Petite Messe Solennelle - Gioacchino Rossini (1792 - 1868)


Rossini was born in Pesaro, Italy, on 29 February, 1792. His father was horn player and trumpeter in various small bands and orchestras, and his mother an opera singer. Rossini too developed a love for music and the theatre. Although by all accounts academically lazy, he found singing and playing music easy and was a much requested boy soprano. By his teens could play viola and horn, and had become a first-rate harpsichord-player and pianist. At 18, while at the Conservatorio de Bologna, he composed his first opera, a one-act comedy for La Fenice in Venice and within three years, following the enormous success of Tancredi (1812), and The Italian Girl in Algiers (1813), he had won fame throughout Italy and secured an international reputation. In 1823 he moved to Paris where he was appointed director of the Théâtre-Italien.


By the age of 37 he had written over 40 operas, but, in 1829, after completing William Tell, he retired, a wealthy man, to live in Italy, and with the exception of his other significant religious work, the Stabat Mater, he effectively gave up composing. However, following a long depressive illness, he returned to Paris in 1855, where his health and inspiration to compose returned. He produced what he called his Péchés de Vieillesse (Sins of Old Age), a collection of light-hearted pieces for piano, songs and works for small ensembles, which he had performed at private occasions, attended by most of the important public and artistic figures in Paris at the time, who were attracted by Rossini’s wit, hospitality and love of good food.

The Petite Messe Solennelle is the most substantial of the works written during these later years, and indeed it is one of the most remarkable compositions of his whole career, demonstrating his ability to write beautiful melodies (often frankly operatic in character), an unfailing sense of colour and drama, and great contrapuntal skill. Its title exemplifies Rossini’s characteristic wit, as it is of course neither petite nor particularly solemn. The music ranges from hushed intensity to boisterous high spirits, and abounds in the memorable tunes and rhythmic vitality for which Rossini became justly famous.
Initially, the instrumental scoring of the Mass for two pianos and harmonium seems strange, but given its context as a salon piece (it was first performed at the consecration of a private chapel in March 1864 by a choir of 12 singers, including the four soloists), such instrumentation is not unusual and although. Rossini was later persuaded to orchestrate it, the original version for voices, piano and harmonium, which is being performed today, is considered the more effective setting.
Rhythm and modulation play an important part in the opening Kyrie , for the central part of which, the Christe Eleison, Rossini adopted a deliberately archaic style, echoing the 16th century church music of Palestrina and his contemporaries. The rhythmic excitement of the Kyrie continues into the Gloria, which is followed by four extended solo movements, operatic arias in all but name. The magnificent tenor solo Domine Deus recalls the Cujus animam from his earlier Stabat Mater. The final section, Cum sancto spiritu, is an extended fugue and a real tour de force of musical craftsmanship, which reflects the thorough classical training in harmony and counterpoint he received at the Bologna Conservatory. In the Credo Rossini ingeniously uses the word ‘credo’ as a unifying motif to which he repeatedly returns. This section of the Mass concludes with another brilliant fugue for the chorus, to the words ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi, Amen’. The O salutaris (a hymn, not part of the Proper of the Mass) provided Rossini with an opportunity to explore the unusual harmonies he was using in the, even today modern-sounding, piano pieces among his last ”Sins”. The final, luminescent Agnus Dei for contralto (Rossini’s favourite voice) and choir brings the work to a dramatic close.
Rossini’s inscription in the introduction to the first version of his score reads:
“PETITE MESSE SOLENNELLE, in four voices with accompaniment of two pianos and harmonium (a small reed organ) composed during my country stay at Passy. Twelve singers of 3 sexes – men, women, and castrati – will be enough for its performance: that is, eight for the chorus, four for the soloists, a total of twelve cherubim. … Lord, rest assured, …that (my cherubim) will sing properly and con amore your praises and this little composition which is, alas, the last mortal sin of my old age.”
He ended the manuscript: “Dear God, here it is finished, this poor little Mass. Have I written sacred music or damned music?” You well know I was born to write comic opera. It contains scant learning, but all my heart. Praise be to you, and grant me entry into Paradise. G Rossini – Passy 1863”.
Whatever his intent, he has left us with a unique work in the religious repertoire.
Kyrie - Christe – soloists and chorus
Gloria in excelsis Deo - Laudamus - soloists and chorus
Gratias agimus tibi - alto, tenor and bass
Domine Deus - tenor
Qui tollis peccata mundi - soprano and alto
Quoniam tu solus sanctus - bass
Cum Sancto Spiritu – chorus


Credo - soloists and chorus
Crucifixus - soprano
Et resurrexit - soloists and chorus
Et vitam venturi seculi – chorus
Preludio Religioso during Offertory –piano and harmonium
Sanctus - soloists and chorus
O salutaris hostia - soprano
Agnus Dei - alto and chorus  



Peter Carey

Royal Free Singers


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