During the last eleven years of his life, the great composer of Italian opera Gioachino Rossini, enjoying a sumptuous retirement after a successful career, composed a collection of 150 pieces. He dubbed these pieces—intended for intimate and private performances in his home—Péchés de vieillesse, or “Sins of Old Age” (that title is actually affixed to only two of the fourteen albums, but later was applied to the entire collection). The pieces are a mix of chamber, vocal, and piano music, all meant to be played in Rossini’s home.
Most readers will recognize Rossini from his memorable overtures—often written mere hours before the opening nights of his operas, much to the chagrin of theatre managers—which are probably better known to mass audiences than his operas. Here’s the most famous of them:
Rossini was so successful as a composer, he basically spent forty years in retirement. While music historians disagree on exactly why he stopped composing operas so young, I suspect it had to do with the fact that made so much money from them, he didn’t need to work anymore, and enjoyed a fun retirement (ill-health was likely a contributing factor, too). He also exited gracefully at the top of his game, avoiding the common pitfall of overstaying one’s artistic welcome amid changing times and tastes.
As such, the Péchés de vieillesse are real gems, coming as they did from a great composer who had long retired from the craft. Here’s just one example (of 150!), his “Prelude inoffensif” from Volume VII of the collection:
As readers know, I’ve been getting back into composing, and have been exploring composing by hand. It is extremely satisfying to write pieces by hand (as opposed to a computer, which is certainly more convenient, but lacking in the same tactile satisfaction). I’ve written a few short piano miniatures—some good, some desperately in need of revision—and Rossini’s “Sins” have inspired some of my own: a small project I’m dubbing Péchés d’âge moyen.
According to Bing and a former colleague (an improbably cute, hipster-ish French teacher who is now residing in Colorado), that roughly translates to “Middle-Aged Sins” or “The Sins of Middle Age” (if you speak or read French well and think the translation is lacking, please let me know in the comments, along with the correct or more accurate French translation of “The Sins of Middle Age”—thanks in advance!).
My musical “sins” are quite a bit more egregious than Rossini’s. I wrote last week about the very rough drafts of my Three Ethiopian Rhapsodies, two of which I actually like and want to develop further, one of which needs significant revision.
Since then, I’ve composed a few more pieces: “L’il Divertimento in C major,” “Minuet for a New Moon,” and “Etude for Flashy Pianists.” The minuet needs some work, but the divertimento and the etude are both pretty bouncy little sketches.
My process with these pieces has been to open up my beloved musical journal, which has lovely staff paper on the right-hand page, and just jot down notes. I often am not sitting at the piano, so part of the fun (and what accounts for some of the sour notes) is that I don’t know exactly how a piece will sound until I have composed the first draft and played it.
It’s been a good way to train my “inner” ear, and to get back to the deep satisfaction that composing brings. I’ve also decided to record these short pieces and collect them as my “Sins of Middle Age,” with the hope of releasing them as a digital album on 4 March 2022, the next Bandcamp Friday.
That gives me about two-and-a-half weeks to put something together. It might not happen, but I tend to work well with a deadline, and I have a glorious four-day weekend coming up (Winter Break, baby!).
I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime, here is a recording I took on my phone of “L’il Divertimento in C major”:
And here is the manuscript (with a coda squeezed in at the end):