For a man famously hailed by Stendhal in 1824 as the new Napoleon, conquering the world with his music, Gioachino Rossini was notably unwilling to engage with the grand political struggles of his day. But in a letter written in 1864, just a few years before his death, and in the midst of the final push towards Italian unification, Rossini took issue with his reputation as a reactionary.
In 1815, he pointed out, he had composed a Hymn to Independence (to a text by Giovanni Battista Giusti), and that when he conducted it, the word ‘indipendenza’ had ‘aroused lively enthusiasm as intoned by me in my then resonant voice and repeated by the people, choruses, etc.’
The work’s background was simple enough: on Napoleon’s escape from Elba, his brother-in-law Joachim Murat, ex-King of Naples, declared war on Austria, and on 30 March gave the Rimini proclamation, calling for Italian independence. In Bologna, Austrian forces were briefly defeated, inspiring the performance of Rossini’s Hymn in the Teatro Catavalli on 15 April, in the presence of Murat himself: just one day later the Austrians retook the city; the music is now lost.
As a result, Rossini was put under suspicion (and possibly arrested) by the Austrian authorities. But an anecdote later spread that Rossini promptly reset the music to pro-Austrian lyrics, to gain free passage to leave the city, as recounted in Eugene de Mirecourt’s later biography 'Rossini' (Paris: Gustave Harvard, 1855).
Contested by later biographers (and by Rossini himself), the anecdote's widespread appeal is nonetheless telling; both in its characterisation of the composer’s eye to expediency, and to the piquancy of handing over to the bands of the Austrian army the exact music that days before had momentarily served as an Italian Marseillaise.
Text and translation of 'Inno dell’Indipendenza' by Giovanni Battista Giusti, taken from Gaia Servadio’s 'Rossini' (London: Constable, 2003) p. 44.
Sorgi, italia, venuta è già l'ora:
l’alto fato compir si dovrà
dallo stretto di Scilla alla Dora
in sol regno d’Italia sarà.
Del nemico alla presenza
quando l’armi impugnerà
un sol regno e indipendenza
gridi Italia, e vincerà.
Italy, arise; the time has come,
high fate will come true
from the straits of Sicily to the Alps
and there will be only one Kingdom.
When you take up arms in the
presence of the enemy, shout:
a sole kingdom, independence,
Italy and victory will be yours.