Dear Lord, here it is finished, this poor little mass. Have I just written sacred music, or rather, sacrilegious music? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know. Not much technique, a little bit of heart, that’s all. Blessings to you and grant me Paradise.Rossini
Phillip Gossett, the American musicologist and authority on Rossini wrote about the composer: ” no composer in the first half of the 19th century enjoyed the measure of prestige, wealth, popular acclaim or artistic influence that belonged to Rossini. His contemporaries recognised him as the greatest Italian composer of his time.” His achievements in opera caused the work of his predecessors to be forgotten, his contemporaries, Bellini and Donizetti, worked under his shadow, and even Beethoven, piqued by his international recognition, resorted to snide remarks about him.
Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy, on 29 February, 1792 (a leap year!) into a musical family (his father played the french horn and his mother was a singer). As a boy he learnt the horn and singing and sang in at least one opera in Bologna, where the family lived. He studied there and began his operatic career when, at 18, he wrote a one-act comedy for La Fenice in Venice. Further commissions followed, from Bologna, Ferrara, Venice again and Milan, where La pietra del paragone was a success at La Scala in 1812. His first operas to win international acclaim come from 1813, written for different Venetian theatres: the serious Tancredi and the farcically comic L’italiana in Algeri. Two operas for Milan were less successful. In 1815 Rossini went to Naples as musical and artistic director of the Teatro San Carlo, which led to his concentration on serious opera. During this tenure he also composed for other theatres, and from this time date two of his supreme comedies, written in 1816 for Rome, Il barbiere di Siviglia and La Cenerentola. Over the next thirteen years, Rossini wrote operas for Naples, Venice, Bologna, London and Paris (where, in 1823, he took on the directorship of the Théâtre-Italien).
By the age of 37 he had written over 40 operas, but, in 1829, after completing Guillaume Tell, he retired to live in Italy, but suffered prolonged and painful illness there (mainly in Bologna, where he advised at the Liceo Musicale, and in Florence). His wife, Isabella, died in 1845 and the next year he married Olympe Pélissier, with whom he had lived for 15 years and who tended him through his ill-health. He composed hardly at all during this period, but he went back to Paris in 1855. Here his health and humour returned, together with his urge to compose, and he wrote over 150 piano pieces, songs, small ensembles, including the graceful and economical Petite Messe Solennelle (1863). These works were only performed at his salon, for private audiences, which included most of the great artistic and public figures in Paris at the time. Rossini refused to have them published. He referred to them as Péchés de vieillesse (‘sins of old age’). Characterised by wit, parody, grace and sentiment, these pieces were to influence the younger generation of French composers, including Saint-Saens and Chabrier. He died, universally honoured, in 1868.
On first hearing the Petite Messe Solennelle, the listener is tempted to adapt a remark attributed to Napoleon III and declare that the piece is neither little, solemn nor especially liturgical in spirit. Even Rossini’s Don Camilloesque inscription would suggest that he himself inclined to such a view: “Good God – behold completed this poor little Mass – is it indeed music for the blest [‘musique Sacrée’] that I have just written, or just some blessed music [‘Sacrée musique’]? Thou knowest well, I was born for comic opera. A little science, a little heart, that is all. So bless Thee and grant me Paradise! G Rossini – Passy 1863”. The first performance of the piece was given at the town house of the dedicatee, the Countess Louise Pillet Will, and those who attended agreed that, for all Rossini’s protestations, the Mass represented a magnificent feat of creative self-renewal for the seventy-one-year-old composer.
Rossini specified twelve as the ideal number of singers (his instructions throughout are that the soloists should also sing the chorus parts when not otherwise involved), although subsequent performances have generally involved a larger chorus and separate soloists. Initially, the instrumental scoring of the Mass for two pianos and harmonium, seems strange, but given its context as a salon piece, such instrumentation is not unusual. Following a remark from the critic of Le Siècle (who stated that there was enough fire in the piece to melt a marble cathedral were it to be scored for full chorus and orchestra), Rossini proceeded to orchestrate the piece in the years 1866–7. This orchestration, however, makes very few concessions to orchestral colour and adds nothing to the stature of the work, which depends mainly on melody, line and rhythm. The orchestral version had its first public performance on 28 February 1869 (as near as possible to the 78th anniversary of the composer’s birth) at the Théâtre-Italien, Paris. Rhythm and modulation play an important part in the opening ternary-form Kyrie and the rhythmic excitement continues throughout the Gloria and Credo (especially of note is the contrapuntal writing in the Cum sancto spiritu and Et vitam venturi sæculi). The magnificent tenor solo Domine Deus recalls the Cujus animam from Rossini’s earlier Stabat Mater, while Rossini’s operatic roots are represented in the Quoniam. The insertion of the O salutaris (not part of the liturgy, but often used as a hymn during the Mass or Benediction) provided Rossini with an opportunity to explore the unusual harmonies he was using in his piano pieces at the time. The final, luminescent Agnus Dei for contralto (Rossini’s favourite voice) and choir brings the work to a dramatic close.
Collegium Musicum of London