Rossini, Paisiello, and one wild operatic backstory
”Backstabber of Seville” Podcast Transcript
Who was originally the Barber of Seville composer? Find out in episode 1, “The Backstabber of Seville.” We tell the little-known stories behind the Paisiello Il Barbiere di Sevilla, and we relate the humble origins of one of the world’s greatest opera legends, Gioachino Rossini.
Enjoy our show notes–feel free to scroll to the end if you would like to see the sources for our first classical music podcast episode.
Barber of Seville Quick Facts:
- The Barber of Seville was composed by Gioachino Rossini
- Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy in 1792
- Rossini died in Paris, France, in 1868
- The Barber of Seville premiere took place at the Teatro de Argentina in Rome in 1816.
Do you remember the recent incident following the Grammys that involved Paul McCartney and that other guy—what’s his name? Tyga? I don’t know anything about him other than that he’s somehow involved in the Kardashian saga somehow—but I digress.
Basically, the esteemed Sir Paul (for some inexplicable reason) decided that going to Tyga’s afterparty sounded like a fun thing to do. Better yet, he got denied by the bouncers. He actually got denied twice, because he decided to go back and try again. There’s nothing like hanging out with a bunch of people the age of your grandchildren.
So think about that relationship for a minute. Paul McCartney. He’s one of the richest musicians alive. He’s been knighted by the queen of England. He’s respected. He’s a legend.
Compare that to Tyga—an audacious, somewhat well known upstart that may or may not have a promising future ahead of him. Tyga has definitely not been knighted by the queen of England.
Now imagine for a moment that you’re a famous composer. Or an artist, or filmmaker, or whatever the heck you want to be. It doesn’t matter. There you are—an older, venerable individual—and you receive a letter from a young wannabe. Maybe someone for whom you remember autographing a photo 15 years ago. This wannabe is asking to use the same plot as one of your most popular works for his own use. He basically wants to steal your idea.
That was the situation in which Giovanni Paisiello found himself in 1815. And that young wannabe was Gioachino Rossini.
Today’s episode: The Backstabber of Seville.
By all accounts, Paisiello demonstrated musical talent from a young age. His parents were not known to be musically inclined, but his voice apparently left an impression on all who heard him sing.
Paisiello’s version of the story states that when he was 14 (the year was 1754), he participated in the choir during Holy Week services in the Italian city of Taranto. A certain Tarantine noble, Don Girolamo Carducci, was greatly moved by the young singer’s voice, and he insisted that Paisiello’s parents send the young Giovanni to Naples for lessons.
Since studying music in Naples would require years away from home, they were understandably reluctant. They finally agreed, though, and Paisiello took only two months of preparatory music lessons before heading off for nine years of conservatory study in the artistic city of Naples.
Della Corte’s 1922 biography of Paisiello suggests a different version: that the young boy took an entire year of lessons from the tenor, Don Carlo Resta, before being sent to Naples. Whether it was two months or twelve, one thing remains certain—in 1754, 14 year old Giovanni Paisiello began his nine-year stay in the conservatories of Naples.
His studies progressed well, and after several regional Italian opera successes throughout his late teens and early twenties, Paisiello’s first big professional break came in 1768, when he was tasked with writing two cantatas for the Neapolitan court. There was a wedding in town—the king of Naples, Ferdinando IV, was marrying Maria Theresa’s daughter. It was a big deal.
Jno Leland Hunt describes his success: “These commissions attest that at twenty-seven he had become one of the most prominent composers in Naples.” According to Hunt, Paisiello had already conquered Bologna, Modena, Parma, and Venice. He was now one of the leading composers in all of Italy.
1768 wasn’t just a big year for Paisiello professionally—he was also married that year. Matrimony wasn’t necessarily a positive addition to his curriculum vitae, though; composers have a way of getting into complicated relationships.
Let’s gain a bit of perspective, here is a passage from De Dominicis:
“When [Paisiello] was young he so loved the fairer sex that he was always distracted; and allured on numerous occasions into amorous affairs with the ladies and the nymphs of the theater, he allowed no opportunity for a liaison to go unfulfilled.”
Assuming De Dominicis knew what he was talking about, we can guess that the passionate Paisiello fell into a relationship that he didn’t intend to follow through with. What Paisiello didn’t realize was that his newest “conquest” was a bit more clever than he was—her name was Donna Cecilia Pallini. And she was his musical pupil at the time.
Donna Cecilia claimed to be the widow of the recently deceased maestro of Livorno, who had left her with 1800 ducats (1.4 million). That money would serve as a dowry if Paisiello married her. He couldn’t resist.
Strangely enough, Paisiello (and his father) found out that Cecilia had been lying about both her marriage to Maestro Mazzini and the dowry, but it was too late. Paisiello had already agreed, on legal documents, to marry her. He tried as best he could to escape.
Times were different in 18th century Naples, and Paisiello had to ask the king for permission to back out of the marriage. What Paisiello may not have realized was that Cecilia, his conniving fiance, had the listening ear of the queen. The queen sided with Cecilia.
In her petition to the queen, Donna Cecilia failed to mention that she had lied to Paisiello about her previous marriage and consequent dowry—she simply told the queen that she was pregnant. The plot worked. Paisiello was detained and held in a jail until he agreed to marry Cecilia.
Historical sources don’t agree on this part of the story, since many accounts claim that Paisiello and his wife were childless. It appears as if either Donna Cecilia’s child didn’t survive, or worse, that she feigned pregnancy in the presence of the queen in order to force Paisiello into the marriage. Historian Francesco Barberio agrees with the latter.
At any rate, a rather awkward start to married life ensued. After Paisiello was released from jail, he married Donna Cecilia on September 14, 1768.
In late July 1776—the same month the colonies in the New World declared independence from Great Britain—Paisiello moved with Cecilia to Russia to act as Catherine the Great’s court composer. Here are the words of Prince Orlov, a noble in Catherine’s court, about Paisiello.
“It was an evening of enthusiasm. All eyes were fixed on him [Paisiello], a handsome, forty-year-old man, of noble stature, robust, dark, with two large black eyes, sweet and shining. Invited to sit at the cembalo, he started to sing his opera with an amazing smoothness and verve. At a certain moment, the Empress, who had noticed a sudden paleness on the maestro’s face, took the fur coat from her shoulders and was pleased to place it on the fortunate shoulders of him who enchanted her so much.”
You may have noticed from the above quote that Catherine the Great had a special place in her heart for Paisiello, and there has been plenty of speculation about whether or not an affair was at play. Historians imply that Paisiello’s unfortunate and awkward marriage left room for “extra-curriculars.”
Affair or not, after six years in the Russian court, Paisiello found himself contracted to compose operas at an alarming rate. Due to the small amount of time he could devote to each opera, Paisiello had to search for pre-existing librettos. His search for librettos led him to the works of the famous playwright Beaumarchais, and he ultimately asked for a translation of a Beaumarchais play that modern opera-going crowds will recognize—Il barbiere di Siviglia. In 1782, Paisiello debuted what would become one of the most famous operas in history. He certainly couldn’t have imagined the rest of the story, though.
In many performance-based sports or genres, the latest competitors often out-do their predecessors. Steph Curry shoots the rock better than Larry Bird and Ray Allen. Michael Phelps eventually out-swam Ian Thorpe.
This isn’t always—or often—because modern performers are inherently more talented or skilled. The propensity to out-perform predecessors is because modern figures can stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before. Examples are a powerful point of reference; with one, you can see where your mark lies and shoot for it.
Years after The Barber of Seville was written, Rossini described Paisiello this way: “[He was] uneducated and immeasurably insignificant . . .the shallowness of his ideas cannot be imagined.” Not only is this a blatantly ignorant quote—Paisiello, the original Barber of Seville composer, was a highly accomplished professional in his own right—but it reflects the competitive attitude within classical music. It’s the kind of competitiveness that won’t allow colleagues to respect each other, and it’s not at all healthy.
Truth be told, Rossini’s Barber of Seville probably wouldn’t have succeeded without Paisiello’s. Rossini needed a point of reference to make his different. But without getting into The Barber too deeply, let’s step back into Rossini’s life.
Rossini was born on February 29, 1792 into a poor family. His parents, who struggled to remain together, struggled even harder to find enough work to support the family. Rossini’s father was the town trumpeter; his mother an untrained but talented soprano. The first 20 years of Rossini’s life were spent amid Napoleon’s tumultuous relationship with Europe.
In spite of his poor behavior in school settings and a series of apprenticeships (including a stint with both a butcher and a blacksmith), Rossini wrote his first stage work at the age of 18. The audience loved it, and he was awarded a fully commissioned work the next year, in 1811. The timing couldn’t have been better; Mozart-Mania was just beginning in Italy—it took a long time for many Italians to believe that a non-Italian could write music—and in 1815, La Scala performed Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Rossini, who idolized Mozart, created his depiction of Figaro in The Barber of Seville the following year.
It is also important to remember that Napoleon’s conquest had influenced all of Italy by this point—many Italians that had initially viewed him as a liberator had finally come to view him as a self-serving menace.
The French conquest of Italy began in 1796 and effectively ended in 1812. Since they had been under the domination of Habsburg Austrian rulers, many Italians thought Napoleonic domination would mean greater freedom from upper class control—after all, hadn’t the French Revolution gone so well? (sarcasm)—things didn’t exactly go as planned for the Italians, though. Once he had defeated Italy in 1796, Napoleon owned the right to conscript Italians into his army, and that was a right he exercised prior to 1812, which you may remember as the year the French Army tried—and failed—to conquer Russia.
Napoleon’s 680,000-man army that entered Russia left with only 27,000; 30,000 men in that doomed army were Italian. A Milan-based French general had heard one of Rossini’s operas and requested that Rossini be exempted from military service prior to the Russian campaign—In other words, it is likely that the world almost lost Rossini to military service at the age of 20, four years before the Barber of Seville was written.
By 1815, the young Gioachino Rossini was an active composer, and in the same year, the Teatro de Argentina needed a new commission, and fast. Gioachino Rossini was hired to quickly write an opera, and per usual custom, the impresario of the opera house provided the libretto. Because of the time crunch, the impresario resorted to a tried-and-true text that was already written—Beaumarchais’ The Barber of Seville.
Note: The Teatro de Argentina is actually in Rome, not Argentina. Also, we also have an article on the website about Beaumarchais—it’s worth taking a look, and you can get some valuable insight to this story.
Rossini immediately noticed the professional peril of writing an opera that looked to be directly in competition with Paisiello’s opera of the same name, and a letter was sent off to Paisiello at Rossini’s behest. Amid a flurry of compliments and flattery, Rossini and the impresario tried to placate the popular Paisiello by explaining that the opera was entirely different from his, and that they would call the opera Almaviva instead of The Barber of Seville.
Here’s a bit from Warren Robert’s account, quoting the preface of the original Barber libretto:
“The comedy by Signor Beaumarchais entitled “the Barber of Seville, or, “The Futile Precaution,” is being presented in Rome, adapted as a dramma comico, under the title of “Almaviva” or “The Futile Precaution.” This for the purpose of convincing the public fully of the sentiments of respect and veneration which animate the creator of the music of the present drama toward the greatly celebrated Paesiello [sic] who dealt with the subject under the original title.”
It also bears mentioning that Paisiello didn’t have a reputation for getting along with other composers. Warren Roberts puts it this way: “He established a reputation as a composer to be reckoned with, but he was touchy and difficult, and he was resentful of fellow Neapolitan composers Niccolo Piccinni, Domenico Cimarosa, and Pietro Guglielmi.”
Paisiello responded to Rossini’s opera with professional grace, although the pretentious undertones in his response are hard to miss. Many scholars even believe his letter was a front; that he wasn’t, in fact, as cordial as he tried to sound. You should know that this was a time when Papal police were carefully censoring artistic material that they thought held “allusions” to political dissent or unacceptable lifestyles. This was also an era where Leo XIII was instructing that artists cover up sculptures with fig leaves—they even “clothed” some preexisting sculptures by Michelangelo. Anyways, Paisiello made sure to include a line about “the good taste of the Papal police” when he learned that they would allow the use of “The Barber of Seville.” Many sources claim that Paisiello thought the opera would be a flop.
Rossini’s contract for the opera was signed late in 1815, and he had two months to write Almaviva. As if two months weren’t already short enough, he claims to have written it in 13 days.
Before we tell you how the opening performance of the opera went (And boy was it a doozie), there’s some more history you need to understand. Late 18th century opera audiences weren’t as civil as they are now. Today’s worst offenders open cough drops and forget to wear deodorant. Nobody cared about deodorant in the 18th century, so their misbehavior took other forms.
In all seriousness, though, modern performers don’t have to worry about angry crowds booing, shouting, and heckling them throughout a performance, nor must they fear angry mobs forming in the streets afterwards. These were all common offenses during this time period, thanks to a phenomenon known as the “claque.” We recommend that you do some further claque reading to really understand what happened during Almaviva’s opening night, but here’s the gist of claque: a group of people would show up to a performance with the intent of ruining it or shaming the composer. They would boo, catcall, and generally disrupt the performers. They were sometimes paid by a rival party to do so.
Such is the historical backdrop for the opening of Almaviva. On February 20, 1816, Rossini and his cast took the stage—mayhem ensued. Encyclopedia Britannica suggests that the performers were already under-prepared for the performance, seeing as they such little time to prepare. Unprepared or not, they likely weren’t prepared for the antics of the audience. A claque loyal to Paisiello had attended.
The audience, who may have either been paid by a Paisiello supporter to disrupt the performance or may have shown up out of their own free will, jeered and shouted, and nothing was left off-limits. The man who had commissioned the opera and wanted to hear it so badly, Duke Francesco Sforza-Cesarini, had died two weeks before the premier, and the crowd shouted, “Here we are at the funeral of Duke Cesarini!”
Rossini had been paid in both currency and a new leather jacket with gold buttons; this he wore to the opening night’s performance. The crowd caught on and made fun of his jacket endlessly. According to some accounts, the audience finished the performance by chanting Paisiello’s name loudly as the curtain closed. After all, he was the original Barber of Seville composer. Needless to say, Rossini wasn’t interested in showing his face at the next performance.
Since it was in composers’ contracts to performance at the keyboard during an opera, Rossini feigned sickness to avoid the second performance. He paced his rooms nervously, afraid that the second night would be a complete failure as well.
He also forced famous singer Manuel Garcia—who was paid more for Almaviva than Rossini was, incredibly—to ditch the “suitcase” aria he had brought, and gave him an aria to sing that actually had something to do with the plot.
Just an aside here: A “suitcase aria” was when a singer decided to sing an aria from a different opera other than the present one to show off his or her vocal prowess. It would be like busting out the theme song from the Lion King in the middle of a tender moment in Phantom of the Opera.
To Rossini’s horror, a crowd formed in the street and started towards his rooms after the performance. The people were rowdy and shouting. What he couldn’t initially tell, though, was that the crowd was shouting “Bravo, bravissimo Figaro!” However, it was too late for Rome to win over Rossini’s heart, and he refused to come outside. Even the hotel manager and Manuel Garcia tried to get him to acknowledge the crowd (perhaps because they were afraid of what the ignored mob might do), but all they got out of the grumpy composer was, “F— their bravos, I’m not coming out!”
It goes without saying that Rossini’s Almaviva became a hit—it may be the most recognizable opera of all time. Later on, when professional politics no longer mattered, the name was changed to The Barber of Seville, and that has endured ever since. In 1825, it became the first opera to be sung in Italian in the United States (it was performed at the Park Theatre in New York).
Paisiello died on June 5, 1816, less than four months after the premiere of Rossini’s Almaviva, but not before he realized that it was being played all over the world. After a lifetime of climbing to the top and standing upon others’ shoulders, Paisiello lived just long enough to see his own fame eclipsed.
Backstage this week was written by Adam Gingery and narrated by Justen Blackstone. Music for the show was provided by Vyking. That’s V-y-k-i-n-g. Check him out on Soundcloud. Original artwork for this episode by Vivian Morris. Check out her depiction of the claque at Rossini’s premiere concert on our website. Also be sure to subscribe to our weekly comic, you probably don’t want to miss it.
If you have any questions or comments, leave them below or email email@example.com
- The Musical Times, Vol. 23. “The Great Composers” by Joseph Bennett.
- Rossini and Post-Napoleonic Europe. By Warren Roberts.
- History of Music in Russia from Antiquity to 1800, Vol.2. By Nikolai Findeizen.
- Paisiello, His Life as an Opera Composer. By Jno Leland Hunt.
- Baker’s Biographical Dictionary.
- Oxford Music Online/Grove Dictionary
- Encyclopedia Britannica