Rossini story

I think I’ll use my blog to share a story I just now heard on BBC Radio 3, the classical music program. Why not? – anything for the enhancement of life. If you’re in America you won’t have heard it, having been enjoying NPR instead.

They have a little feature called “Brain Teaser”: they interrupt the succession of songs and symphonies to set a puzzle, suggested by a listener. Other listeners can phone or text or email their answers to the puzzle. Usually it’s something like “What do these three pieces of music have in common?” or “The first letters of their composers’ wives’ names make the name of a river in Russia” and you hear three excerpts so brief that you’re not sure where one ends and another begins. But this time it was a voice:

“It was a winter day in 1813 and Rossini was composing his comic opera ‘Il Signor Bruschino.’ He had almost finished writing a duet when his sheet of paper slipped out of his hand and fluttered to the floor. He stretched  his arm under the bed, but couldn’t reach the paper.” The question was: What happened next?

The program goes on, giving people time to think of answers; after twenty minutes or so, the host tells us some of the answers that have been sent in, ingenious but not quite right. Rossini strained a muscle in his back; he encountered his chamber-pot and upset it over the manuscript; he used a candle, and set the bed on fire; his cat was under the bed and bit him; he encountered two cats, which gave him the idea of writing his “Duet for Two Cats.” I think there were more, and I’m still inventing more.

The program continued, and I made myself excuses to stay around near the radio, instead of getting busy elsewhere. And at last Albinoni’s flute quintet, or whatever it was, wound down, and it was time for the answer:

Rossini was lazy enough, or enjoyed his comfort enough, that he didn’t bother to get out of bed, which was where he was. He reached for another sheet of paper and wrote the piece over again.

This fits with what little else I know about Gioachino Rossini (who must have written the opera days before it was performed in January 1813, and whose 21st birthday was in the next month). He was so fertile that once he exclaimed: “Give me a laundry-list and I’ll set that to music!” (I heard that on NPR.)

Dozens of listeners had sent in the correct answer, as usual. In this case they could have looked it up, but in the usual cases it is amazing, and heartening, that so many people not only are listening to classical music, but know so much of the whole vast mass of it that they recognize a few seconds out of movements that I have never heard, or think vaguely familiar but can’t identify. Similarly with NPR’s weekly opera brains-trust program (does that continue?), it was amazing and heartening that so many people knew so much about opera, and were so fanatically fond of that gloriously perverse art-form. Radio 3’s main theme this week, with a title something like “Global Classics,” is about the great and rising popularity of European classical music in the concert halls of China, India, Brazil…


6 thoughts on “Rossini story”

  1. The question for the Metropolitan Opera Quiz was to name some operas where a political or religious cause has been the driving force. I suggested that they ask it on the 10 December (Human Rights Day) performance and they did!

    1. Belated reply to this, Joan, but what were the suggested answers you supplied with that question you contributed to the opera quiz? – what ARE those operas with plots drive by politics or religion or human rights?

  2. Great story. An interesting bit of Rossini trivia is that he retired from music in his late thirties and lived another almost forty years after. He had such an impact on the music world, but spent most of his life not writing music.

  3. What a wonderful story. The opera quiz you’re referring to takes place during the matinees of the Metropolitan Opera, which NPR broadcasts on Saturdays. One of my questions was used a couple of years ago. It was the highlight of my year!

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