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Why Gioachino Rossini's music is so funny

Gioachino Rossini, whose leap-day birthday is marked by Google on Wednesday, had a gift for comic timing that would be recognized by today's sitcom writers. 

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"The way it piles up, plus sheer speed of it, is really funny," Ledbetter notes. 

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Rossini, too, was one of the fathers of the frantic Act I finale now common in stage productions of every stripe. You can spot it in sitcoms, too. "In the first act, things are constantly changing, dragging on, and getting, more complicated and more frantic," Ledbetter says. "By the end, everyone is running around like crazy. Then in the second act they solve everything. Rossini took that idea and made it a formula."

In his early years, Rossini didn’t focus much on orchestrations, probably because they are more time consuming and complicated to write than vocal lines (lazy). But when he did, he was cognizant of the opportunities for humor there as well. "He is very careful about how he uses instruments," says Phillip Gossett, a professor emeritus of music at Chicago University, and one of the leading scholars on Rossini. "In the Barber overture, for instance, he uses a bass drum. Then we don’t hear bass drum again until the middle," in a moment of perfect comic timing. Frequent use of the crescendo technique, where the music gradually builds in volume and speed to a climax, was another Rossini calling card, earning him the nickname "Monsiueur Crescendo" during his career.

"[Barber] has a sense of laughing at itself and the whole genre, " Dr. Gossett adds. "Great fun within the opera taking advantage of techniques that are characteristic of opera and using them pointedly. There’s a self irony there, and he’s very aware of it."

As a result, filmmakers and commercial directors have mined Rossini for comedy countless times. For instance, "Seinfeld" and "Curb Your Enthusiam" creator Larry David is a frequent Rossini user: The Seinfeld episode "The Barber" is scored entirely from the opera.

But Rossini wasn’t all laughs: At the height of his fame, he was better known for his serious operas, most of which faded entirely into obscurity until very recently, owing mostly to the popularity of his later contemporaries, Verdi and Wagner. Their work was weighty and genre-bending, making Rossini’s tragedies seem safe and outdated by comparison. In 1816, Rossini wrote an operatic adaptation of "Othello," for example, that had a happy ending, which hewed to the formal constraints of opera at the time. When Verdi wrote his Othello some 70 years later, the ending was true to Shakespeare.

So, is Rossini’s comic reputation fair, or should he be regarded in a more serious light?

"I don’t think we want him to recover from it," says Gossett. "I want him to get credit as more complex, but I don’t want him to recover because it’s very funny, and it functions extremely well." 

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