Rossini

by Camille Saint-Saens


Nowadays it is difficult to form any idea of Rossini’s position in our beautiful city of Paris half a century ago. He had retired from active life a long time before, but he had a greater reputation in his idleness than many others in their activity. All Paris sought the honor of being admitted to his magnificent, high-windowed apartment. As the demigod never went out in the evening, his friends were always sure of finding him at home. At one time or another all sorts of social sets rubbed elbows at his great soirees. The most brilliant singers and the most famous virtuosi appeared at these “evenings.” The master was surrounded by sycophants, but they did not influence him, for he knew their true worth. He ruled his regular following with the hauteur of a superior being who does not deign to reveal himself to the first comer. It is a question how he came to be held in such honor.

His works, outside of the Barbier and Guillaume Tell, and some performances of Moise, belonged to the past. They still went to see Otello at the Theatre-Italien, but that was to hear Tamberlick’s C diesis. Rossini was under so little illusion that he tried to oppose the effort to have Semiramide put into the repertoire at the Opera. And, nevertheless, the Parisian public actually worshipped him.

This public—I am speaking now of the musical public or what is called that—was divided into two hostile camps. There were the lovers of melody who were in the large majority and included the musical critics; and, on the other side, the subscribers to the Conservatoire and the Maurin, Alard and Amingaud quartets. They were devotees of learned music; “poseurs,” others said, who pretended to admire works they did not understand at all.

There was no melody in Beethoven; some even denied that there was any in Mozart. Melody was found, we were told, only in the works of the Italian school, of which Rossini was the leader, and in the school of Herold and Auber, which was descended from the Italian.

The Melodists considered Rossini their standard bearer, a symbol to rally around, even though they had just obtained good prices for his works at the second-hand shops and now permitted them to fall into oblivion.

From some words he let fall during our intimacy I can state that this neglect was painful to him. But it was a just—perhaps too just—retribution for the fatality with which Rossini, doubtless in spite of himself, served as a weapon against Beethoven. The first encounter was at Vienna where the success of Tancred crushed forever the dramatic ambitions of the author of Fidelio; later, at Paris, they used Guillaume Tell in combating the increasing invasion of the symphony and chamber music.

I was twenty when M. and Mme. Viardot introduced me to Rossini. He invited me to his small evening receptions and received me with his usual rather meaningless cordiality. At the end of a month, when he found that I asked to be heard neither as a pianist nor as a composer, he changed his attitude. “Come and see me tomorrow morning,” he said.  “We can talk then.”

I was quick to respond to this flattering invitation and I found a very different Rossini from the one of the evening. He was intensely interested in and open-minded to ideas, which, if they were not advanced, were at least broad and noble. He gave proof of this when Liszt’s famous Messe was performed for the first time at St. Eustache.  He went to its defense in the face of an almost unanimous opposition.

He said to me one day,

“You have written a duet for a flute and clarinet for Dorus and Leroy. Won’t you ask them to play it at one of my evenings?”

The two great artists did not have to be urged. Then an unheard of thing happened. As he never had a written programme on such occasions, Rossini managed so that they believed that the duet was his own. It is easy to imagine the success of the piece under these conditions. When the encore was over, Rossini took me to the dining-room and made me sit near him, holding me by the hand so that I could not get away. A procession of fawning admirers passed in front of him. Ah! Master! What a masterpiece!  Marvellous!

And when the victim had exhausted the resources of the language in praise, Rossini replied, quietly:

“I agree with you. But the duet wasn’t mine; it was written by this gentleman.”

Such kindness combined with such ingenuity tells more about the great man than many volumes of commentaries. For Rossini was a great man. The young people of to-day are in no position to judge his works, which were written, as he said himself, for singers and a public who no longer exist.

“I am criticised,” he said one day, “for the great crescendo in my works. But if I hadn’t put the crescendo into my works, they would never have been played at the Opera.”

In our day the public are slaves. I have read in the programme of one house, “All marks of approbation will be severely repressed.” Formerly, especially in Italy, the public was master and its taste law. As it came before the lights were up, a great overture with a crescendo was as necessary as cavatinas, duets and ensembles: they came to hear the singers and not to be present at an opera. In many of his works, especially in Otello, Rossini made a great step forward towards realism in opera. In Moise and Le Siege de Corinthe (not to mention Guillaume Tell) he rose to heights which have not been surpassed in spite of the poverty of the means at his disposal. As Victor Hugo has victoriously demonstrated, such poverty is no obstacle to genius and wealth in them is only an advantage to mediocrity.

I was one of the regular pianists at Rossini’s. The others were Stanzieri, a charming young man of whom Rossini was very fond and who lived but a short time, and Diemer, who was also young but already a great artist. One or the other of us would often play at the evening entertainments the slight pieces for the piano which the Master used to write to take up his time. I was only too willing to accompany the singers, when Rossini did not do so himself. He accompanied them admirably for he played the piano to perfection.

Unfortunately I was not there the evening that Patti sang for Rossini the first time. We know that after she had sung the aria from Le Barbier, he said to her, after the usual compliments, “Who wrote that aria you just sang?”

I saw him three days afterwards and he hadn’t cooled off even then.

“I am fully aware,” he said, “that arias should be embellished. That’s what they are for. But not to leave a note of them even in the recitatives! That is too much!”

In his irritation he complained that the sopranos persisted in singing this aria which was written for a contralto and did not sing what had been written for the sopranos at all.

On the other hand the diva was irritated as well. She thought the matter over and realized that it would be serious to have Rossini for an enemy.  So some days later she went to ask his advice. It was well for her that she took it, for her talent, though brilliant and fascinating, was not as yet fully formed. Two months after this incident, Patti sang the arias from La Gaza Ladra and Semiramide, with the master as her accompanist. And she combined with her brilliancy the absolute correctness which she always showed afterwards.

Much has been written about the premature interruption of Rossini’s career after the appearance of Guillaume Tell. It has been compared with Racine’s life after Phedre. The failure of Phedre was brutal and cruel, which was added to by the scandalous success of the Phedre of an unworthy rival. Racine’s friends, the Port Royalists, did not hesitate to make the most of the opportunity. “You’ve lost your soul,” they told him. “And now you haven’t even success.” But later, when he took up his pen again, he gave us two masterpieces in Esther and Athalie.

Rossini was accustomed to success and it was hard for him to run into a half-hearted success when he knew he had surpassed himself. This was doubtless due to the extravagant phraseology of Hippolyte Bis, one of the librettists. But Guillaume Tell had its admirers from the start.  I heard it spoken of constantly in my childhood. If the work did not appear on the bills of the Opera, it furnished the amateurs with choice bits.

In my opinion, if Rossini committed suicide as far as his art was concerned, he did so because he had nothing more to say. Rossini was a spoiled child of success and he could not live without it. Such unexpected hostility put an end to a stream which had flowed so abundantly for so long.

The success of his Soirees Musicales and his Stabat encouraged him.  But he wrote nothing more except those slight compositions for the piano and for singing which may be compared to the last vibrations of a sound, as it dies away.

Later—much later—came La Messe to which undue importance has been attributed. “Le Passus,” one critic wrote, “is the cry of a stricken spirit.” La Messe is written with elegance by an assured and expert hand, but that is all. There are no traces of the pen which wrote the second act of Guillaume Tell.

Apropos of this second act, it is not, perhaps, generally known that the author had no idea of ending it with a prayer. Insurrections are not usually begun with so serious a song. But at the rehearsals the effect of the unison, Si parmi nous il est des Traitres, was so great that they did not dare to go on beyond it. So they suppressed the real ending, which is now the brilliant entrancing end of the overture. This finale is extant in the library at the Opera. It would be an interesting experiment to restore it and give this beautiful act its natural conclusion.

 


 

 

Original text by Camille Saint-Saens, translated by Edwin Gile Rich [1919], edited and revised by D. J. McAdam - this text © 2005.  Please note: all applicable material on this website is protected by law and may not be copied without express written permission. 


 

Daniel McAdam Guide to Classical Music