Overture to Semiramide

by Max Derrickson

Gioachino (Antonio) Rossini
(Born in Pesaro, Italy in 1792; died in Paris in 1868)

Overture to Semiramide

The musical joke of “What do you get when you give an Italian boy a pencil? An opera!” probably originated with Rossini.  He was a speedy composer and a savvy business man.  By the time he wrote his final opera, Guilluame Tell, in 1829, Rossini was a mere 38 years old with 40 successful operas behind him, and independently wealthy.  And then he simply retired.  Except for composing a small handful of works, the last 36 years of Rossini’s life were spent in relative seclusion and in pursuit of various hobbies including, among several, cooking.  His rather abrupt retirement from the opera world at the peak of his genius has never been fully explained, but his musical legacy continues to speak volumes.  His operas are still continuously performed, but alongside these full operas Rossini nearly single-handedly transformed the operatic overture into a discreet genre in its own right.  Rossini’s overtures are each short gems of genius, as suitable to the concert hall as they are to introducing an opera. 

Rossini’s Overture to his 1823 opera, Semiramide, is one of his great Overtures and often played as a concert piece.  It is also the last opera he wrote in Italy.  Thereafter, Rossini left Italy and within a year moved to Paris, where he wrote several more operas before beginning his lengthy retirement there.  The Overture is filled with the kind of excitement and hummable tunes that prove Rossini’s genius.  Behind the tunefulness, however, lies the grim tale of the opera itself which was based on a dramatic tragedy by Voltaire.  Semiramide is the Queen of Babylon who has fallen in love with Arsace, the Commander of the Assyrian armies.  To marry him and make him the King, Semiramide has poisoned her husband, King Nino.  Things go terribly wrong when Nino’s ghost begins to reveal some truths – one being that Arsace is actually Semiramide’s son.  In the confusion at Nino’s tomb, Arsace accidentally kills Semiramide before he reluctantly ascends the now empty throne.

Rossini’s dramatic composing is some of his best.  He begins with a somewhat menacing introduction where the timpani rolls quietly, creating an […] a quartet of horns and bassoons create a solemn but ravishing theme that will be prominent throughout the Overture.  The next theme, introduced by the strings, is wholly […] then adorns this theme with virtuosic filigree in the winds and a countermelody of the solemn horn […] the first five minutes of music.  Another sparkling piece of inventiveness comes at around seven and half minutes, where, as a break before the Overture’s finale, all of the violins play a kind of cadenza en masse – a truly ingenious moment.  As the Overture comes to a close, Rossini gives us his signature […], ending in brilliant bravura.