The Kennedy Center

Overture to La gazza ladra (The Thieving Magpie)

About the Work

Gioacchino Rossini Composer: Gioacchino Rossini
© Peter Laki

Rossini's opera La gazza ladra ("The Thieving Magpie") is a sentimental comedy, or opera semiseria, as it was called at the time. Based on a true story, it is about a girl who is about to be executed for stealing a silver spoon when it turns out that the real culprit was a bird. The opera is rarely performed today, but its splendid overture is a beloved concert favorite.

According to a well–known anecdote, Rossini worked on the overture to La gazza ladra right down to the wire; the theater manager supposedly locked him up in a room from where Rossini dropped each completed page out the window for the copyists to pick up. The manager threatened that if there was no music forthcoming, they would drop Rossini out the window instead.

The threat apparently worked and resulted in one of Rossini's greatest overtures. It is distinguished by its opening snare-drum solo which was quite unheard of at the time; it sets the stage for a military march that forms the overture's first section. In his otherwise often unreliable Rossini biography, the great French novelist Stendhal, who was present at the premiere, writes that this march represented a "young conscript [the male lead, Giannetto], covered with medals and glory, returning to the bosom of his rustic family." This is followed by a regular sonata movement filled with unforgettable melodies and brilliant woodwind solos, ending with the inevitable "Rossini crescendo" in which a simple theme is repeated over and over again in ever richer orchestration until a glorious climax is reached.

Stendhal called the premiere of La gazza ladra "one of the most glittering…triumphs I have ever witnessed." He singled out the overture for special praise, and noted that the ovations started at the very beginning of the evening: "before the end of the first presto, the theater was a tempest of delight; and the public en masse was encouraging the orchestra with extempore [improvised] accompaniments!" Although audience habits have changed considerably in the 194 years since that delirious evening, the overture still makes an irresistible impression every time it is played.