ALESSANDRO ROLLA (1757 - 1841)
The Italian violinist, violist, conductor and composer Alessandro Rolla may today be relatively unknown. In his own time he had a considerable reputation and his contributions to viola repertoire still retain a place of some importance among original compositions for that instrument. Rolla was born in Pavia in 1757 and studied in Milan, with counterpoint lessons from the cathedral organist, Giovanni Andrea Fioroni. He played his First Viola Concerto in the Basilica of St Ambrose at the age of fifteen, perhaps under the direction of Sammartini, and in 1782 joined the court musical establishment in Parma as principal viola-player, an appointment that allowed him time for concert tours. In 1792 he was appointed concertmaster, consolidating his reputation as a violinist and as the leading viola-player of his time. The period in Parma also brought a number of compositions. In 1795 the young Paganini came to him for lessons. In a later account Paganini told how he arrived at Rolla’s house to find the latter ill in bed. Ushered by Rolla’s wife into an adjoining room, the boy took up a violin and sight-read a concerto by Rolla, which he found there, to the alleged amazement of Rolla, who was surprised to find a boy sight-reading his concerto and told him that he could teach him nothing. Paganini, as this anecdote implies, claimed never to have studied with Rolla, although it seems very probable that he did so during the months he spent in Parma that year, taking composition lessons with Paër’s former teacher Ghiretti, then with Paër himself. Paganini, of course, did much to promote his own legend, so that his stories about himself often lack credibility, nevertheless he seems to have remained on friendly enough terms with Rolla, with whom he appeared in later years in concert.
In 1802 Rolla took up the position of conductor at La Scala in Milan, where he was able, over the next 31 years, to direct performances of operas by Mozart, Paër, Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti. He was of assistance to Spohr and to Paganini for their first performances at La Scala and seems to have recognised the promise of the young Verdi, whose application to the Milan Conservatory was at first rejected by his colleagues. Rolla held the position of solo violinist and conductor of the court orchestra of the Viceroy Eugène de Beauharnais and from 1808 to 1835 was professor of the violin and viola at the newly established Conservatory. His work with his orchestra at La Scala and the proficiency of his string-players was of particular benefit to Bellini and Donizetti and he played an important part in the dissemination in Italy of music by Beethoven both in private and public orchestral performances and in chamber music.
Rolla directed performances of parts of Beethoven’s ballet The Creatures of Prometheus at La Scala, and wrote the music for some eleven ballets, scores which are now lost. His works for orchestra include twelve symphonies and a number of compositions for violin or viola and orchestra. His chamber music includes works for various numbers of instruments, with six nonets, six octets, 33 sextets and 29 quartets, and a number of compositions for violin and for viola. As a composer and seemingly as a teacher he was conservative in his tastes and methods. Born a year after Mozart, he survived into a new age of music, the world of Liszt and Chopin, of Berlioz and Schumann.