Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Rossini - Overture To Semiramide

Rossini wrote the opera Semiramide in 1823.  The libretto was based on a tragedy by Voltaire which in turn was based on a Babylonian myth.  It was the final Italian opera that Rossini wrote. After its completion he moved to Paris and his last operas were in French.  Rossini was one of the fastest composers at that time, and composed the entire opera in a matter of 33 days.  The opera's plot is a gruesome retelling of the Oedipus legend that is set in Babylon.

By the late 1800's the opera was almost unknown. There have been various revivals of it, but it is not performed very often. That can't be said for the overture to the opera, as it remains a popular selection for the concert hall. Unlike many other opera overtures of the time (including Rossini's) the overture uses tunes that are in the opera itself and therefore couldn't be used for a different opera. Strange as it may seem to us, the recycling of music happened a lot in the break-neck world of popular opera of the time. Works were written rapidly and many composers not only recycled their own music, but music of other composers as well.  The goal was to keep feeding the opera-hungry audiences new operas and keep the money rolling in at the box office.

The overture begins with a small crescendo that leads to three chords in the full orchestra.  A  hymn-like melody played by the horns is next, which is one of the most imaginative aspects of this overture.  The orchestra bursts in again, the hymn tune is taken up by the woodwinds with pizzicato accompaniment by the strings, and the horns join the woodwinds.  A few booming chords that alternate with the woodwinds that lead to a tune that is played in the strings and winds. Another tune from the opera is heard in the winds, which leads to a 'Rossini' crescendo that morphs into a repeated figure in the violins that reaches the apex of the crescendo.  Tunes are heard again, with the obligatory key changes and the orchestra slowly begins to build to another crescendo.  A short coda, and the overture comes to a close.

Rossini was one of the most popular, if not the most popular opera composers of his day. Many of his operas may no longer be in the main stream repertoire, but the overtures to the operas remain crowd-pleasers. The visceral excitement of a Rossini crescendo, and his gift for melody assure Rossini a place in the concert hall of the future.

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