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Rossini quits opera

Why did the famed composer Giaochino Rossini suddenly stop writing music at the age of thirty-seven after achieving enormous success in the years leading up to that? The composer of the famous The Barber of Seville had written nearly forty operas up to that point, but produced only one major work in the latter three decades of his life; he seemed to have abruptly decided that enough was enough.

Some commentators have speculated that Rossini might have been suffering from opera burnout, taken an enforced break and never really gotten back to it. It was commonly known that the composer was often dissatisfied with how his arias were interpreted by performers, and he was known to have exulted that the opera world would be better without singers. ("How wonderful the opera world would be if there were no singers" were his exact kind words.) Perhaps while Rossini loved the music and grandeur of opera, he may have been frustrated by how singers held up the flow of the music in order to show off what they could do. At critical points of the music, the whole work - orchestral music and stage performance - may have been kept waiting while a soprano, for example, did a trill on a high note, then faded the volume slowly in order to demonstrate vocal technique and control. It would have been great self-promotion for the singer and undoubtedly catapulted her into the limelight, ready for her next singing gig, at the expense of all other things. And perhaps Rossini tired of all this.

Another hypothesis is that Rossini may have had an impending sense of his mortality and decided to enjoy life while he could. Classical music is littered with composers that produced many musical works at a young age but never made it past their forties. At the critical point in 1829 when Rossini decided to pack it all in, the Classical music world had been rocked by the passing of Carl Maria von Weber (1826) and Franz Schubert (1828) at the ages of thirty-nine and thirty-one respectively. (While most people are aware that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart lived to the young age of thirty-five, fewer know that Schubert, who produced volumes of piano works and songs, did not surpass that age.) Other composers in Classical music with prodigious output but who did not reach their fortieth birthday include Gershwin (38), Bizet (37), Chopin (39), Bellini (34), Mendelssohn (38), Pergolesi (26) and Purcell (36) - Rossini would have been aware of the last two. Perhaps it was a calculated decision to step away from the world of music to recalibrate perspectives and enjoy life.

Italy had a lively music scene and Rossini often had different operas playing at different opera houses in Italy at the same time. How did he produce so much in a short space of time? He was famed for his work rate and claimed to have written The Barber of Seville in under two weeks. He had a gift for setting words to music, and often proclaimed with bravura that he could even set a list of laundry items to music. (It is doubtful, though, that audiences would want to hear choruses of "Underpants! Underpants!")

Among Rossini's pursuits outside of music was food. The great chef Antonin Careme was one of Rossini’s best friends, and whenever he sent the composer food, Rossini would write a short song or aria for him. Rossini lent his name to several of Careme's creations, including Macaroni Soup alla Rossini and Tournedos alla Rossini. The latter dish is sauteed filet mignon on buttered toast, topped with foie gras and truffles, and finished with a small pond of sauce made from veal stock, the pan juices of the filet deglazed with Madeira, chopped truffles, and butter. (Try listening to the list of ingredients with the voice of Masterchef's India Fisher in your head.) It is a dish that is rich and unabashedly flamboyant - like opera.

So why did Rossini take a long break from music to enjoy life? His early music success gave him a level of financial security which allowed him to pursue other avenues in life - in other words, because he could! His parents, musicians themselves, had originally intended for him to pursue a more practical vocation like blacksmithing, but fortunately, he demonstrated enough musical talent and interest for them to relent. It is hard to imagine the operatic world without classic greats like The Barber of Seville and William Tell!

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