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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 1 Real Worlds, and Better Ones
Richard Taruskin

The comic ensemble is another area in which comparison with Paisiello will help us take the measure of the Code Rossini. As in Mozart's operas, the comic ensemble finale was the site where composers could experiment with ways of suffusing fully composed music, formerly the province of the static or “freeze-time” aria, with real dramatic action, the more frenetic the better. Audiences loved the effect, and librettists began seeking opportunities to contrive dramatically active ensembles, often based on slapstick gimmicks, in other spots besides finales. As the opera buffa became more musically antic, it reverted once again to purely comic type, reversing the trend toward mixing dramatic genres that characterized Mozart's later comic operas on librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte, with their occasional serious characters and their attendant vocal genres. The Countess in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro is a seria character, despite the nature of the opera as a whole. Rosina, the same character (albeit not yet a countess) in Il barbiere, is a pure buffa ingenue (or, if more knowingly played, a “soubrette”).

We can sample the pure-comic style pre-Rossini in the trio buffo from the second act of Paisiello's Il barbiere di Siviglia (Ex. 1-5). The action revolves around a plot, masterminded by Figaro, to bring Count Almaviva and his beloved Rosina together, thus thwarting the designs of Dr. Bartolo, Rosina's jealous guardian, who is planning to marry her himself. The first act ends with Figaro smuggling the disguised Count into Dr. Bartolo's house. At the beginning of the second act, a frantically suspicious Dr. Bartolo is trying to find out who had visited the night before. He interrogates his two servants, Giovinetto (“Youngster,” i.e., an old man) and Lo Svegliato (“Mr. Wide-awake,” i.e., a simpleton), but to no avail. Figaro had taken the precaution of slipping drugs to each of them: Lo Svegliato has received a sleeping draught and can only yawn; Giovinetto, having taken a powder, can only sneeze.

The musical trick here is constructing the whole interrogation out of typical pairs of balanced (“question-and-answer”) phrases, and endless melodic sequences derived from them: musical clichés given renewed freshness by their unexpected appositeness to the inane dramatic situation. Familiar from Mozart (especially the role of Leporello in Don Giovanni, the quintessential basso buffo servant role) is the rapid patter—even declamation at a note value shorter than a beat—to which Dr. Bartolo's part in the trio is largely confined, with all three parts joining in at the end.

Paisiello's trio is a little masterpiece, and Rossini, when it came his turn to set Il barbiere, wisely refrained from competing with it. He left the episode with the yawning and sneezing servants in recitative, and nowadays it is almost always dropped in performance. Nevertheless, he did surpass his predecessor—indeed all predecessors—in the new level of zany virtuosity to which, hiding his sophisticated craftsmanship behind a smokescreen of ludicrous situations and effects, he brought all their techniques and devices. He loaded his operas with more ensemble pieces than ever, meanwhile extending the finales to a previously unheard-of scale, both in length and in what Da Ponte, Mozart's comic librettist, called strepitoso-strepitosissimo, “tumult upon uproar,” which required fantastic virtuosity from all concerned, resourceful composer and rapidly enunciating performers alike.


ex. 1-5 Giovanni Paisiello, Il barbiere di Siviglia, Act II, Terzetto buffo (yawning and sneezing)

As far as rapid buffo patter is concerned, Rossini's Barbiere contains the two absolute classics of the genre: “Largo al factotum” (“Make way for the jack-of-all-trades!”), Figaro's bumptious cavatina or entrance aria in act I; and “La calunnia è un venticello” (“Slander is a gentle breeze”), the caustically brilliant aria in which Don Basilio, Rosina's music teacher who doubles as a marriage broker, concocts a word-of-mouth campaign to disgrace Count Almaviva and thwart his designs. Figaro's cavatina begins like a typical da capo aria: its “A” section and “B” section are easily spotted. But the return to A is hilariously preempted by a frenzy of patter, as Figaro is overwhelmed with thoughts of all the demands everybody makes of him, uniquely gifted as he is. The final section (“Ah bravo, Figaro…,” Ex. 1-6) is traditionally taken as fast as the singer can manage it (and often a lot faster than that).

Don Basilio's aria does not quite hit such a peak of vocal virtuosity; the virtuosity this time is the composer's. For the whole dramatic point of this seemingly traditional “simile aria” rests on the crescendo idea: a little breeze of slander gathering force and becoming a hurricane of scandalous babble. And so all of Rossini's skills as an orchestral illustrator are called into play, including such recherché effects as violins bowed al ponticello—“right on the bridge”—producing a strangled whisper to start the breeze on its way; or, at the storm's acme, tongued tremolos in the woodwinds.


ex. 1-6 Gioacchino Rossini, Il barbiere di Siviglia, “Largo al factotum,” coda

The buffa style can only be exhibited at fullest strength, of course, in a finale; and there is no buffa finale in all of Rossini—which is to say, in all of opera—that can equal the first-act finale from L'Italiana in Algeri, one of the big hits of 1813, as an exhibitor of what it was that made Rossini the great counterweight to Beethoven in the eyes even of his German contemporaries. Running through almost a hundred pages of vocal score in record time, it is the most concentrated single dose of Rossini that there is.

A first-act finale must always portray the height of imbroglio—the moment of greatest, seemingly hopeless, tangle in the plot line. So here is what has happened:

Mustafà, the Bey of Algiers, has grown tired of his wife Elvira and decides to marry her off to his Italian slave Lindoro. He sends his pirate commander out to find him an Italian girl. The pirates sink a ship, on which Isabella, the Italian girl of the title, is cruising in search of her fiancé (Lindoro, of course), and bring the survivors to the Bey's court as captives. The commander announces her capture, and the Bey tells Lindoro he can go home if he takes Elvira with him.

That is the setup. Things come to a head as the captive Isabella, on her way into the throne room, catches sight of Lindoro, on his way out. (Here is where the first-act finale begins.) The moment of recognition has a very conspicuous Mozartean resonance. Like the moment of recognition in the ballroom finale to the first act of Don Giovanni, it takes place over the strains of an unusually slow minuet—the trio (andantino) in which Lindoro, Elvira, and Zulma (Elvira's slave) had been singing their farewells to Mustafà. A Rossini finale always takes to extremes the tempo trajectory on which all buffa finales are built. The Andantino is, so to speak, the launching pad.

The lovers’ emotion is reflected in a wrenching flatward turn in the harmony, but just as the expected cadence to E♭ is about to happen (and a love duet seems imminent), Mustafà chimes in with a typically bouncing, satirically florid mood-shattering buffo aside to express his befuddlement. The threatened duet turns into a septet, set against the continuing strains of the Andantino, in which all the assembled characters take part, Lindoro and Mustafà (as it were competing in confusion) in the lead.

This moment of frozen perplexity having passed, the quick-witted Isabella confronts the Bey in a fast tempo that from here on will only get faster. With what we are now apt to recognize as the “arrogance of Enlightenment” (arguably the butt of Rossini's humor, depending on how it is played), she berates the cowering Mustafà for his barbarian transgressions against universal human norms. How can he expect her to love a man who treats his wife so cruelly? How can he simply order Lindoro to marry a woman he does not love? Then, immediately contradicting herself, she insists that Lindoro, a fellow Italian, be made her retainer forthwith. A hopeless impasse has been reached: as the assembled singers declare, “Va sossopra il mio cervello, sbalordito in tanti imbrogli!” (“My little head is topsy-turvy, dumbfounded at such imbroglios!”). It is time for metaphors.

The first metaphor, expressed allegro vivace, is the time-honored shipwreck, the standard metaphor of emotional breakdown. Then, in a stretta marked più mosso, everybody goes into an onomatopoetical tizzy. This is Rossini's favorite comic device, the idea (as Budden puts it) of “human beings transformed by emotion into puppets,”16 and this ensemble set a benchmark of mechanical grotesquery never to be surpassed (Ex. 1-7). The ladies compare their mental agitation to a little bell a-ringing (“din din”); Lindoro compares his to a little clock a-ticking (“tic tic”); Taddeo, Isabella's chaperone, compares his to a little crow a-cawing (“cra cra”); the pirate commander Ali to a hammer pounding (“tac tac”); and Mustafa to a cannon firing (“bum bum”).


ex. 1-7 Gioacchino Rossini L'Italiana in Algeri, from the Act I Finale

For twenty or so pages of vocal score they continue shouting and gesticulating in this vein, the chorus of Algerian harem girls and Italian sailors finally joining in to raise the hubbub to an even higher pitch of furious futility. And then the masterstroke: contrary to all reasonable expectation, the whole stretta, din-din, bum-bum, and all, is replayed ancora più mosso—yet faster! In a good performance the audience will not believe its ears. Rossini has taken bootless delirium, the jewel in the buffa crown, about as far as it can go. (Just in case anyone is worrying, though, the opera ends with Isabella and Lindoro in each others’ arms, and Mustafà and Elvira reconciled.)

The device of comparing human emotion to mechanical or animal noises is as old as opera buffa itself; it goes all the way back to the closing duet in Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's intermezzo La serva padrona, an item that produced a sensation comparable to Rossini's about eighty years earlier. Over that span the opera buffa had traced a fairly straight trajectory of expanding technical resources (but not harmonic ones—that was German terrain!) and mounting, fairly coldhearted hilarity. Rossini stands unquestionably at its pinnacle. The buffa had reached the end of the line.


(16) Budden, The Operas of Verdi, Vol. I p. 18.

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. 10 Dec. 2018. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001004.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 10 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001004.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 10 Dec. 2018, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-001004.xml