Overture to Tancredi

by Max Derrickson

Gioachino (Antonio) Rossini
(Born in Pesaro, Italy on February 29, 1792; died in Paris, November 13, 1868)

Overture to Tancredi

When Rossini was born in 1792, Beethoven, at 22, had just moved to Vienna from Bonn and began his illustrious ascent as virtuoso pianist and composer; Mozart had been dead just three months, but his masterworks and legacy would significantly influence both Rossini and Beethoven; Napoleon, also just 22, was promoted to Captain in that year and was just beginning his illustrious ascent in his military career.  Rossini would feel the weight of Napoleon’s Wars and later say of Beethoven’s influence on the music world: “Always he, he everywhere, as one says of Napoleon.”  In the US, American Captain Robert Gray is the first European to sail into the Columbia River (between now Washington and Oregon) and makes a US claim to it, which was contested by the British, inevitably escalating underlying causes of the War of 1812.

Rossini was the world’s favorite opera composer until perhaps the middle of the nineteenth century, when he inexplicably retired at age 37, and Bellini and Verdi took the stage.  Having tutored himself on Mozart’s exquisite operatic models, Rossini’s own exceptional standards for operatic writing then in turn inspired so many others to come, including Verdi, Puccini and Wagner.  And yet within this long tradition of opera geniuses, Rossini is undeniably the finest composer of the splendid genre of theater music called opera buffa – operas rich in light-hearted antics, and filled with singable tunes.  We often don’t think of Rossini and Opera seria (operas with tragic storylines), however, though in fact Rossini was equally gifted in them, and Tancredi, 1813, composed at the age of 20, was such an opera and made Rossini internationally famous.

War and love is the theme of Tancredi, the story first expressed in Greek stories, then penned by Voltaire (1760).  And war in Rossini’s Italy was as ever present as he claimed of Napoleon – Tancredi was a sure-fire message for Italian audiences, and it was in this opera that Rossini put all of his talents together that make us now regard him as a genius: flowing operatic narrative, exciting music, beautifully tuneful arias, powerful choruses.  The story of Tancredi takes place in 1005 AD in Syracuse, Sicily, where much of the island is in unrest between Byzantines (Eastern Romans) and Saracens (Muslims).  The Saracen families are also having internal conflicts.  This in-fighting causes Tancredi, a valiant soldier, into exile.  There is a love interest for Tancredi, but the current political intrigue thwarts it, causing ultimately his death.

Aside from his great operas themselves that are still often performed, Rossini nearly single-handedly transformed the operatic overture into a discreet and flourishing work of art in its own right.  His overtures are each short gems of genius, as suitable to the concert hall as they are to introduce their operas.  Having blown such fertile life into the independent operatic overture, they then […] Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream took the form to a new level and essentially established the Concert Overture as a genre unto itself.  For Tancredi, we hear what will become those Rossini traits that make his Overtures so delightful – a wonderfully managed string of lovely […] always wrapping up with the famous “Rossini crescendo” […] of Seville).  La pietra del paragone was also a great success, so much so that Napoleon’s vice-roy asked Napoleon to spare Rossini from being pressed into military service, as was mostly mandatory in Napoleon’s empire:  “We are perhaps losing a mediocre soldier, but we are surely saving a man of genius for the nation.”  Interestingly, one of Napoleon’s soldiers in his first campaign to Italy in 1796 was the young, soon-to- be author, Stendahl.  Stendahl fell in love with Italy, and its art, food and music, and later wrote the first biography of Rossini.  In it, Stendahl said of Tancredi: “a genuine thunderbolt out of a clear, blue sky for the Italian lyric theatre.