The opera composer Rossini is best remembered for two things in particular, his overtures and his reputation as the laziest composer in history. This reputation stems mainly from the fact that he retired from composing at the age of 39.  At the time of his retirement, Rossini was the most famous living composer and was at the very peak of his talent. There is a lot of conjecture as to the cause of Rossini’s early retirement.  He had a passion for food and it is often speculated that he gave up composing in order to pursue his love of the culinary arts.  To this day, there are several Italian dishes that bare his name.  Whatever the reason for his early retirement, it was at least partially due to burnout.  He had written two, three, sometimes even five operas a year for almost two decades (39 operas in total).

He had a unique way of using procrastination as a tool for inspiration.  Here, for example, are his thoughts on writing an overture:

“Wait until the evening before opening night. Nothing primes inspiration more than necessity, whether it be the presence of a copyist waiting for your work or the prodding of an impresario tearing his hair out. In my time, all the impresarios in Italy were bald at thirty.

I wrote the overture to “Otello” in a small room of the Palazzo Barbaja, where the baldest and rudest of directors had forcibly locked me up with a lone plate of spaghetti and the threat that I would not be allowed to leave the room alive until I had written the last note.

I wrote the overture to “La Gazza Ladra” the day before the opening night under the roof of the Scala Theatre, where I had been imprisoned by the director and secured by four stagehands who were instructed to throw my original text through the window, page by page, to the copyists waiting below to transcribe it. If I didn’t write the pages, they were ordered to throw me out the window instead. For “Barbiere”, I did better: I did not even compose an overture, I just took one already destined for my opera, “Elisabetta”. The public was very pleased.

I composed the overture to “Comte Ory” while fishing, with my feet in the water, and in the company of Signor Agnado, who talked of his Spanish fiancée. The overture to “Guillaume Tell” was composed under more or less similar circumstances.”

Overture to “Guillaume Tell” 1829 (William Tell)

Overture to “La Gazza Ladra” 1817 (The Thieving Magpie)

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I’ve been listening to music from Gluck’s opera, “Iphigénie en Tauride” recently.  It’s not a well known opera and it’s not one that I am much acquainted with. It is going to be telecast live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera, on Feb 26th in select movie theatres all over the world.  I am definitely going to see it!

Gluck is considered one of the pioneering composers of the Classical period (1750 – 1830). During the Classical period, composers were discovering ways of bringing a new depth of feeling to their music, through the use of melodies, rhythms and dynamics. Gluck cut the ornate layers of the grandiose Baroque style and focused instead on bringing depth of dramatic tension and feeling to his operatic music.   Despite this, his operas are rarely performed today.  This is largely due to the fact that much later on in the Classical period, the operatic works of one of the greatest composers in history, Mozart, were to outshine those of his predecessors, and bring opera to a whole new level of sophistication and brilliance of sound.   Still, listening to Gluck’s meltingly beautiful aria, “Ô malheureuse Iphigénie”, I can’t help but wonder how Gluck’s audience must have felt upon hearing this [then] completely new style of music.  Music that was far more layered, more sensitive and more emotionally honest than any music written before.