Receiving Rossini

This deep dive essay is an example of “reception history,” a research method that uses primary sources to decipher how people evaluated (or “received”) works of art when they were first created. By considering such contemporary commentary, we can learn much about the priorities and aesthetic ideals of the time and place that produced the art we consume today.

In 1824, the French novelist Stendahl published La Vie de Rossini (The Life of Rossini), a biography of the Italian composer. While the writer had once staunchly criticized Rossini’s music for lacking passion, in the biography his attitude shifted: Stendahl now acknowledged that the Italian master’s brilliant music was “full of celestial fire.” But even in this seemingly favorable analysis, Rossini was overshadowed by the supposedly superior Mozart. In Stendahl’s opinion, Mozart’s work was marked by true passion and “sweet melancholy,” while Rossini’s operas presented merely dazzling humor. To a modern reader, dazzling humor might seem like high praise indeed, but to 19th-century critics, passion and melancholy were far more desirable sentiments because they induced a reflective state of mind. Humor, on the other hand, merely provoked immediate bodily pleasure, similar (in Stendahl’s memorable formulation) to the joy that “three ogres find in eating twenty beefsteaks a day.” This juxtaposition between reason and feeling—or between moral judgment and bodily sensation—offered a neat binary that critics like Stendahl could use to evaluate music.

One of Stendahl’s main complaints about Rossini’s operas was his use of tongue-in-cheek musical phrases that contemporary critics dismissed as mere “noise.” One such critic, a Mrs. Lattanzi, wrote in 1816 in the Italian magazine Il Corriere delle Dame that the “overburdened, confused, and noisy” music of Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia “tyrannized” and “corrupted the good taste” of audiences. Stendahl connected this “noisy” music with a particularly visceral effect. After he first heard La Cenerentola, Stendhal wrote that the moment when the stepsisters disgracefully mocked and caricatured Cinderella’s melancholy singing in Act I made him “nauseous.”

In fact, it was not merely La Cenerentola’s nauseating noise that offended Stendhal, who boldly claimed furthermore that the opera lacked “some essential quality of ideal beauty.” But what was this “ideal beauty” that Stendhal missed? Stendhal’s take on the lack of magic in the libretto offers an interesting clue. Because Rossini and Ferretti chose to discard fantastical elements of Perrault’s fairy tale—such as the supernatural appearance of the godmother, the magical transformation of a pumpkin into a coach, and Cinderella’s unique ability to fit her foot into a tiny glass shoe—their version of the story, Stendhal felt, was too mundane to induce in the viewer any honorable sentiments. “The music clutches at my imagination,” Stendahl wrote, “and willy-nilly drags it down to its own petty level.”

Yet despite himself, Stendahl was not always opposed to physical sensations provoked by music. For instance, he enjoyed the Act II sextet “Questo è un nodo avviluppato” and specifically lauded the “musical fireworks” of the Act I finale, which “bombards the listener with a rich, glittering, spontaneous, and original succession of new and tantalizing sensations.” In other words, even Stendahl was not immune to Rossini’s musical wit—or to the sense of joy that these “noisy” effects could provoke in both body and mind.