Gioachino Rossini: Overture to Semiramide

In 1973, even though I had changed my major from computer science to English literature, Purdue University still required me to take a course in the hard sciences. To make it easier on us liberal arts “thickies” they offered a number of science courses designed with a humanistic slant.

I had done pretty well in high school biology–getting an A by doing a meticulous insect collection–so at Purdue I signed up for the biology course, entitled “Man and The Biological World.” The course was taught by an enthusiastic professor of genetics by the name of Alfred Chiscon, who was one of the most broad minded and galvanizing speakers I’ve ever seen. He constantly challenged our beliefs and assumptions from a scientific stand point. In this class I learned that there was no such scientific term as “race,” since all humans had the same number of chromosomes and could interbreed and produce fertile offspring. That painted more clearly than anything else for me why racism was purely a political construct, used by the powerful (by whatever accident of fate made them so) to oppress others. One book we read said that if people were forced to interbreed, in just one or two generations everyone on the planet would have the same skin color, which would do away with racism. Of course, we’d probably find something else to use as a basis of discrimination–eye color for example.

In another class, he told the story of a young man who went blind for some mysterious reason. It turned out that he was overly reactive to cyanide. Cyanide, for some reason, concentrates in and destroys the optic nerve. Seems like no problem, since we don’t normally come in contact with cyanide. However, the young man had a roommate who smoked, and since cigarette smoke has large concentrations of cyanide in it, there was the cause of the blindness. After that, I had no objection to laws trying to outlaw smoking in public.

I was absolutely riveted by his classes and I sat in the first row of the lecture hall which sat about 500 students. One day after class, the teacher singled me out and asked me to come to his office to talk with him. I was a bit hesitant, but he was very friendly. He listened to me as I explained my dreams, ideas, and dissatisfaction with Purdue. Then he told me that I had to look really hard into myself to find my true desires and then follow them. “You’ve got to stand bare-assed naked in front of a mirror and just look at yourself.”

As we neared the end of the semester, I got a card in the mail from him inviting me to a party at his house. I arrive and he greeted me at the door and welcomed me and introduced me to his wife and gave me a tour. He and his wife had just adopted an African-American child, who was just learning to walk. I was so amazed at what a wonderfully nurturing and open-minded person he was, and I’ve put him into my personal Pantheon of role models, who have had an impact on and even changed my life. For I did look deep into myself and realize I had to leave Purdue. I applied to Indiana University and got accepted.

To remember Al today, I chose a fun overture to Rossini’s opera, Semiramide. This opera is a tale of intrigue about the Queen of Babylon, who is conflicted by her duty to choose a successor and the desires of her heart. What I particularly like about this piece is how Rossini manages to tell an entire story through different instruments, melodies, and rhythms. As in many of his overtures he starts out with an explosive blast, full of pomp and pageantry. The piece then stops and starts off in an entirely different vein, playing a slow beautiful melody in the horns. He soon abruptly changes again, bringing in one of his trademark “storm” interludes, which really gets your blood pumping. After the storm subside, Rossini slows it down again, using oboes and pizzicato violins to lull us into complacency. He alternates several more times between the storm and slow movements, before introducing, after eight stylistic changes, a wonderfully happy, Italian melody. That is the melody that I really love the best among all of Rossini’s uplifting works. Before finishing the nearly 12-minute overture, he changes to a tumultuous section and back to the happy melody several more times.

This is a good piece to represent Al Chiscon. If anyone was full of gusto for life it was Al. He advocated embracing life full-on: looking at the good and the bad, with a focused intellect, while at the same time never losing sight of the passion of what it means to be a human being. Knowing a bit about Rossini’s gusto for life, and the supreme intellect required to bring such a work into the light of day, the choice of Semiramide seems fitting for Al.

Thanks Al, wherever you are.

Rossini Biography

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