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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Gioachino Rossini: Overture to “William Tell”

Okay. This is the last Rossini piece–for a while at least.  The “William Tell Overture” is another one of those pieces that has been used so much in the popular culture that all you have to do is hum a few bars of it and you get instant recognition. Unfortunately, this usually comes in the form of someone shouting “Hi Ho Silver. Away!” You know why:  the last part of this overture was used as the theme from the Lone Ranger television series. That’s where I first heard it at least.

Mad Magazine once had a funny cartoon which showed a school teacher trying to teach a music appreciation class. She tells her young charges that she is going to put on Overture to “William Tell”, and though it was used for The Lone Ranger she wanted them to try extra hard not to think about that show while they listened. Instead she wanted them to concentrate on the beautiful music. She puts it on and they kids all close their eyes and squint very hard to block out all the mental images. Suddenly the principal opens the door to the classroom and shouts: “Hi Ho Silver. Away!”

I had the same reaction when discussing the piece with my friend, Paul M***, in high school. He told me that that tune was only one part of the entire overture and that he actually preferred the other melodies in it. So I went to my copy of the Rossini overtures and gave it a more thorough listen.

Rossini is not known for his other, non-operatic, works. I think he wrote a piece called Stabat Mater and maybe even a Requiem, but these too would be vocal works. What the overtures show, however, is that he was a master of melody, orchestration, and also could write for solo instruments as well. For example, the overture to William Tell starts with a beautiful cello solo. This gives way to Rossini’s “storm” section, in which the strings and flutes give the impression of a wind and rain drops. This eventually develops into a huge cataclysm, which I think is supposed to depict a storm at sea. I’ve heard this storm used many times on TV and film, especially in the Bugs Bunny cartoons. After the storm dies away, there follows a beautiful pastoral interlude. I believe this represents the hero, his ship having been wrecked, waking up in the sunlight on the shore of an island. Flutes dance around representing butterflies flitting from flower to flower. Finally, we get the famous horn blasts that then give way to the famous theme that takes us to the end.

This piece still reminds me of Lone Ranger, but so what? I don’t like it any less for the association. The Lone Ranger was a good guy who was a shining upright example of heroism. Wasn’t William Tell supposed to be the same? There are so few positive male role models on television, in the movies, in politics, on the world stage. Though I might start sounding like an old fogy in a minute, it makes me long for the times when there were shining examples whom we’d like to emulate.

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Gioacchino Rossini: “Largo al Factotum” from The Barber of Seville

I’m going to shift gears from writing about the passionate and romantic piano concertos that formed the subject of the past several previous entries. Maybe this change results from a comment that my friend John Kim made, when I told him about all the gushing Romantic pieces that I listened to in high school. He said, “weren’t there any fun things you listened to?” In fact there was–The Barber of Seville. So this week, I’m going to write about several arias from this opera.

A while back, here, I wrote about its overture, which I first heard used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. For some reason I was able to memorize it, and I would use it to break the monotony of the hundreds of laps we had to swim each day on the swim team. I used to be able to whistle it as well. I learned to whistle from my father, who always seemed to have a tune on his lips. I wonder if this is genetic: my daughter when she was in middle school was often reprimanded for whistling tunes in the hall and sometimes during class at school.

The Barber of Seville probably ranks as one of the most well known and popular of all operas. Rossini actually composed 36 operas from the age of 18 until 37, many of the overtures to which also get considerable airplay. (And which have been pirated–remember the theme from the Lone Ranger? It’s actually from the overture to his opera William Tell.) But the Barber which Rossini composed at the age of 24, was his ne plus ultra. Had he composed only this one piece, his reputation probably would the same.

Rossini started out as a cellist and composer, and was especially influenced by Mozart. He had a great ear for melody, of course, but he also understood the human voice. Nowhere does this show than in the The Barber of Seville in which the arias and grouping of the vocalists–duos, trios, quartets–are so masterfully composed that they soar and amaze.

What the Barber also shows is that Rossini additionally possessed a superb sense of humor coupled with a zest for life. Much of this comes out in his characters, but particularly in the pieces given to the role of Figaro, that is the barber of this work.

The aria Largo al Factotum introduces Figaro’s entrance on the stage. Figaro is a “fixer,” who by the end of the opera will help Count Almaviva, his old employer (from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro), capture the heart of the maiden, Rosina. We don’t know of the connection between the Figaro and the Count, who has just finished paying off some musician when the barber arrives. Figaro appears singing a perky, boasting aria in which he talks about how much he loves his job as a barber and go-between. The job keeps him hopping–he shaves the faces of the rich young bloods, prepares wigs for them and for the rich young ladies and bleeds everyone–but it has its perks, especially among the young ladies, “la, la, la, la!”
The words are funny, true, but what makes it so incredible is that the baritone must sing it faster and faster as he nears the end. You normally think of the deep bass voice as being serious, but at one point, he sings in falsetto, imitating the ladies calling him for his services. And of course, there is the familiar: “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” which, even if you know nothing about opera, you probably have sung once in your life.

My high school friend, Paul Ma***, whose family introduced me to many works of classical music, told me that the Barber of Seville was a good place to start listening to opera. He was the one who told me that this aria by Figaro was called Largo al Factotum, which means “make way for the jack-of-all-trades.” He also recommended a recording of it, which, since it costs a whopping $15.99 in 1972, I persuaded my parents to buy it for me as a birthday present that year. They were puzzled, but complied.

Around the time I received my copy of it, Paul told me he had recently heard the Barber on a Saturday broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco. During Largo al Factotum aria, the soloist actually started singing lines in English that made fun of the other singers. That caught my attention. It showed me that this serious stuff called “classical music” actually had some humorous soul who practiced it.

Needless to say, this was one of the best birthday presents I ever received, and giving it a spin today to refresh my memory, I find that it still makes me smile.

Gioachino Rossini: Overture to Semiramide

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

Buy CD or Download MP3 from Amazon

Gioacchino Rossini: “Largo al Factotum” from The Barber of Seville

I’m going to shift gears from writing about the passionate and romantic piano concertos that formed the subject of most of my several previous entries. Maybe this change results from a comment that my friend John Kim made, when I told him about all the gushing Romantic pieces that I listened to in high school. He said, “weren’t there any fun things you listened to?” In fact there was–The Barber of Seville. So this week, I’m going to write about several arias from this opera.

A while back, here, I wrote about its overture, which I first heard used in a Bugs Bunny cartoon. For some reason I was able to memorize it, and I would use it to break the monotony of the hundreds of laps we had to swim each day on the swim team. I used to be able to whistle it as well. I learned to whistle from my father, who always seemed to have a tune on his lips. I wonder if this is genetic: my daughter when she was in middle school was often reprimanded for whistling tunes in the hall and sometimes during class at school.

The Barber of Seville probably ranks as one of the most well known and popular of all operas. Rossini actually composed 36 operas from the age of 18 until 37, many of the overtures to which also get considerable airplay. (And which have been pirated–remember the theme from the Lone Ranger? It’s actually from the overture to his opera William Tell.) But the Barber which Rossini composed at the age of 24, was his ne plus ultra. Had he composed only this one piece, his reputation probably would the same.

Rossini started out as a cellist and composer, and was especially influenced by Mozart. He had a great ear for melody, of course, but he also understood the human voice. Nowhere does this show than in the The Barber of Seville in which the arias and grouping of the vocalists–duos, trios, quartets–are so masterfully composed that they soar and amaze.

What the Barber also shows is that Rossini additionally possessed a superb sense of humor coupled with a zest for life. Much of this comes out in his characters, but particularly in the pieces given to the role of Figaro, that is the barber of this work.

The aria Largo al Factotum introduces Figaro’s entrance on the stage. Figaro is a “fixer,” who by the end of the opera will help Count Almaviva, his old employer (from Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro), capture the heart of the maiden, Rosina. We don’t know of the connection between the Figaro and the Count, who has just finished paying off some musician when the barber arrives. Figaro appears singing a perky, boasting aria in which he talks about how much he loves his job as a barber and go-between. The job keeps him hopping-he shaves the faces of the rich young bloods, prepares wigs for them and for the rich young ladies and bleeds everyone-but it has its perks, especially among the young ladies, “la, la, la, la!”
The words are funny, true, but what makes it so incredible is that the baritone must sing it faster and faster as he nears the end. You normally think of the deep bass voice as being serious, but at one point, he sings in falsetto, imitating the ladies calling him for his services. And of course, there is the familiar: “Figaro! Figaro! Figaro!” which, even if you know nothing about opera, you probably have sung once in your life.

My high school friend, Paul Mankowski, whose family introduced me to many works of classical music, told me that the Barber of Seville was a good place to start listening to opera. He was the one who told me that this aria by Figaro was called Largo al Factotum, which means “make way for the jack-of-all-trades.” He also recommended a recording of it, which, since it costs a whopping $15.99 in 1972, I persuaded my parents to buy it for me as a birthday present that year. They were puzzled, but complied.

Around the time I received my copy of it, Paul told me he had recently heard the Barber on a Saturday broadcast of the Metropolitan Opera, sponsored by Texaco. During Largo al Factotum aria, the soloist actually started singing lines in English that made fun of the other singers. That caught my attention. It showed me that this serious stuff called “classical music” actually had some humorous soul who practiced it.

Needless to say, this was one of the best birthday presents I ever received, and giving it a spin today to refresh my memory, I find that it still makes me smile.

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