Giocchino Rossini: Overture to “La Gazza Ladra”

Seeing that today’s composer is once again Rossini, you might think I have some sort of obsession with him or his works. Rather, I think my fixation is more on music that makes me happy, that buoys my spirits, that takes my breath away. Rossini’s pieces do that for me, and therefore never lose their freshness for that reason.

Like most of my early musical education, my discovery of this piece goes back to the M*** family, whose son Paul was a big influence on my musical and intellectual development in high school. In 1972, when I told him that I liked The Barber of Seville he suggested I buy a recording of the overtures from a number of Rossini’s other operas. It was on the Vox or Nonesuch label–ergo, cheap—and contained the overture to William Tell, The Italian Girl in Algiers, The Barber, and today’s feature La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie). The orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony, did a serviceable job. This music is so joyous, familiar, and often played, that even the Navy SEAL Band could probably squeeze out a fairly good rendition of them.

The overture to La Gazza Ladra starts out sounding like a militaristic march with snare drums, and trumpet blasts. Eventually, the strings come in, almost with the feeling of a strong wind or cyclone that blows all that away. Next the orchestra begins playing the theme, which has a kind of eastern mystical feeling about it. Eventually this gives way to a device that Rossini often used, the temporale or storm. He captures the feeling of a gale-force storm by using fast violin runs, trumpet and trombone blasts, and the crash of tympanis. The storm eventually blows off, and the orchestra returns to recap the theme. Rossini then brings back the storm again, slightly shorter this time. The theme comes back again, but altered. It now sounds more like a ballet or a waltz and has almost an oom-pah-pah feeling to it. The momentum starts to grow. Rossini adds piccolos, triangles, woodwinds to perk things up. It starts to sound more Italian and joyous and happy all the way to the ending.

When the movie, A Clockwork Orange came out in the summer of 1972, I desperately wanted to see it. Being only 17 at the time, however, I was turned away at the box office since it had an “X” rating. I read the book and bought the soundtrack, however, which also had an abridged version of the overture to La Gazza Ladra on it.

I did not actually get to see A Clockwork Orange until about 15 or 20 years later, when as an adult I rented it and watched it at home. What I saw upset me. It turns out that Kurbrick, the director, used this joyous overture as the background music to a stylized gang-rape. You know what? I’m glad I didn’t see it when it came out. I dread to think what demented associations would have formed in my own adolescent mind.

There is a kind of flawed logic here. The director wants to show the evils of fascism and how it crushes down the creative impulse in people. The people then do incredibly violent and destructive things, perverting art in the process. (Recently, I saw an interview with a Libyan man after NATO forces started its mission to oust Muammar al-Gaddafi. The man said that now that Gaddafi was gone and the populace was no longer oppressed, people were starting to treat each other kindly.)  But it’s one thing to comment on the soul crushing nature of fascism, and quite another to turn it into a ballet. Do you need to actually create that same perversion on screen? Are movies really the right place to try to make such subtle points? Movies, being visual, are much more immediate and leave a much more lasting impression on the mind. During the Reagan era, for example, someone once criticized his press secretary of propaganda. In one photo-op they arranged for the president to cut a ribbon on a new nursing home, even though Reagan had just cut funds for senior care. The press secretary, when the contradiction was brought to his attention said he didn’t care. The visual message is what got across and what stuck with people.

I’m not sure why Kubrick did this to the overture to La Gazza Ladra. To me, music is very powerful, and that is why it needs to be kept as far away from politics as possible. Fortunately, I can still partake of the joy in this piece. I wonder if Kubrick was able to.

About kurtnemes
Writer and Education Professional. Specialties include Ethics, Personal Memoir, Classical music, Tai Chi, Stress Reduction, Meditation, Coping, Classical Music, Aging, Love, Joy, Compassion and Equanimity (& what interests me.)

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