Classic Mornings

Leaps For Keeps


He’s a celebrated composer, but just not very often with a birthday celebration. It’s not because anybody forgot or lost interest. Gioachino Rossini was born on February 29,1792. So he doesn’t have a birthday every year, not to mention all the attention that comes with one.

He didn’t have one last year. Nor did he have one 2 years ago when it was 225 years since he was born. Now to be fair, November 13, 2018 marked the 150th anniversary of his passing. But that’s not the same as celebrating a birthday.

Next year is a leap year, complete with a February 29th.  It’ll be 228 years since Rossini was born. That’s not a milestone number. And that seems to the sort of humorous predicament that’s a part of the composer’s legacy. Rossini’s birthdays rarely fell during what otherwise would be milestone years.

Some folks total the number of birthdays Rossini actually was able to celebrate and give a “celebrated age.”  With that calculation, he lived to be 18. Given the logic in all of that, he would have had his 50th birthday in 2000. And his 75th will be coming up in 2104! 

I did look to see how many leap years actually fell on milestone Rossini birthdays. In 1808 he turned 16. That’s sort of a milestone. In 1812, he turned 20. These days a 21st birthday overshadows the 20th  In 1832 he was 40. That’s special. And in 1852 he was 60.

That’s it. He did have 120th, 140th and 160th birthday anniversary celebrations, but not a 125th, a 150th or a 175th. There was a centennial celebration in 1892 and a bicentennial celebration in 1992. But that means the next really “big one” will be the tricentennial in 2092.

The more I thought about it, I began to realize that there’s a comic opera or musical in all of this. And who else to have as the subject of a stage work than Rossini! 

I started to toy with an idea inspired by the Marx Brothers film A Night at the Opera, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and an event that took place in 1804. That’s the year Rossini got to celebrate a 3rd birthday and when he turned 12.

During that year, Rossini wrote his 6 string sonatas or ‘sonate a quattro’ for a wealthy businessman and amateur double bass player by the name of Agostino Trossi. Rossini once said that he wrote them over the course of just 3 days. And because there were no viola players available to the young Rossini at the time, he wrote the sonatas for 2 violins, cello and double bass. Trossi’s cousins played violin and cello. Rossini joined the threesome as second violinist.

Rossini called the pieces and playing terrible when the four musicians first performed them. But I understand that he revisited the works years later and “cleaned them up.”  All but one of the sonatas were published as string quartets (2 violins, viola and cello) and as quartets for flute, violin, viola and cello. The manuscripts with the original instrumentation were re-discovered in the early 1950s in the Library of Congress.  In our time, they’re played most often by string orchestras.

The sonatas came to the attention of Rossini’s contemporary: clarinetist Friedrich Beer (pronounced like “bear”). His father, Jacob Beer is said to have been such a bear of a teacher that Friedrich ran away from home. Eventually he encountered another clarinettest by the name of Joseph Beer, which made Friedrich change his family name spelling to Berr (also pronounced “bear”). Berr arranged the 5 published Rossini sonatas for flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon.

Now with that background, here’s the idea for a Rossini opera or stage work. It has to do with a suggestion by Trossi that the players come together to celebrate Rossini’s birthday and play the sonatas once again.  After wearing themselves out trying to determine the most appropriate Rossini birthday from among those available during leap years, they decide upon the 20th anniversary of the sonatas on Rossini’s 7th celebrated birthday in his 32nd year. It’s intended to be a surprise. The gathering is to take place in an elegant dressing room of an opera house, where the now successful Rossini is present for the production of one of his operas.

What Rossini doesn’t know - and neither do Trossi and his cousins – is that 3 unknown and bungling characters happen to show up at the opera house. They’re part of a Carnevale celebration that makes its way into another of the dressing rooms. They catch wind of the “surprise” and masquerade as the string players – with the help of instruments they “borrow” from the orchestra pit – in hopes of meeting the great Rossini.

The 3 Beers/Berrs are invited as well. And for some bizarre reason, 3 actual bears make their way into the small crowd.

Rossini constantly finds himself somewhere between backstage, the birthday party guests and the Carnevale revelers. In all of the commotion, he ends up in the room with the mystery players. He simply assumes that they’ve changed in all the years since he last saw them. Besides, they’re in costume.

There’s also a cast party going on at a nearby theatre. One of the actors keeps showing up at the Rossini party, claiming that they’ve been expecting him, much to the annoyance of the all.

What happens? I haven’t gotten beyond that. But I’ve had fun getting that far and sharing it with you. It was a more interesting way of celebrating Rossini’s birthday in a non-birthday year than if I had just told you he doesn’t have a birthday this year.