One of the great joys of writing historical fiction is that there are no barriers. No ‘this belongs to another faculty, like the Music faculty’ moments in the work.
(Though I dare say this may hold true for biographers as well.)
Because all these disciplines–music, art, literature, philosophy–are invaluable for understanding those who people the past, and their perceptions of their world. And none, I think, is more effective for this than music.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it now, with music we get the rare chance to hear what they heard, and perhaps in that instant to understand something of the world in which they lived. We experience with them what made them laugh, what made them weep.
Which brings me to the utterly delicious and delightful composer of early 19th century opera, Gioachino Rossini. (I went to hear his Il barbiere di Siviglia just last month…and it was heaven!)
So, yes, it’s true, I do find his operas absolutely effervescent and all that is wonderful…but his early life presents us with such a surprising window on the realities Napoleonic Europe.
Young Rossini was born on 29 February 1792 in Pesaro, Italy–so he arrived just as the French Revolution was really getting into full swing up in Paris.
By 1796, the northern reaches of Italy had been invaded and the Austrian overlords driven out by the revolutionary French armies under a young Corsican general, Napoleon Buonaparte, who decided to occupy the place.
By age six, young Rossini was acting as mascot to the local revolutionary guard.
Both Rossini’s parents were musicians…
But then the French withdrew and while it had been fine while they were there, Rossini’s father’s revolutionary ideals weren’t so popular with subsequent rulers who were trying to put Italy back to what it had been pre-French-invasion. Hence the next year, his father was arrested and tried for his revolutionary activities and sentenced to ten months in gaol.
Still, Rossini was one of those ‘born’ musicians. And by the time the French returned in 1800, the Rossini family had moved to Rome and our young hero was learning the spinet, followed by the violin, the cello, the horn…and he was singing professionally too. (His uncle had suggested having him castrated to preserve his voice and make him one of those most-sought after singers, a castrato; his mother had point-blank refused.)
But here’s the thing. 1806 is also the year that the French under Napoleon took over the whole of the peninsula that we call Italy. They wiped out all the old city-states and the various forms of government, annexed the whole, and set things up to suit themselves. They also embarked on a deliberate ‘Frenchification’ of the place. This was empire-building in its most severe and repressive form.
It wasn’t just that the French were as anti-religion as you could hope to find–though certainly they were (and you can imagine how well that went down in Italy and with the pope…whom the French eventually imprisoned.)
It’s also that they wanted everything done the way Napoleon ordered–with his ideas of obeisance to himself and to the glory of France, his ideas of bureaucracy and taxation and culture, his military prowess–and anything that opposed this military state, this empire which promoted itself as the apex of grandeur, culture, morals, liberty and justice, was to be stamped out and expunged.
The French also, coincidentally, wholly destroyed Italian industry and commerce through their Continental System; mass unemployment and destitution were the result.
Equally, the French bureaucrats–the Napoleonic apparatchiks–who were brought in to run things absolutely loathed, hated, and despised the Italians who they were meant to be assimilating into the Empire. They thought the Italians were corrupt, soft, degenerate, effeminate, trivial…
This is what one administrator, Hugues Nardon, wrote about Italian opera in 1806, the very year Rossini went to study music: “The theatres in Italy today are horrible, and serve only to propagate indecency, corrupt morality, encourage bad taste, and harbour notions of violent thoughts and crude passions.”
Nardon and others like him wanted the ‘native opera’ eradicated and ‘proper’ theatre, French theatre with its messages of sacrifice and support for the fatherland (I jest not) brought in.
But the Italians, strangely, didn’t take to this point of view.
And neither, fortunately, did Rossini as his worklist during those years of French occupation shews:
La cambiale di matrimonio (The Bill of Marriage) was produced in Venice in 1810; L’equivoco stravagante came out in Bologna in 1811; L’inganno felice (The Happy Deceit) opened in Venice in 1812; Ciro in Babilonia opened in Ferrara in 1812; La Scala di seta (The Silken Ladder) opened in Venice in 1812; La pietra del paragone (The Touchstone) opened in Milan in 1812; L’occasione fa il ladro (Opportunity makes the Thief) premiered in Venice in 1812…
What a rejection and rebuff to the French occupiers is that? Or rather an embracing of all they’d sought to wipe out or ‘educate’ out of the Italian population.
And Rossini was just as busy in 1813 as the Italians flocked to hear this 21-year old’s operas–even as the forces of French empire were crumbling, as Prince Eugene de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s step-son and Viceroy in Italy hurried from one crisis to another, one battle to the next, trying to keep disaster at bay…
These early operas by Rossini are all–to those who prefer their opera heavy-handed, full of tragedy, death, worthy sacrifice, weeping queens, moral messages–light-hearted comic operas, stuffed with catchy melodies. These are operas designed to sparkle with vivacity and wit, a musical answer to Restoration comedy, perhaps. They can even be gloriously silly. No self-immolation on the altar of the fatherland death scenes here.
Well, that one didn’t premiere until 20 February 1816…(first London performance on 10 March 1818) by which time Napoleon had been defeated at Waterloo and was in exile on St. Helena.
Still, 200 years on, it sparkles…
And because it is the most wonderful aria and will give you a taste of just how energetic and ‘fun’ Rossini’s operas were and are, so you can feel perhaps a moment of what the Italians–forgetting their troubles–felt during those those years of Napoleonic servitude and repression, is Gino Quillico singing the Barber of Seville’s utterly brilliant aria where he tells you just what he gets up to (mischief): Largo al factotum della citta.