Rossini: The Silken Ladder Overture

Rossini was an acclaimed master of the comic opera (opera buffa). Although only a handful of his 39 operas are performed today, the popularity of his overtures has never waned. The Thieving Magpie, The Barber of Seville, William Tell, Italian Girl in Algiers etc. all proclaim the sensuous vitality and brilliance of Rossini’s musical imagination, which laid the foundations for a new generation of romantically inspired music-dramatists.

Tonight’s sparkling overture, The Silken Ladder, is a buoyant curtain-raiser and was an immediate success when first performed in 1812. The rather staid opera has unfortunately not achieved or sustained the popularity of the overture, and is seldom played today.

The overture is one of Rossini’s quickest and most brilliant, distinguished throughout by glorious concertante wind writing. It opens with an animated repeated string note motif, followed by a wistful, elegant oboe solo. The slow introduction leads into first and second subjects, a recapitulation and coda – the whole, being a functional, elegant scaling down of classical sonata form. The strings lead us into the helter-skelter whirlwind of the allegro – a typical piece of harmonic dissimulation where complex interplay of rhythm, phrase length and harmony give us exciting, joyous music.

The specially-constructed, celebrated Rossini crescendos build up during the exposition and recapitulation, and the composer’s signature touches of piccolo add a vibrant quality of orchestral brilliance to the score. Rossini is probably the most neglected and generally misunderstood of all the great nineteenth-century composers. His detractors have labelled him feckless, cynical, and shallow but in essence he was a gifted, influential and complex composer, whose music we can approach, sit back and thoroughly enjoy.