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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones
Richard Taruskin

Perhaps the greatest difference between the romantic sensibility, as represented by Beethoven, and the pre-romantic one, as exemplified by Rossini, lay in their respective attitudes toward forms and genres. As early as his op. 1, a set of piano trios, Beethoven was strongly inclined to “push the envelope” with respect to genre, transgressing generic and stylistic boundaries in a way that made his teacher Haydn uneasy. As his career went on, Beethoven's attitude toward form became increasingly—and deliberately—idiosyncratic, with the result that it was always with him (and with us, contemplating him) an important esthetic issue.

Or perhaps it would be more appropriate to call Beethoven's formal procedures not so much idiosyncratic as syncretic, a word that emphasizes the recombination into new wholes of elements (symphonic and chamber styles, for example, or sonata and fugue) formerly regarded as disparate or even opposing. The familiarity or traditionalness of the elements recombined insures a degree of intelligibility, but the need for novelty and constant modification reflects the romantic emphasis on individuality and peculiarity, which became over the course of the nineteenth century an ever more pressing demand for originality, the more fundamental (radical, profound) the better.

Rossini, by contrast, was very respectful of genres, as a composer whose works were assembled out of interchangeable parts had to be, to say nothing of a composer who staked his livelihood on pleasing an audience that, like all entertainment audiences, was fickle and conservative and knew what it liked. His idea was not to experiment radically with form in every piece, but rather to hit on a winning formula (ideally one that he could turn out better than any competitor) and, having created a demand for his product, stay with it and, if possible, keep on improving it. (Only a proven recipe, with a known purpose and a tested mechanism, can be improved or perfected in the strict sense, rather than merely changed or departed from.) So successful was Rossini in standardizing and improving his wares in accordance with public taste that his formulas eventually became everybody's formulas. The history of Italian opera in the primo ottocento or early nineteenth century became the story of their continual growth and expansion at the hands of Rossini himself and his many followers.

The opera historian Julian Budden very wittily called this set of formulas and conventions the Code Rossini.13 It is a marvelous term because of the way it parodies the so-called Code Napoléon—the French emperor's revision of the time-honored Roman Law, an extremely rationalized and systematic civil code that spread over Europe in the wake of Napoleon's conquering armies. Despite its imposition by force of arms, it was considered a model of enlightened efficiency and liberality, and remained in force long after Napoleon himself had passed from the scene. (It is still the basis of the French civil code, and its influence survives in all the countries of the European continent and their former colonies.) The Code Napoléon achieved its standardizing purpose in the short run by force of Napoleon's authority, but in the long run because it worked, and provided a basis for further elaboration. That is what makes it such an apt analogy to the “Code Rossini.”

The Code Rossini, like its Napoleonic namesake, was the basis for an extraordinarily detailed modus operandi. Its full measure is something only specialists can take. (One specialist, Richard Osborne, has constructed a “prototype” for the first act of a Rossinian comic opera, for example, consisting of nine standard sections, some of them with several equally standardized constituent parts.)14 Here it will suffice to describe a few of the typical components—overture, aria, ensemble—and show how they operated. All of them were based on models inherited from past practice; none was Rossini's wholly original invention (“wholly original invention” being after all contrary to the whole point and purpose of the Code). Nor did he complete the process of standardization that modern musicologists have described. But he revised and renewed all components and turned them into proven recipes—which is only a more casual and businesslike, less “mystified” way of saying that he turned them into classics.

Mozart was of course one of Rossini's antecedents. More direct ones were Giovanni Paisiello (1740–1816), Rossini's predecessor as opera czar in Naples, serving there for almost half a century (1766–1815), with a few years out for duty at the court of Catherine the Great in St. Petersburg (1776–84); and Domenico Cimarosa (1749–1801), another Neapolitan whose exceptionally peripatetic career also included a lucrative St. Petersburg stint (1787–91). There is nothing in Rossini that does not derive ultimately from the work of these three; but there is also nothing in Rossini that does not have “New! Improved!” stamped all over it.

Take the overture to begin with. As we may remember from Mozart, the Italian opera sinfonia by the end of the eighteenth century was essentially a short “first movement” (or “sonata-allegro”). As a reminder we can take a brief look at the overture from Paisiello's The Barber of Seville, first performed at St. Petersburg in 1782, based on the very same play—and partly on the very same libretto—as Rossini's smash hit of 1816. The play, incidentally, was the first in Beaumarchais's famous trilogy of which The Marriage of Figaro, musicked by Mozart and Da Ponte as Le nozze di Figaro, was the second. It concerns the madcap courtship of the young Count and Countess whose midlife marital woes form the premise of the second play. (In both plays the barber Figaro acts as the invincible comic accomplice—in the first to the Count, in the second to the Countess.) Paisiello's setting was also a great and famous success; so much so that Rossini took a big risk in competing with it.

Paisiello's overture (like Mozart's to Figaro) starts off with a busy, scurrying theme that sets an antic mood from the very start. Like many such themes, it stirs anticipatory excitement in the audience by proceeding through a rising sequence and a crescendo. Ex. 1-3 shows the beginning of Paisiello's overture up to the elided cadence that sends the harmony off in search of the dominant key. When that key is reached, there will of course be a new theme group and a cadence. Then, according to the binary model, we expect a modulatory passage leading, through a far-out point (FOP), to a double return (first theme in original key), and a replay of the opening section with all themes in the tonic, concluding with a reinforced cadential flourish by way of coda.

What Paisiello actually supplies is a streamlined or compacted version of the usual procedure, one regularly employed in opera buffa overtures. Instead of happening at the end of a modulatory passage and a FOP, the double return follows immediately after the dominant cadence, as if the opening section were being repeated. But where there had originally been a quick move to the dominant, now we get the modulatory section, replete with FOP, which, when it circles back to the tonic key, hooks up not with another “double return” but with the second theme group, now in the tonic. In standard “sonata form” lingo we could say that the development section, instead of coming between the exposition and the recapitulation, has been miniaturized and shoehorned into the recap.

The Code RossiniThe Code Rossini

ex. 1-3 Giovanni Paisiello, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Overture (beginning)

Now compare the overture to Rossini's Barbiere. It is at once fancier and more streamlined. It has an extended slow introduction of the kind we have encountered in Haydn's London symphonies, or Mozart's Don Giovanni, but it is far more elaborate than either. In fact, it is a bigger introduction, and more important to the impression the piece makes, than in any but the most elaborately prefaced symphonies (among Beethoven's, only the Fourth and the Seventh). It makes the customary functional progression from a strong tonic opening to an expectant dominant finish, but it is cast very decoratively in a miniature ternary or ABA form of its own: the midsection, consisting of a flowery cantabile melody reminiscent of an aria, is sandwiched or showcased between two segments that feature a pliant, harmonically malleable motive (four repeated thirty-second notes as upbeat to an eighth) from which a melodic fabric is constructed to support the necessary modulation from tonic to dominant (Ex. 1-4a). (It is a technique closely related, in fact, to the one by which the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth is so famously constructed.)

The quick main section of the overture is “binary,” cast in two parallel but not quite equivalent halves. The first, as in Paisiello, is similar in content to a symphonic exposition: a theme in the tonic, a more lyrical theme in the dominant (or, as here, in the relative major because the tonic is minor), with a headlong, noisily orchestrated dash of a transition to connect them and a codetta to confirm arrival at the secondary key. What is unlike the usual symphonic binary movement is the full-blown structure of both themes. Especially striking is the second, cast in the form of elaborate woodwind solos (including a juicy solo turn for the horn, Rossini's father's instrument).

The codetta (Ex. 1-4b) is Rossini's special trademark, something without which no Rossini overture (except the self-consciously “Parisian” one for Guillaume Tell) is ever complete: a series of ostinatos over a regular tonic-dominant seesaw in the harmony, sustaining a gradual, inexorable, magnificently orchestrated crescendo to a blazing fanfare of a tutti in which the bass instruments carry the melodic ball. This orchestral juggernaut—the “Rossini crescendo”—was the moment people waited for. Its implied emphasis on sensuous values—volume, color, texture—stands in the baldest possible contrast (or so it seems) to the spirituality of the German romantics.

The Code Rossini

ex. 1-4a Gioacchino Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Overture, slow introduction

The Code Rossini

ex. 1-4b Gioacchino Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Overture, Allegro, Codetta (“Rossini crescendo”)

The exposition having come to its brilliant conclusion, the most perfunctory four-bar transition imaginable leads into what sounds like its repetition, but turns out to be a truncated recapitulation, with both themes in the tonic, and the transition between them virtually eliminated. The crescendo is not omitted, however: in the tonic it makes a bigger splash than ever. In fact, the way the recapitulation is abbreviated to speed its arrival makes the repetition of the rollicking crescendo seem like the overture's very raison d’ètre. Its point and purpose has been to create a mood of festivity—or, to put it another way, to mark the occasion of its performance as festive.

The mood of festivity is a generic one, unrelated to the content of the particular opera that follows. “Opera,” not this opera, is what is being marked as festive, and that ritualized sense of occasion—that sense of social ritual—will bring back to mind a great deal of what was observed in “music in the seventeenth & eighteenth centuries” chapter 4 about the nature and function of the old opera seria, that most festive and social of all “pre-Enlightened” genres. In fact—and this may seem surprising—overtures like this prefaced Rossini's tragic operas as well as farcical ones like Il barbiere, for they were festive social occasions, too.

Indeed, the overture we have just examined was, originally, the preface to a serious opera, the forgotten Aureliano in Palmira (1813), the one flop in the otherwise golden year that produced Tancredi and L'Italiana in Algeri. Dissatisfied with the overture that prefaced Il barbiere at its unsuccessful premiere (or perhaps acting in response to the audience's dissatisfaction), Rossini salvaged the earlier overture and tacked it on to the new opera, of which it now seems such a perfect encapsulation. That will show just how interchangeable Rossinian parts were meant to be. Even individual themes could be shifted and recycled from overture to overture.

From this it follows that the generic description of one Rossini overture, such as the one to Il barbiere, can serve as generic description of them all. They all have the same tripartite slow introduction; they all have the same bithematic exposition (in which the second theme is always a woodwind solo); they all have the same “headlong, noisily orchestrated dash of a transition”; they all have the same crescendo-coda; they all have the same truncated recapitulation. Does this mean that “when you've heard one you've heard them all?” Not at all! What differs inexhaustibly are the details—“the divine details,”15 as the novelist Vladimir Nabokov used to say of novels, another form in which generic similarities can blind a naive or unsympathetic reader to what connoisseurs rejoice in.

The Code Rossini

fig. 1-5 Costume designs for Rosina, Don Basilio, and Figaro from the first production in Paris of Il barbiere di Siviglia (Théâtre Italien, 1819).

Rossini's orchestration, for one thing, is more varied, more minutely crafted, and (at the climaxes) more richly sonorous than that of any previous composer. The great nineteenth-century flowering of virtuoso orchestration starts with him. His woodwind writing, above all, was epoch-making. And so was his use of percussion or “pseudopercussion” like the beating out of rhythms by violin bows on candlesticks (nowadays on music stands) in the overture to Il signor Bruschino, another opera from the amazing year 1813 (Rossini's twenty-first). Every Rossini crescendo may produce a similar frisson, but the specific means of production (the gimmicks, to use a current insider's term) are endlessly variable.

For another thing, Rossini's melodic invention is inexhaustibly fertile. Those cantabile themes in his introductions, and those full-blown woodwind solos in the expositions may be interchangeable in function, but that function was to be catchy. They each etch a distinct profile in the aural memory. The combination of generic uniformity with distinction in particulars was the Rossini secret—seemingly anyone's secret, but inimitable. Most memorable of all are the true virtuoso solos found in some overtures, which simulate with instruments all the appurtenances of a vocal scene. In Il Turco in Italia (“The Turk in Italy,” 1814) the florid cantabile, replete with roulades and trills, is played, improbably but all the more memorably, by the French horn. One of the most difficult horn solos in the repertory even now, with the benefit of the modern valve mechanism that revolutionized brass instrument design beginning around 1820, it must have been all but unplayable in Rossini's time—the ultimate tribute to the composer's father. The successful player must have earned the same kind of spontaneous ovation enjoyed by the singers—behavior increasingly disallowed under the new romantic etiquette.

That is not the only aspect of Rossini to antagonize the romantic temper. Most conspicuous by its absence in his work is any hint of thematic “development.” Rossini overtures are often described, rather lamely, as sonata forms without development sections; but as we have just seen in the overture to Paisiello's Barbiere, one can have development in other places, too. Rossini seemingly shuns it everywhere; nor is there any real FOP in his tonal design. The place where Paisiello had them (between the first and second themes in the recapitulation) is the place where Rossini dispenses with transition altogether.

It is doubtful whether Rossini shunned development by design; more likely he merely found it unnecessary to his very direct and sensuously appealing purpose. Dispensing with it was a matter of business efficiency. But the avoidance in his music, on the one hand, of rigorous motivic unfolding, and, on the other, of symbolic harmonic drama was something German musicians and their colonial adherents found infuriating, for these (along with the spirituality that was assumed to result from them) were the very terms on which they staked their claim to universality of appeal. Music that could do without them, and yet succeed with many audiences, undermined the claim.

And once Germans had pronounced their anathema on Rossini, his music was turned into a high esthetic cause by resisters. The lack or avoidance of thematic development became a matter of principle. Or rather, what was a lack in Rossini was turned by later generations of “Latinate” composers into an avoidance, and touted. The best illustration is a quip supposedly made by Claude Debussy, thought by many to be the greatest French composer at the tail end of the nineteenth century, while listening to a symphony by Johannes Brahms, thought by just as many to be the greatest German composer at the time: “Ah, the development section! Good, I can go out for a cigarette.” The century-long war of Geist vs. Sinnlichkeit—“spirit” vs. “sensuality”—was reaching a head.

Yet, as is always the case with culture wars, this one was founded on an absolutely needless polarization of values. And as always, the polarization breaks down under scrutiny. Nothing in Rossini was so offensive to idealistic romantic taste as those infernal crescendos that appealed to an audience's basest, grossest instincts. And yet, one of the greatest of all “Rossini crescendos” is the one that informs the coda to the first movement of Beethoven's Third Symphony, the towering Eroica, which (as any romantic idealist will tell you) is the loftiest expression of absolute musical values—spiritual values—achieved as of its date (or, at any rate, as soon as that silly dedication to Napoleon was removed). What makes the one crescendo brutish and the other sublime? Context alone, as always—including the context of interpretive discourse and polemic.


(13) Julian Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. I (New York: Praeger, 1971), p. 12.

(14) Richard Osborne, “Rossini,” in New Grove Dictionary of Opera, Vol. IV (London: Macmillan, 1992), p. 57.

(15) Quoted (from Ross Wetzsteon) by John Updike in the Introduction to Vladimir Nabokov, Lectures on Literature, ed. Fredson Bowers (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. xxiii.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 4 Dec. 2016. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001003.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 4 Dec. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001003.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 4 Dec. 2016, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001003.xml