Music that speaks an era: Rossini’s ‘Armida’

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Article by Simon Farrugia – Student, School of Performing Arts

Known to some as the ‘Swan of Pesaro’ and to others as ‘Signor Crescendo’, Rossini, hailing from a musical family, had an early exposure to music, undoubtedly paving the way for his future success.[1] In 1825, if asked in Europe who the most important and famous living composer, many would not have thought of Beethoven but would have certainly replied, ‘Gioachino Rossini’. By that time, the composer had become popular in the opera theatres of Bologna, Rome, Milan, Naples, Paris and Vienna.[2]

Rossini’s time in Paris was crucial, witnessing the creation of notable works and substantial contributions to the French musical scene. Although Rossini composed several operas during his residence in Paris from 1824 onwards, it is noteworthy that Armida, one of his significant works, predates his time in the French capital. Armida was composed in Naples and premiered at the Teatro di San Carlo on 11 May 1817, marking the inauguration of the newly rebuilt theatre after it had been destroyed by fire. Rossini, who referred to himself as ‘the last of the classicists’, witnessed a decline in the popularity of his serious works during the Romantic era. Notwithstanding this decline, his comic operas have consistently retained their appeal, and his influence on the structure of later Italian Romantic works remains significant.[3]

Rossini’s musical prowess allowed him to experiment with a variety of dramatic and musical elements. Notably, through his work Armida, Rossini transformed the opera into a cultural document, effectively reflecting the essence of the Romantic era, characterised by its focus on deep personal emotion and its criticism of the developments brought about by the Industrial Revolution. Beyond being a musical composition, Armida emerges as a cultural artefact that provokes a deeper look at the interconnectedness of music and cultural expression. Rossini skilfully forges this through the singers to evoke personal emotions, the chorus to convey societal perspectives, and the orchestration to depict the supernatural and magical elements.

Through the increased role of the chorus throughout the opera, Rossini intended to effectively illustrate the social changes of the time, such as the rise of progressive movements aimed at tackling societal problems and improving the quality of life.

The chorus’ song “Sì, d’amor la reggia è questa, questo è il centro del piacer” in Act II scene 2, bridges the romantic sentiments prevalent during Rossini’s period and those portrayed through the music and libretto. In the final part of this act, Rinaldo is caught in the struggle between his love for the sorceress and his loyalty to his mission. In the duet between the two lovers, the crusader simply repeats Armida’s words, highlighting the turmoil that he is experiencing:

(Armida) A quell’alma tal portento sembra un sogno lusinghier.
A sì strano e lieto evento si confonde il suo pensier.
(Rinaldo) A quest’alma tal portento sembra un sogno lusinghier.
A sì strano e lieto evento si confonde il mio pensier.

The characters in Armida reflect internal struggles and complex emotions. These align with the wider cultural trend of delving into the intricacies of human experience. A case in point is Armida’s aria ‘D’Amore al dolce impero’, where Rossini offers an opportunity for the soprano to exhibit her vocal skill with intricate coloratura passages. Individual feelings are clearly expressed through Rossini’s delicate melodies and the profound emotional resonance of the music, coalescing smoothly with the very spirit of Romanticism.

The fascination with the supernatural, characterised by an attraction towards the fantastical as well as the emotional, had a significant impact on most of the composers of the Romantic period. It expressed a continuous yearning to break free from the constraints of reality. The attraction for sorcerers and witches persisted throughout the nineteenth century, stimulating writers’ and composers’ imaginations and providing rich thematic material for novels, poetry and operas. Composers such as Carl Maria Von Weber, Wagner and Verdi were influenced by contemporary authors, such as Ernst Theodor Hoffmann, Edgar Allan Poe, and the tales of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and sought to translate their ideas into the musical world. Rossini’s Armida employs her magical abilities, richly brought to life through the music, to disrupt Rinaldo from his Christian mission during the Crusade.

As seen in the orchestral introduction to Armida’s enchantments in Act II, Rossini creates an otherworldly atmosphere, employing mysterious harmonies and orchestral techniques to evoke the mystical essence of Armida’s sorcery. In this context, Rossini developed innovative techniques that enhance the opera’s supernatural and magical aspects, reflecting a wider interest in exploring new sounds and effects typical of the Romantic period, while also conveying social significance adeptly through his music.



Hindley, Geoffrey. 1971. The Larousse Encyclopedia of Music (London, New York, Sydney & Toronto: The Hamilyn Publishing Group Limited:)

Grout, Donald & Claude Palisca. 2001. A History of Western Music (New York & London: W. W. Norton & Company)

Latham, Alison (ed.). 2002. The Oxford Companion to Music (New York: Oxford University Press)

Batta, András. 2009. Opera: Composers, Works, Performers (Cologne: Kӧnemann)

Naughtie, James. 2007. The Making of Music: A Journey with Notes (London: John Murray)

Orrey, Leslie & Milnes, Rodney. 1987. Opera: A Concise History (New York: Thames and Hudson)

Lindenberger, Herbert. 1998. Opera in History: From Monteverdi to Cage (Stanford.: Stanford University Press)

Margulis, Elizabeth Hellmuth. 2018. The Psychology of Music: A Very Short Introduction. (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press)

Rosen, Charles. 1995. The Romantic Generation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press)

[1] Hindley 1971: 352

[2] Grout and Palisca 2001: 1-2

[3] Latham (ed.) 2002: 1080

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