Friday, October 28, 2011

NBC Symphony: Rossini's Barber of Seville Overture

The NBC Symphony Orchestra performs Rossini's "The Barber of Seville" Overture, with Arturo Toscanini conducting, on June 28, 1945, in New York City. It is called "Il barbiere di Siviglia" in the original Italian tongue.

Gioachino Rossini composed this two-act opera, and Cesare Sterbini wrote the libretto for the sharp-witted comedy.   Small wonder, since The Barber is based on Pierre Beaumarchais's Le Barbier de Séville (1775), a play that was originally conceived as an opéra comique, but never staged as such. Forty-one years later, Rossini's opera made its debut, with the title Almaviva, or the Useless Precaution at the Teatro Argentina, in Rome, Italy, on February 20, 1816. The setting is Seville, Spain, in the 17th century.  But it is often placed in more modern times, depending on whom is mounting the production. (Here is the opera's synopsis.)

Rossini's opera forms the first of the plays from the Figaro trilogy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais; noteworthy is Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro), which was composed 30 years earlier in 1786.

The Barber remains one of the most popular operas still performed today, likely because it's a very human comedy of ordinary people going about their business with strange outcomes. Of course, in the original Beaumarchais production, it spoke about the absurdity of social classes, which caught the eye of French censors.

As for the barber as a profession, it is interesting to note that in medieval times, the barber-surgeon was  considered an important position: he not only cut hair but was also involved in medical procedures such as pulling teeth, performing surgery on minor wounds, amputating limbs or administering leeches in a form of blood-letting.

As medicine thankfully become more scientific, the barber-surgeon was separated into two distinct professions, one becoming more prestigious than the other. In France (in 1743) and England (in 1745) barber-surgeons who cut or shaved hair were forbidden by law to perform surgery, but some still performed such practices surreptitiously. Most of the former barber-surgeons turned their hand to wig-making, whose practice was soon imported to America. In 1800 the College of Surgery was founded in England, thus bringing medicine into the modern age.

Since Rossini wrote the score in three weeks, he had to re-use previous work, including the overture. This piece is famous to the many viewers of "The Bugs Bunny Show," a cartoon that has been on TV for decades. My two young boys still watch the show, and the overture, at least a parody of it, is prominent in one of the episodes dating from 1950 (see here).

Gioachino Antonio Rossini [1792-1868]: "Every kind of music is good, except the boring kind."
Photo Credit: Félix Nadar (1820-1910).; Taken in 1858.
Source: Wikipedia


  1. I think Rossini was one of the greatest composers who ever lived. His music is popular but not sufficiently respected, since many people think greatness is related to complexity or turmoil. The closing section of the William Tell overture--the theme music for The Lone Ranger--sends me into ecstasy. When I was a child, pre-television, I listened to the theme music on the radio and then turned it off for the rest of the program. My elementary school classmates referred to the Lone Ranger and his horse, Silver, as the Long Stranger and his horse, Saliva.

  2. Dear Prof Jochnowitz:

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on how Rossini made your life more enjoyable, a memory that you still carry today many years later. I think that's one of the dual beauties of good music—its universal and eternal sense.


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