The art of opera and ballet was born in Europe, specifically in the Italian courts. So it only seems appropriate to spend a little time learning about the artists who wrote the arias opera singers still sing and the melodies ballet performances dancers continue to dance. Composers are essential to many art forms, contemporary and classic. Here are four we feel you need to know.
This French operatic composer was born on October 9, 1835 in Paris as an only child. His father died shortly after his birth and he was sent to the country to live for the first two years of his life. After that Saint-Saëns returned to Paris and lived with his mother and aunt. By the age of ten, after learning piano from a great-aunt, Saint-Saëns was considered a child prodigy.
His mother was well aware of what young fame meant and was hesitant to have Saint-Saëns show off his talents. Yet she would allow him to give small shows when he was five. Still, his official public debut was at the age of ten when he played Mozart’s Piano Concerto in B and Beethoven’s Third Piano Concerto.
Saint-Saëns began his studies at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of thirteen in 1848 but he would focus on studying the organ until 1851, since it was believed that there was more work for organists at the time. It was in that year that Saint-Saëns began to train in composition.
In 1853 Saint-Saëns graduated and took a position of organist at the Saint-Merri, a church in Paris. He would go on to a more high-profile church in 1858, La Madeleine, which was the Empire’s official church.
Success in opera wouldn’t come to Saint-Saëns until 1872, when he finally had one of his operas produced. La princesse jaune, or The Yellow Princess, was a romantic piece consisting of one-act. It debuted at the Opéra-Comique in June and ran for only five performances.
Opera was an important avenue for French composers of the 19th century and Saint-Saëns began to feel the pressure from younger composers. In 1877 his first full-length opera was staged. Le timbre d’argent, or The Silver Bell, was a four-act “drama lyricque.” The rehearsals began seven years earlier but the outbreak of war put a hold on the production.
That same year Saint-Saëns would find operatic success with his work Samson et Dalila, the only opera from his repertoire to reach international acclaim. The original staging of this opera would not happen until 1892 when it premiered at the Paris Opéra.
Saint-Saëns would also go on to write more operas and achieve great successes in the musical world for the next few decades. His final performance was given to a large audience at the Institute. It is said that his playing was as clean and tight as when he was a younger man. A few months later he died in Algiers from a heart attack.
Watch Samson et Dalila here today, performed at Vlaamse Opera in Antwerp, Belgium!
Hailing from Italy, Gioachino Antonio Rossini was born to a poor musician father and mother who was a singer. As fate would have it Rossini grew up in the theater. Singing and music came easy to Rossini while his other school subjects were uninteresting to him. He began studying music at Bologna’s Philharmonic School where he composed Demetrio e Poliboio, his first opera seria. By the age of fifteen Rossini could play the violin, horn, and harpsichord all while continuing to sing in public, including some theaters, to earn money.
Once his voice changed his singing career was over so Rossini accompanied musically and then became a conductor. Rossini appreciated the German’s influence on opera composition, especially that of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Rossini found himself drawn to the comic opera, or opera buffa, composing his first titled La cambiale di martimonio (The Bill of Marriage). It was performed in Venice in 1810 and was an instant hit. After a few more hits Rossini decided to sway from traditional attempts of composing opera buffe, which resulted in lively finales and unorthodox rhythms.
In 1813 Rossini broke away from comedy and tried his hand with opera seria, or serious opera. As with his comedies, works like Tancredi and L’Italiana in Algeri were instant successes.
It was in 1816 that Rossini composed il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville), which is arguably his most notable opera. Doing very well in every other Italian city besides Rome, il barbiere di Siviglia is still performed and adored to this day.
After barbiere Rossini composed many operas, concertos, piano pieces and more until 1829 when he premiered William Tell, which first introduced the unmistakable “William Tell Overture.” This musical piece has been used in films and cartoons throughout history since it was first scribed.
Rossini settled in Paris in 1855. Wealthy, retired, and happily married Rossini relaxed into old age by having famous friends for dinner and amusing anyone who would listen with his astounding wit.
George Frideric Handel
Part of the Baroque period German composer George Frideric Handel was born in 1685 and had a desire to study music at a very young age. His father, Georg, was not on board with this idea since he considered this journey to be unreliable to earning a living wage. The elder Handel didn’t even let his son play an instrument. If it weren’t for the sneaky approach his mother took to support his dreams, some of Germany’s most revered operas may not exist.
By his late teens Handel had already studied the organ and violin under Frideric Wilhelm Zachow and was well on his way into composing his own works. Still, Handel’s father insist he choose another profession and reluctantly the younger Handel was admitted to the law program at the University of Halle. Yet, he would drop out shortly since his passion for music was too hard to overcome.
At eighteen he took a position as a violinist at the Hamburg Opera’s Goose Market Theater. He would also give lessons to earn extra money. His first opera Almira premiered in 1705 and it was an instant hit. It ran for twenty performances and Handel went on to compose more operas that were successes. It was then that Handel was inspired to travel to Italy.
While in Italy Handel composed Agrippina and Rodrigo but he learned about the music scene in London so he decided to head there to see how he did. Handel was commissioned to compose an opera for the King’s Theater and the result was Rinaldo, which was the piece that put him on the operatic map. Upon his success Handel went on to produce more works for English royalty and subsequently became a citizen of that nation.
Still, his roots are in Germany and that is why he made out list of operatic composers today. After suffering a stroke in 1737 the public thought he would never write again but he was stubborn and in six weeks he was not only composing more work he was back at the organ playing.
Handel had a second stroke in 1743 but again, he recovered quickly and astounded audiences with his compositions and organ work. Then, in 1750, Handel lost his vision in one eye but he was determined to keep working on music. Two years later he lost sight in his other eye and was officially blind. Yet, his persistence and tenacity proved to be his greatest strength. Handel relied on his memory to still compose and still create music. An amazing feat by not only a blind man, but a composer who met with so much physical and familial opposition.
In 1759 the door on his creation was finally shut when Handel died at his place in London. He was seventy-four years old, a young age by today’s standards. Since he had not children of his own Handel distributed his fortune among his servants and a good deal of charitable organizations.
By time he died the legacy of his work would be left behind in nearly fifty operas and thirty oratorios, not to mention his orchestral works and concerti grossi. A museum at his home in London was established in 2001 and there one can visit the rooms where the man wrote an astonishing number of operatic works.
Our next operatic composer from the beautiful country of Italy is Gaetano Donizetti, who began his studies with Giovanni Simone Mayr, who was the musical director of Bergamo’s main church Sta. Maria Maggiore. While singing in the choir Donizetti did not stand out from the other boys by Mayr recognized his musical talent and helped him get into music school in Bologna. His father wanted him to compose religious music but Donizetti followed his passion toward theater and opera.
Enrico di Borgogna premiered in 1818 and was where Donizetti found his initial success. Composer of seventy-five operas, sixteen symphonies, nearly twenty string quartets and nearly two-hundred songs Donizetti was known to be amazingly prolific when it came to writing. Some say he could compose a three act opera in ten days’ time. His personal life was not so wonderful having lost his wife after only ten years of marriage. All of his three children also died due to illnesses or accidents. The sadness that brought to his life would never go away.
Among other composers like Rossini and Bellini, Donizetti was known to be kindhearted and helpful. The three Italian opera composers we have listed so far were known as masters of the “bel canto” style of composing.
Donizetti’s most notable works include Lucia di Lammamoor, L’Elisir d’Amore, Polluto, and Don Pasquale.
By the age of forty-five Donizetti began to suffer some serious health issues. He began to show symptoms of syphilis and bipolar disorder. Three years later Donizetti suffered a stroke, which led to paralysis while showing signs of dementia. He was then committed to an insane asylum in Paris. At the age of 50 he returned to his hometown Bergamo where he died.
Watch L’Elisir d’Amore today, performed at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden, Germany!