The Hitmaster

Rossini Overtures: William Tell and the Famous Five

Herbert von Karajan / Philharmonia Orchestra

Columbia 33CX 1739


Give me a laundry list, and I will set it to music.

Gioacchino Rossini

An early Columbia mono recording, this sampling of Rossini’s overtures has all the hits, and some obscurer ones, you could ever want in one album. Rossini was the one-man hit factory of early19th century opera. Rousing trumpet fanfares? Yep. Dances you’ll be humming for days? Got em. Huge rampaging finales? For sure. Historically, the overture was used to fluff the audience for the meat of the opera to come, hinting at various themes and melodies that would soon be sung.

Rossini’s operas revitalized¬†the operatic form itself. In his works, beautiful melodies just seem to spill out effortlessly, building to huge climaxes, for which his name has become practically synonymous. Probably his only equal in the realm of the comedic opera is Mozart, and Rossini’s style might be even more distinctive. Outside of William Tell and The Barber of Seville, The Thieving Magpie might be his most characteristic work. It’s like some Ur-overture combining the various devices that make his works so unflinchingly Rossini-esque, and unlike anyone else’s.

Taking the form of a semiseria 2-act opera, The Thieving Magpie is based on an 1817 comedy about a young girl who’s about to be hung for stealing some silver. The girl is saved at the last minute, when it’s discovered that the real thief is a magpie with an appetite for heists. (Coincidentally, magpies are some of the smartest non-mammals in the animal kingdom, with the ability to recognize themselves in mirrors, so maybe TTM isn’t as farfetched as we might believe.) The girl is saved and the trickster magpie takes her place.

Rossini finished the opera, so it’s said, a night before the premiere. He was locked in a room, and as he completed parts, he tossed sheet music out the window to a waiting copyist, who then transcribed the individual orchestral parts. The overture begins with a couple of drum-rolls before welling into a militaristic march that then changes pace, introducing a slew of enchanting melodies, including an incredibly popular tune in the woodwinds. That, of course, is followed by the obligatory crescendo announcing the start of the finale. Refrains from earlier are interspersed throughout the orchestra, until overture moves to its rousing climax, which could simply be called a “rossini” for its sheer propulsion.

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