The Guinness Collection Composer Series: An Evening with Rossini

This past spring, the staff of the Guinness Collection presented a program on Italian composer, Gioachino Rossini.  As with our other popular Guinness presentations, guests were delighted with the musical offerings of this renowned composer through mechanical musical instruments. 

Gioachino Antonio Rossini (1792-1868) was an Italian composer, born in Pesaro, Italy.

The only child of musically-talented parents, it was natural that his musical ability emerged at a young age.  Although Rossini composed sacred music, songs, chamber music and instrumental pieces, it was during a relatively short period of his long life that he composed 39 operas. His best-known operas include the Italian comedy, Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) and the French-language epic, Guillaume Tell (William Tell). Nicknamed the Italian Mozart, Rossini had been one of the most popular opera composers in history until his retirement in 1829.  It is still not known why he stopped writing operas – especially during the height of his popularity.

Not only is it a treat for our visitors but also for Jere and myself, to bring some of these marvelous machines out of Viewable Storage for all to enjoy!  Attendees were entertained and moved by the music, as heard on 19th century musical boxes, and no less upon hearing the Overture of The Barber of Seville on the Duo-Art Player Piano and Poppers Rex Orchestrion in the Guinness Gallery!  Take a look at some of the mechanical musical instruments we brought out of the vault for our visitors’ listening pleasure!

This beautifully decorated cylinder musical box was made in Geneva, Switzerland by Nicole Frѐres, from 1858.   It contains three tunes:  Overture de Guillaume Tell, 1829, the Overture from La Gazza Landra, or The Thieving Magpie, 1817, and Overture de Semiramis, 1823. 

The French epic, William Tell, was Rossini’s last opera even though the composer lived for nearly forty more years. The opera’s length was roughly four hours of music; when performed, its length was usually shortened.  La Gazza Ladra shades comic elements with darker overtones. It is based on the true story about a French servant girl who was tried and executed for theft; later, the townspeople discovered that a magpie was the real thief.  However, Rossini’s version ends on a happy note.  The opera, Semiramide was one of Rossini’s serious dramas that featured his wife, soprano Isabella Colbran.  She created the leading female role in nearly a dozen Rossini operas. 

Rossini was famous for his writing speed:  he claimed he could write an aria in 4 minutes, and often finished a composition within 2-3 weeks.  But he didn’t always deliver his final work on time.  It was reported that the producer had to lock Rossini in a room the day before the first performance of The Thieving Magpie to write the overture! Rossini then threw each sheet out of the window to his copyists, who wrote out the full orchestral parts.

This simple musical box dates back to 1864, and is marked Ducommun-Girod, Neuchatel, Switzerland.  Its cylinder contains 4 songs, two of which are Rossini’s.  Although the opera greatly departs from Shakespeare’s Othello, the Overture from Rossini’s 1816 Otello is quite striking on this instrument.  Rossini’s adaptation would become a milestone in the development of opera as musical drama.  Le siège de Corinthe (The Siege of Corinth), was Rossini’s first French opera, and it debuted in Paris in 1826.  The opera commemorates the siege and ultimate destruction of the town of Missolonghi in 1826 by Turkish troops during the Greek War of Independence from the Ottomans (1821–1829).

Made by the Regina Music Box Company of Rahway, NJ, the Style 145 27½” Disc-Player was manufactured from 1910-1913.  Using interchangeable discs, a variety of music was enjoyed on this rather large musical instrument made for home use.  We used it to play, much to the delight of our audience, the second cavatina, There’s a Voice, from The Barber of Seville. Back in the day, much was made of how this particular opera buffa was composed in 2-3 weeks, although Rossini claims it only took him 12 days!

Rossini enjoyed a long life – he died at 76 years of age – at his villa in a suburb of Paris.  He was a larger-than-life character in many ways, and was known for his quick wit.  For his 70th birthday celebration in 1862, several of the composer’s friends had a colossal statue built in his honor.  He was deeply touched by the gesture, but when he learned of the tremendous cost for the commissioned work, Rossini quipped, Why not give the money to me, and I’ll stand on the pedestal myself? 

We hope you will join us in the future for more Guinness Collection programs!  Please check the website for more details.

~Michele Marinelli, Curator of the Guinness Collection