This November we mark 150 years since the death of Gioachino Rossini – chef extraordinaire, famed bon vivant and composer of no less than 39 operas. Despite humble beginnings, by the time Rossini had penned his final work for the stage – Guillaume Tell – at the age of 37, he had become one of the wealthiest and most influential musicians in Europe – a hard-earned and impressive achievement.
In spite of a reputation for nonchalance (‘Scarcely six weeks are allowed me to compose an opera. I take my pleasure during the first month’), Rossini’s prodigious output – at least up until ‘Tell’ – was symptomatic of a man utterly driven. And he needed to be. Without effective copyright law, it was nigh on impossible to make money from anything other than new works, so from an early age he hopped between Italian cities conducting, accompanying and performing in his latests operas in order to support himself.
This will resonate strongly with composers and recording artists today who, in a market cannibalised by streaming, are required to tour relentlessly to stay afloat. Or with orchestral musicians (44 per cent of whom in the UK don’t actually earn enough to live on), forced to supplement their income through teaching. Adopting Rossini’s brutal work ethic has become a matter of necessity for artists today.
The aspiring musician would also do well to replicate his entrepreneurial spirit. His success was made possible by an instinct for a good deal. When, at just 22, Rossini was offered the position of composer in residence at Naples’ Teatro di San Carlo by the notorious impresario Domenico Barbaja, he was savvy enough to demand a cut of the opera house’s gambling profits. An equally shrewd businessman, Barbaja must have seen something of himself in the young Bolognan and agreed to his demands.
A decade later, whilst on tour in England conducting and supervising performances of his operas, Rossini’s fee was reported to be 50 guineas a night. That’s over £4000 in today’s money. One critic suggested rather sarcastically that such handsome remuneration was surely justified by ‘the risque [sic] he encountered, and the inconvenience he endured, in crossing the abominable Straits of Dover.’
He showed similar audacity when in 1829 he threatened to prevent the opening of his eagerly anticipated Guillaume Tell at the Salle Le Peletier in Paris unless he received a lifetime annuity of 6000 francs. The risk paid off, and King Charles X himself signed the contract. By this point Rossini had amassed such influence – had build such a powerful ‘brand’ – that he was able to negotiate the terms of his creativity.
Artists, today more than ever, understand the power of branding. It is not unusual for conservatoires to incorporate website design and digital marketing into their courses. I don’t know a single aspiring soloist, ensemble or composer without an Instagram account – each photo sagging under the weight of a thousand cringeworthy hashtags. No doubt Rossini would have made equally good use of social media – although one must wonder how much of his feed would be taken up by photos of food.
But for all his talent and fame, Rossini chose ultimately to quit while he was ahead. In 1829, still at the height of his powers, he stopped composing for the stage, producing just a handful of works in the 39 years until his death. Certainly he was exhausted, suffering from depression and plagued by illness.
He was also hounded by political upheaval in his adopted city of Paris, where he felt increasingly irrelevant amidst the crusading nationalism of Verdi and Meyerbeer’s grand opera. On his return to Italy he was greeted by a slump in singing standards, and yet another revolution. Indeed, 1830 saw uprisings in no less than five European countries, including Switzerland, which had provided the setting for his prescient final opera. His own, somewhat gnomic reasoning for this ‘great renunciation’ is unsatisfying to say the least: ‘I decided that I had something better to do, which was to remain silent.’
Many have struggled to comprehend such apathy towards his own extraordinary gift and the perceived responsibility that came with it. When Wagner visited him in 1860, it was to observe ‘at close range’ a man who could so easily ‘separate himself from his genius as one removes a heavy burden’. But perhaps that was the key. His art, and the lifestyle associated with it, had become a burden.
Too often we see art as immaculately conceived – the product of divine inspiration. Zachary Woolfe wrote: ‘We cultivate a vague, almost occult image of artists and artistic production … artists don’t work, not in the usual sense of the word. They channel.’ When we romanticise a musician’s lifestyle it obscures their very real struggle to stay relevant, passionate and, sadly, to pay rent.
Pragmatist Rossini never saw himself as a tortured artist, and when he’d made his fortune he had no problem with ditching the job and looking after himself. This outlook was no doubt compounded by his experience meeting the great composer of his time: Beethoven. The relative squalor in which he found the maestro surely convinced him of the sacrifice one makes in the name of art.
A recent Musicians Union report revealed 66 per cent of established musicians with up to 30 years of experience have considered leaving the profession altogether. Withering arts funding and the introduction of the EBacc continues to squeeze music out of our schools, cutting off an already dwindling supply of musicians at the source. Art, as it did for Rossini, has become a burden.
As we dive head first into the greatest political and economic upheaval of the century so far, it begs the question: how many more ‘great renunciations’ are we going to witness?