old age’ were the musical fruits of salon evenings held weekly in his Parisian home. Elegant, witty, charming and often delicately ironic, these songs for various voices are the perfect exemplar of ‘salon music’, and of the unmistakable late style of a composer who had already become a legend in his lifetime. They are recorded here by three of the greatest singers of today: Stella Doufexis, who has appeared regularly in the Hyperion Schubert and Schumann songs editions; the wonderful Swedish soprano Miah Persson; and the American tenor and Rossini specialist Bruce Ford, all accompanied with characteristic brilliance and style by Roger Vignoles.
Rossini, having composed no fewer than forty operas between the ages of nineteen and thirty-seven, wrote none in the next forty years. After Guillaume Tell was premiered at the Paris Opéra in 1829, he turned his back on the theatre and composed little else but some church music (Stabat Mater and the Petite Messe solennelle) and a succession of short vocal and instrumental works. Before moving to Bologna in 1836 (where he was to live for some twelve years), he held weekly soirées in his Parisian home, the musical fruits of which were published in 1835 under the title of Serate musicali or Soirées musicales. This publication comprises twelve songs for various voices—eight ariettas and four duets, the last of which, for tenor and bass, is not included here—to poems by the Imperial Court poet Pietro Metastasio, the most prolific of librettists, and Count Carlo Pepoli, the librettist of Bellini’s I Puritani. All these pieces are ‘salon music’, written with great elegance and often characterized by the irony and sarcasm of a composer who had already become a legend in his lifetime.
The Soirées musicales begins with three short, formally simple, song-like arias that Rossini called ‘canzonettas’: La promessa, a song in which the lover swears eternal love and loyalty to his beloved, which begins as a gentle barcarolle and develops into a more impassioned central section; Il rimprovero, another declaration of love in which the jilted man berates the woman for causing him such pain; and La partenza, which describes the pain of separation, with the pianist’s right hand echoing the vocal line. L’orgia celebrates the joys of wine and love in a lively brindisi, while L’invito, to a poem by Count Pepoli, is a delightful bolero in which Eloisa tells her Ruggiero that she cannot live without him. In La pastorella dell’Alpi the shepherdess’s anguish sounds strangely lighthearted, but chords interrupt the catchy tune and express grief at Aminta’s faithlessness. La danza is a celebrated bravura piece for tenor—an intoxicating, breathless tarantella. La gita in gondola sets Pepoli’s poem to a charming barcarolle in rolling 12/8 time; La pesca, subtitled ‘notturno’ by the composer, is an Andante grazioso in 3/8 time, and sets a Metastasio poem in which the fisherman bids his sweetheart join him on the beach to enjoy the evening air. La serenata is a charming duet in which tenor and soprano first alternate and then sing together; La regata veneziana is a lively duet in Venetian dialect for two sopranos who describe how Tonio and Beppe encourage one another as they take part in a regatta.
Between 1840 and 1855 Rossini suffered increasingly from urethritis and depression, put on weight and fell prey to insomnia. It was not until he moved permanently to Paris in 1857 that he began to flourish again. His apartment in the rue de la Chaussée d’Antin became the venue for the famous ‘samedi soir’ salons which saw the premieres of many of his Péchés de vieillesse or ‘Sins of old age’. Dating from 1857 to 1868, these pieces were gathered into thirteen volumes, some devoted to the piano, some to instrumental ensembles, and some to the voice. The evenings at which they were performed were greatly prized by Parisian society and attracted a galaxy of famous names, including Auber, Boito, Gounod, Liszt, Meyerbeer, Saint-Saëns, Verdi, Patti and Joachim. Olympe, Rossini’s wife, provided exotic food and Rossini himself organized the music. Accounts of these soirées are legion, and not all of them reliable; but it seems that Olympe held court in the grand salon and Rossini in a room apart, often surrounded by hangers-on who relished his witticisms and occasional obscenities. He would brook no sloppiness in performance, however, and when he himself sat down at the piano the audience fell silent and admired the playing of the composer who referred to himself, in a note sent to Verdi, dated 27 November 1865, as a ‘pianiste de la 4me classe’. The address of this witty and self-deprecating communication read: ‘A M. Verdi, Célèbre Compositeur de Musique, Pianiste de la 5me Classe!!!, Paris’; and it was signed ‘Rossini, Ex Compositeur de Musique, Pianiste de la 4me Classe’.
L’esule, to a poem by Torre, is a delightful arietta for tenor and piano that appears in volume 3, the ‘Morceaux réservés’. Mi lagnerò tacendo forms part of volume 13, under the heading ‘Musique anodine’. Rossini composed almost fifty different versions of Metastasio’s text, some of which are full-scale songs, some no more than ‘album leaves’. Rossini must have relished the irony of setting a text in which the poet ‘laments in silence’ his ‘bitter fate’—he had, after all, consciously abandoned the theatre and condemned himself to a self-imposed silence. He dedicated the six different settings of ‘Musique anodine’ to his wife: ‘I offer these modest songs to my dear wife Olympe as a simple testimony of gratitude for the affectionate, intelligent care which she lavished on me during my overlong and terrible illness.’
La chanson du bébé sets a poem by Pacini, this time full of baby language, with the infant revelling in his limited vocabulary of ‘atishoo’, ‘Mummy’, ‘yummy’, ‘wee-wee’, ‘bye-byes’ and, most memorably ‘pooh’ (‘ca-ca’) as at the end of the song he triumphantly lets the world know that he has done his business! (Rossini, by the way, could not abide dirt of any description.) In L’orpheline du Tyrol, an ‘elegiac ballad’, we hear the orphan yodelling her distress; Adieux à la vie!, subtitled ‘Élégie sur une seule note’, is set as a graceful Andantino; while Les amants de Séville, a duet for the rare combination of contralto and tenor, shows Rossini in his most convincing Spanish manner.
Volume 1 of Péchés de vieillesse, ‘Album italiano’, contains three canzonettas grouped together as La regata veneziana which were first performed at one of Rossini’s celebrated soirées. Written in Venetian dialect for mezzo-soprano, each song has a different mood, and describes through the eyes of a young woman the regatta which Momolo, her lover, eventually wins. After his triumph he presents her with the red flag of victory, and she returns the gift with a kiss. The songs were probably written in 1858.
Whatever reasons Rossini had for retiring from the operatic stage in 1829—during his famous meeting with Wagner in Paris in March 1860 he cited the sad decline of all Italian theatres, the woeful vocal standards that followed the disappearance of the castrati, and his desperate need to rest after such hectic operatic activity in the previous eighteen years—we must be grateful that having taken such a radical step he went on to create these witty and elegant late works.
Richard Stokes © 2008