Beethoven: Impressions by His Contemporaries compiles remembrances of the great composer by his friends, teachers and fellow artists. The collection, now in public domain, presents “a remarkably full and convincing picture of Beethoven and his time.” In honor of the worldwide celebration of the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth, here’s one of the volume’s many vignettes.
While in Vienna for the premiere of his opera Zelmira (1822), the composer Gioachino Rossini recalled a crucial pilgrimage, made with the Italian poet Giuseppe Carpani:
In Vienna, I heard for the first time one of his symphonies, the Eroica. This music knocked me over. Henceforth I had but one idea: to make the acquaintance of this great genius, to see him, if only once.
Shall I confess it? When I mounted the stairs leading to the poor lodgings of the great man, I barely mastered my emotions. When the door opened, I found myself in a sort of attic terribly disordered and dirty. I remember particularly the ceiling. It showed crevices through which the rain could not help pouring down in streams.
The portraits of Beethoven which we know reproduce fairly well his physiognomy. But what no etcher’s needle could express was the indefinable sadness spread over his features — while from under heavy eyebrows, his eyes shone as from out of caverns, and though small, seemed to pierce one. The voice was soft and slightly veiled.
When we entered, at first he paid no attention to us but remained bent over proofs. Then, raising his head, he said in fairly comprehensible Italian: “Ah! Rossini, you, the composer of the Barbiere di Siviglia? My congratulations, that is an excellent opera buffa. It will be played so long as Italian opera will exist. Do not try your hand at anything but opera buffa. You would be doing violence to your destiny by wanting to succeed in a different genre.”
At this point, Carpani reminded Beethoven of Rossini’s successes with opera seria, including Tancredi and Otello. “Serious opera does not lie in the nature of the Italians,” Beethoven responded. “For the true drama, they know not enough of the science of music, and how should they acquire that in Italy? In opera buffa, none can equal Italians. Your language and your temperament predestine you for it. Look at Cimarosa: how much superior the comic parts in his operas are to the rest! The same with Pergolesi.”
The visit was short. Rossini expressed to him all his admiration for his genius and his gratitude for the opportunity to express it.
Beethoven answered with a deep sigh and the words: “Oh! Un infelice.” Then, wishing Rossini a good performance and success with Zelmira, he rose and conducted us back to the door with the remark: “Above all, do a lot of the Barber.“