Petite Messe Solennelle by G. Rossini
The concert, conducted by Duncan Saunderson, was given by a choir of about 80 singers, with piano and harmonium accompaniments by Julian Littlewood and Gareth Williams. The soloists were Penelope Martin-Smith (soprano), Nicholas Clapton (countertenor), Mark Milhofer (tenor) and Tom Edwards (bass).
A recording of the concert, benefiting from the glorious acoustics in St Michael’s Church. was made for private distribution to members of the choir, many of whom now have the CD to remind them of their compelling performance. Below are some samples from the CD (much reduced in quality for fast downloading).
Gioacchino Antonio Rossini
Rossini was born in 1792 in the small Italian seaside town of Pesaro (which now holds an annual festival of his operas), and died in Paris in 1868. His father was a horn player and his mother a singer, and from an early age he was a competent player of violin and harpsichord, sang at public performances, and was beginning to write chamber and religious music. In 1806 he was admitted to the Liceo Comunale in Bologna and in 1812 wrote the first of the Italian operas, La Scala di Seta, which were to make his name as a composer. Over the next 12 to 15 years he wrote the majority of his operas, which were performed in Rome, Milan, Naples and London, and in 1829 perhaps his most famous work, Guillaume Tell, was given its first performance.
In 1824 Rossini was appointed director of the Italian Theatre in Paris. In 1836 he left to take charge of the Liceo in Bologna, whose status he raised to eminence, moved to Florence in 1847, and returned to Paris in 1855 where he stayed until his death in 1868. After his return to Paris he produced a large volume of work, 14 volumes to be precise, which he entitled Péchés de ma Vieillesse (Sins of my Old Age), collections of vocal, piano and instrumental pieces for children and adults. His two main sacred works, the Stabat Mater and the Petite Messe Solennelle he wrote in 1841 and 1863 respectively.
Petite Messe Solennelle
The Mass was first performed in March 1864 at the dedication of the private chapel of a friend of Rossini’s, the Countess Louise Willet-Pill. It was scored for four soloists, a four-part chorus with two voices to each part, harmonium and two pianos, though the second piano only reinforced the first when needed. Rossini asked on the score for ‘twelve singers of three sexes, men, women and castrati’, harking back to the place of castrati in earlier Church music and their popularity in early Italian opera of the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the soprano and alto parts were written for the Marchisio sisters, two of the foremost singers in the salons of Paris and the salon of the Rossini household.
There is a certain deliberate irony in the title chosen by Rossini, as he noted at the time: ‘here is this poor little Mass, finished at last. Have I written truly sacred music or just damned bad music?’. The Mass is not little and not particularly solemn, but its style and atmosphere are not on the scale of the cathedral or the concert hall. Nevertheless, there is a contrast between much, though not all, of the writing for the soloists, which suits the intimacy of the chapel, and the much grander scale of the long sections for chorus, though even these were scored for only two voices in each part. The scoring for piano and harmonium is critical for the colour and character of the Mass, but in 1867 Rossini wrote an orchestral score for it in order to stop other composers from doing so (this version was first performed in 1869).
The work follows the conventional form of the Mass with two additions, the Preludio Religioso played on the piano which precedes the Sanctus, and a Latin hymn O Salutaris for soprano solo which follows the Sanctus.
Gloria Laudamus Crucifixus
Gratias Et resurrexit
Domine Deus Preludio religioso
Qui tollis Sanctus
Quoniam O Salutaris
Cum Sancto Spiritu Agnus Dei
The central section of the Kyrie, the unaccompanied Christe, echoes 17th century sacred music. The Gloria and the Credo stand in contrast to each other. After the chorus opens the Gloria, the soloists take up the succeeding sections handing on to each other until the chorus brings the movement to a close with the Cum Sancto Spiritu. The Credo, on the other hand, is given largely to the chorus with the soloists joining in, and only the Crucifixus is a solo aria sung by the soprano. The first and third sections of the Credo are linked in the chorus part by the repeated affirmation of belief, ‘Credo, credo’. The Cum Sancto Spiritu and the closing section of the Et resurrexit, in other words the conclusions to the Gloria and the Credo, are both double fugues of considerable power worthy of J S Bach.
The Sanctus is meditative in tone with the chorus commenting on the soloists’ ‘Hosannas’ until the final triumphant choral ‘Hosanna’. Similarly in the Agnus Dei the chorus answers the somewhat anguished alto soloist with quiet two bar phrases until the final confident demand of ‘Dona nobis pacem’.