Hyperion Records

Petite messe solennelle
first performed 14 March 1864
author of text
Ordinary of the Mass, plus O salutaris hostia antiphon

'Rossini: Petite Messe solennelle' (CDA67570)
Rossini: Petite Messe solennelle
Buy by post £10.50 CDA67570 
Movement 1a: Kyrie eleison
Movement 1b: Christe eleison
Movement 1c: Kyrie eleison
Movement 2a: Gloria
Movement 2b: Et in terra pax
Movement 2c: Gratias agimus
Movement 2d: Domine Deus
Movement 2e: Qui tollis
Movement 2f: Quoniam tu solus sanctus
Movement 2g: Cum Sancto Spiritu
Movement 3a: Credo
Movement 3b: Crucifixus
Movement 3c: Et resurrexit
Movement 3d: Et vitam venturi saeculi
Movement 4: Prélude religieux, pendant l'Offertoire
Movement 5: Ritournelle
Movement 6: Sanctus
Movement 7: O salutaris hostia
Movement 8: Agnus Dei

Petite messe solennelle
Bon Dieu, la voilà terminée, cette pauvre petite messe. Est-ce bien de la musique sacrée que je viens de faire ou de la sacrée musique? J’étais né pour l’opera buffa, tu le sais bien! Peu de science, un peu de cœur, tout est là. Sois donc béni, et accorde-moi le Paradis. (G Rossini, Passy, 1863)
Dear God, here it is, finished, this poor little mass. Is it sacred music that I have written or damned music? I was born for opera buffa, as you know well! Little technique, a little heart, that’s all. Be blessed then and grant me Paradise.

In 1829, at the age of only thirty-seven, and having written thirty-six operas in nineteen years, Rossini retired. He had always put off writing commissions to the last possible moment and then worked with extraordinary speed to complete them: several of his operas were written in only three weeks. Maybe he simply no longer needed the money or, having written so much, he was exhausted.

Rossini had been born, in 1792, into a musical family. His father was a trumpeter in Pesaro, a small city on the Adriatic, and his mother an opera singer who worked in theatres across the region. The young Rossini travelled with them, sang, played the viola and the French horn and rapidly acquired a reputation as a fine keyboard player. Whilst still a student at the Bologna Liceo Musicale (where he fell in love with the music of Mozart) he composed his first opera. His first professional commission in 1810, La cambiale di matrimonio for the Teatro S Moisé in Venice, led to a string of further engagements, leading to the triumph of L’italiana in Algeri (1813), which at the age of just twenty-one ensured that (with a dozen operas already under his belt) his international reputation was firmly made.

Two years later he was hired as musical director of the two opera houses in Naples. He was required to compose a new opera annually for both of them—he nearly kept to this schedule. Meanwhile, his greatest opera buffa, first performed in the Teatro Argentina in Rome in February 1816, Il barbiere di Siviglia, brought him even greater acclaim. But from the start of the 1820s his rate of production slowed; he had written enough works to fill any opera house for some years. Instead, he travelled throughout Europe, visiting cities including Vienna, Paris and London, forging connections everywhere he went. In 1824 he was rewarded by being made director of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris, for whom he soon produced Il viaggio a Reims. For five years he settled in Paris, but only four more new operas emerged, culminating in his masterpiece of 1829, Guillaume Tell. And then came his retirement from composing operas.

During the 1830s and ’40s Rossini was often mentally exhausted and physically ill, his state made worse by his demoralization at the political changes which were sweeping through Europe. He maintained a part-presence in Paris until 1836, but this was largely because he was fighting for the restoration of an annuity which had been granted him but then rescinded after the 1830 revolution. Relations with his first wife, Isabella Colbran, had become strained, and he had started an affair with Olimpe Pélissier. North Italy again became his major base, and Olimpe moved with him. He was to marry her in 1846 when Isabella died.

His only major composition during this period was the Stabat mater of 1841, which was received with huge acclaim in Paris, where it was performed at the Théâtre-Italien, and in Bologna, where the conductor was Donizetti. But despite its success Rossini remained depressed and ill. Finally in 1855 he returned to Paris, hopeful that where Italian doctors had failed to cure him, French ones might succeed. Whether it was the doctors, or just the French way of life, he returned, almost literally, to life. His humour was restored, and he built a luxurious villa in Passy, on the outskirts of Paris. He began to entertain a wide circle of musicians and intellectuals: indeed, a visit to Rossini, now fully restored as a renowned wit, gourmet and bon viveur, became almost obligatory for any person of artistic note or admirer visiting the capital.

He started composing again, albeit mostly small works—some 150 chamber pieces, many of which he referred to as his Péchés de vieillesse, his ‘sins of old age’. He and Olimpe held Saturday evening musical events at which these works would be performed, along with arias from his operas. Often they were witty pieces, poking gentle fun at the latest compositional traits or musical fashions, but they were also sometimes graceful, elegant—even sentimental. From 1857 he became a subscriber to the new, critical edition of the works of Bach—another composer whose works he so admired.

Like so many composers, as old age came upon him, Rossini began to plan a composition that would be his memorial, and that might even assist in his admittance to the next life. Rossini spent a considerable amount of time and care in writing in what he called his ‘final sin of my old age’, his Petite messe solennelle. At the start of the manuscript he wrote:

Petite messe solennelle, in four parts with accompaniment of two pianos and harmonium, composed during my country vacation at Passy. Twelve singers of three sexes—men, women and castrati—will be sufficient for its execution: that is, eight for the chorus, four for the solos, a total of twelve cherubim. Dear God, forgive me for the following comparison: twelve also are the Apostles in the celebrated coup-de-mâchoire [jaw thrust] painted in fresco by Leonardo, called The Last Supper, who would believe it! Among your disciples are some who strike false notes!! Lord, rest assured, I swear that there will be no Judas at my supper and that mine will sing properly and con amore your praises and this little composition which is, alas, the final sin of my old age.

Lasting well over an hour, Rossini’s Petite messe is not exactly petite. And it was written not with the acoustics of a church in mind, but for performance to a select audience assembled in the lavishly furnished salon of the newly built Paris town house of the Comtesse Louise Pillet-Will. Rossini supervised the rehearsals and turned pages for the first pianist, Georges Mathias, setting the speed for each movement by nodding his head. It certainly is solennelle, for it is a heartfelt religious work which shows the extraordinary compositional capabilities of this astonishing man of the theatre: it is full of drama, pathos, colour and intensity.

The opening of the Kyrie is both solemn and dramatic, with two soft keyboard unisons leading to a poised, running bass, over which the voices quietly enter. Rossini’s score is full of specific dynamic instructions, sometimes ranging in one single phrase from pppp to ff. The Christe, for unaccompanied voices, emulates the old polyphonic style of the renaissance in a perfect double canon: two pairs of voices exactly imitate each other at two bars’ distance—another demonstration of his sound compositional technique—before the second Kyrie returns to the opening music, now with greater intensity.

The Gloria opens in grand style with two extrovert instrumental bursts, a pair of vocal fanfares and finally an extravagant tutti. The ‘Et in terra pax’ sets a mysterious, incense-laden mood, a bass introducing a solo quartet of singers who move artfully through a series of related major and minor keys before the music opens out at ‘Glorificamus te’. The reverential mood continues with ‘Gratias agimus’, a solo bass quietly ecstatic in his opening phrases, joined first by the alto and then the tenor: two wonderful bursts at ‘propter magnam’ bring added drama.

Italian opera style comes to the fore in the tenor aria ‘Domine Deus’, but if we return to Rossini’s own markings, he does not primarily intend to create the grand virtuoso aria which this movement has subsequently often become. Much of it is marked to be sung pianissimo, more as a prayer than as a demonstration of macho singing. In following this instruction of restraint the climactic moments where the music opens up become all the more splendid.

The atmospheric soprano and alto duet ‘Qui tollis’ is a masterpiece, wonderfully responsive to the text; suffused with melancholy, its passionate outbursts are enormously effective and deeply heartfelt. It was a movement especially admired by other composers: Verdi even copied a phrase from it into his Requiem. The bass solo ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’ is another fine movement, full of variety and lyricism, stretching the soloist over nearly two octaves and demonstrating not only Rossini’s melodic gifts but also his innate grasp of musical structure. The piano link that concludes it (sometimes cut) is a fine one, leading to a reprise of the opening material of the Gloria, here texted ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’.

Rossini now moves to territory of which he is the undoubted king: an electrifying fugue. In the opera house this would be a show-stopper: here it is utterly compelling. His genius is that, just when it is apparent that he has surely played all his musical cards, he trumps himself: as a final coup, the vocal and instrumental fanfares return, and Rossini piles in another set of rising Amens. This is thrilling music!

Many composers have struggled with the long text of the Creed, either producing a movement which is overly extended, or one whose structure becomes laden with many separate movements. Rossini, a man who once said that he could set a laundry list to music, produces a masterful movement which possesses real form, clarity and variety. Is his opening speed indication, Allegro cristiano, slightly tongue-in-cheek? Or is it, as the music certainly seems to indicate, at once committed (after the piano fanfare motif which permeates the opening section) in its forceful repetitions of the word ‘Credo’, yet respectful in its more romantic setting of ‘in unum Deum’? It is certainly strong music, becoming more intense at the layered ‘per quem omnia facta sunt’ and triumphant ‘descendit de caelis’. ‘Et homo factus est’ is truly dramatic. And then the soprano soloist’s ‘Crucifixus’ is desolate, its ravishing melody set against a gently rocking piano part and sustained harmonium chords.

‘Et resurrexit’ is always a great moment in any fine setting of the Creed: Rossini’s massive B major chord does not disappoint, its chromatic trilling under ‘secundum scripturas’ momentarily lending a surprisingly discordant touch. Rather than continuing in celebratory vein for ‘Et ascendit in caelum’, Rossini instead returns to the more muted opening music of ‘factorem caeli’, enabling him to achieve another series of layered build-ups, with frequent returns to the single word ‘Credo’. Then comes another show-stopping fugue, ‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’, which builds up inexorably, grants a brief moment of relief and then allows the pianos to escape from the triumphant chordal Credo in a cascade of scales.

Rossini is said to have inserted the ‘Prélude religieux’ into the mass only just before the first performance, creating not just a dramatic effect but also allowing the singers a moment to catch their breath. He lifted it straight from his Album de chaumière. Its serious, chordal opening is Chopinesque, and is followed by a solemn, flowing fugue whose angular subject-matter makes it sound at once both quite modern, yet also (through its two- and three-part writing) harks back, and pays homage, to the inventions of Bach. He also adds a brief ‘Ritournelle’ for the harmonium, largely to prepare for the tonality of the Sanctus. This unaccompanied movement comes closest of all to sentimentality, but stops short through the occasional use of adventurous, forward-looking harmonic writing.

‘O salutaris hostia’ had first appeared in Rossini’s Miscellanée de musique vocale as one of the composer’s Péchés de vieillesse. Though not a formal part of the Ordinary of the Mass, this text, in honour of the Blessed Sacrament, was often included in French masses of the period. Set for solo soprano, it mixes an ardent opening section, gloriously melodic, with two more forthright statements of ‘Bella premunt hostilia’. The final Amens are exquisite.

In the Agnus Dei a solo alto twice presents an ardent prayer over a hypnotically repeating piano rhythm, first in E minor, then in a more positive C major. The choir answers both sections with a calm plea for peace. With the alto’s third statement, starting in the darkly distant key of E flat minor, and now taking up the text ‘dona nobis pacem’, passions slowly start to rise, and after the choir’s plaintive third entry soloist and chorus unite. Rossini’s handling of the build-up leading to a massive first climax, in E minor, is masterful but, as always, he has an even greater moment still in store. Once again the music rises, but this time at the critical moment in its inexorable final surge it modulates, spectacularly, to the major: all the parts are marked, for the only time in the work, tutta forza. Little wonder that people at the first performance were reported to have been completely overwhelmed, for this is astonishingly powerful music from someone who utterly believed in what he was writing, and who fervently hoped that his prayers would be answered.

from notes by Robert King © 2006

Track-specific metadata
Click track numbers opposite to select

   English   Français   Deutsch