February 24, 2014. Handel and Rossini. George Frideric Handel‘s birthday was yesterday (he was born on February 23rd, 1685). Since last week we wrote mostly about Corelli, we’ll mark Handel’s birthday a day late. There is a connection between Handel and Corelli. After spending his childhood in Halle, at the age of 21 Handel moved to Italy. There he was feted by the same patrons who some years earlier supported Corelli: cardinals Ottoboni and Pamphilii. And then of course there was a famous encounter years later in London. Corelli was known to have a quirk: he refused to play any note higher than high D on the E string. He felt that that was as high as music should go. None of his violin pieces, and there are a few, have any notes higher than D. Everybody knew this, including Handel. During one concert Corelli was supposed to play on sight a violin sonata by Handel. Just to spite his competitor, Handel inserted a high E in the score. Corelli played the sonata beautifully up to that point, saw the note, stopped and walked off the stage. A rather sad story of a rigid old master and an unkind, if supremely talented, challenger.
Handel is rightly famous for his operas, oratorios, and organ concertos and concerti grossi. He also wrote a number of keyboard suites. The keyboard suite no. 7 in G minor, in six parts, was composed around 1720. Handel had just recently founded an opera company, Royal Academy of Music; it was funded by a group of English aristocrats, and Handel assumed the position of Master of the Orchestra. He would write several masterpieces for the opera company, for example, Giulio Cesare and Ottone. Extremely productive, he also found time to write this grand keyboard piece (here). The pianist is the 24-year-old Andrei Gavrilov. In 1979 he accompanied Sviatoslav Richter to Tours, France, where Richter had established a music festival. There each of them performed several of Handel’s keyboard suites, turning score pages while the other played (just to remind you: Gavrilov had won the Tchaikovsky Competition five years earlier but was otherwise relatively unknown. Richter, world-famous, was 40 years his senior).
Gioachino Rossini was also born this week, on February 29th, 1792 in Pesaro. His mother was a singer and his father – a horn player (Rossini himself would eventually learn to play the horn). When he was eight, he was brought to Bologna where he received his initial musical education. He later went to the Conservatory of Bologna to study cello. There he fell in love with the music of Mozart. He wrote his first opera, La cambiale di matrimonio (The Marriage Contract) at the age of 18. His most famous opera, Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), was written in 1816 when Rossini was only 24. Later in his life Rossini claimed that he wrote Il Barbiere in 12 days. The researchers think that it actually took him two or three weeks, still an astonishing feat. The first performance took place in the Teatro Argentina in Rome and was not successful: fans of Giovanni Paisiello's opera on the same subject practically sabotaged the premier. The second performance was successful, and the opera has never left the world stage since then. Right now, for example, it is being performed at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, with the young American baritone Nathan Gunn as Figaro. Probably the most famous aria of the opera, which is filled with tunes that have became familiar to millions, is the very first one, sung as Figaro enters the stage. Called Largo al Factotum (Make way to the factotum, a servant responsible for many tasks), it is not only technically difficult, but is being performed while the singer’s voice is not completely warmed up. Here’s the great Tito Gobbi in a 1957 recording.
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