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Music in the Present Tense

Rossini’s Italian Operas in Their Time

In the early 1800s, Rossini’s operas permeated Italy, from the opera house to myriad arrangements heard in public and private. But after Rossini stopped composing, a sharp decline in popularity drove most of his works out of the repertory. In the past half century, they have made a spectacular return to operatic stages worldwide, but this recent fame has not been accompanied by a comparable critical reevaluation.

Emanuele Senici’s new book provides a fresh look at the motives behind the Rossinian furore and its aftermath by examining the composer’s works in the historical context in which they were conceived, performed, seen, heard, and discussed. Situating the operas firmly within the social practices, cultural formations, ideological currents, and political events of early nineteenth-century Italy, Senici reveals Rossini’s dramaturgy as a radically new and specifically Italian reaction to the epoch-making changes witnessed in Europe at the time. The first book-length study of Rossini’s Italian operas to appear in English, Music in the Present Tense exposes new ways to explore nineteenth-century music and addresses crucial issues in the history of modernity, such as trauma, repetition, and the healing power of theatricality.

352 pages | 45 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2019

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Music: General Music


“Rossini’s operas have still not received the critical attention that they deserve, an omission that this book does much to put right. Emanuele Senici’s approach is not to examine Rossini as some sort of precursor to the composers who followed him, nor to adopt new aesthetic criteria for judging his works, but to look at how they were received in their day in order to understand their phenomenal appeal to contemporaries.”

Times Higher Education

“Senici’s erudite new book examines the debates about Rossini that took place in Italian intellectual circles of the early 19th century. . . Particularly fascinating is Senici's reading of the works as a response to the trauma of the Napoleonic occupation. . . . Undoubtedly this is a book that challenges the reader, but if you love Rossini there is much of value to be gleaned from its pages.”

BBC Music Magazine

Music in the Present Tense opens up the world of early nineteenth-century Italy as one that is full of paradoxes, the first symptom of which is Rossini’s operas. In the wake of the trauma of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic invasion, Rossini’s music takes its place in an uncertain relationship between culture and reality, where the musical signifier is unhinged from meaning, and where the pleasure in and of his music appears as a form of unthinking. Rossini’s operas, so Senici demonstrates, take the form of a compulsion, of obsessive self-borrowing, of metatheatrical self-referentiality, and as such constitute a music in the present tense. Senici offers reflections on such key terms as repetition, style, genre, and modernity as they came to play in preunification Italy; he does this in a compositional structure that is itself Rossinian.”

Suzanne Stewart-Steinberg, Brown University

“With beguiling erudition and imagination, this remarkable book illuminates the musical, historical, and psychosocial mechanisms behind the wild success of Rossini’s Italian operas—once the most obsessively talked about, the most compulsively repeated, and the most intoxicatingly ‘new’ of new music. Music in the Present Tense consists of an intricately designed succession of interlocking essays that together elaborate a powerful cumulative argument about opera and society in early nineteenth-century Italy and the relationship between Rossini and the fraught experience of modernity tout court.”

Nicholas Mathew, University of California, Berkeley

Music in the Present Tense is without doubt the most compelling study of Rossini’s Italian operas yet written, but such a description only hints at the suggestive power of Senici’s multifaceted approach. Through a series of interlinked thematic essays, he argues compellingly for the unprecedented popularity of these works as a response to (and reflection of) the traumatic Italian experience of post-Napoleonic modernity, and as a repository for the obsessions, pleasures, and anxieties of their time.”

Benjamin Walton, University of Cambridge

“Senici’s thoughtful, accessible investigation should go a long way to stimulate both study and performance, and bring the rewarding experience of Rossinian opera fully into our present day.”

The Musical Times

Table of Contents

List of Abbreviations
List of Musical Examples



1 Imitation
2 Repetition
3 Borrowing
4 Style
5 Genre
6 Dramaturgy
7 Noise


8 Modernity
9 Theatricality
10 Repertory
11 “Di tanti palpiti”
12 Memory
13 Pleasure
14 Movement
15 Belief


Works Cited

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