Rossini: Petite Messe Solennelle Program Notes

Toronto Mendelssohn Choir – Petite Messe Solennelle
Feb. 9, 2013 at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church
Rossini: Petite Messe Solennelle
Concert Program Notes by Rick Phillips

During the decades of the early 19th century, Gioachino Rossini (1792–1868) dominated the world of Italian opera in both the comic and serious categories. The Barber of Seville, Tancredi, Semiramide, Cinderella, The Italian Girl in Algiers, The Silken Ladder, The Thieving Magpie and William Tell are all still staged today. Rossini’s early career was based in his native Italy but in 1824 he settled in Paris. Five years later at the age of thirty-seven, at the peak of his fame and powers and a string of some forty operatic successes in under twenty years, after the grand opera William Tell he surprisingly put down his opera pen. For the remaining thirty-nine years of his life, Rossini composed only songs, short piano pieces, the Stabat Mater and the Petite Messe Solennelle, referring to the latter as “the last mortal sin of my old age.” He died outside Paris, a very wealthy man at the age of seventy-six. His estate was valued at about $1.5 million – an incredible amount in 1868! Rossini had established the ground rules of 19th century Italian Romantic opera and Bellini, Donizetti, Verdi and even Puccini owed him a debt of gratitude. To this day, opera lovers the world over bemoan the curious fact that Rossini put down his operatic pen so early in life, but lovers of choral music can be thankful for the wonderful Petite Messe Solennelle.

Rossini composed the mass in the summer of 1863 for the consecration of a small, private chapel in the Paris home of the dedicatee, the Countess Louise Pillet-Will. It was premiered there the following March before a small but enthusiastic audience. Given these circumstances, Rossini originally scored the mass for reduced forces but because of its success, the demand for a full concert version arose and he somewhat reluctantly orchestrated it in 1866. But Rossini admitted to a friend that he always preferred the intimacy and clarity of his original scoring. To be honest, the work shines because of Rossini’s talents and skill at melody, line and rhythm and the 1866 orchestration adds little to its impact. This afternoon’s TMC performance is a later concert version featuring piano and organ that retains the clarity and intimacy of the 1863 original.

Rossini was very aware of the long tradition and legacy of the musical mass by his predecessors like Palestrina, Bach, Haydn, Mozart and many others. What makes his contribution unique was his ability in combining these Renaissance, Baroque and Classical church music traits with his genius in writing for the human voice and the natural flow of melody amid operatic drama and expressiveness. There are parts of Petite Messe Solennelle, reminiscent of opera arias or ensemble numbers by Rossini, but that are perfectly suited to the religious text. The mass is neither Petite (small) nor Solennelle (solemn), but instead, throughout, it does exhibit a certain light, piquant musical flavour. Apparently Rossini believed that laughter was the best prevention for tears. Despite his conviction with the sacred mass text, many elements of his lighter operatic style are present, but the mass is no less pious or reverent because of them. Throughout his life, Rossini was known for his wry humour and wit and their application on human life. Many anecdotes and stories abound. Once, a budding young composer approached Rossini with two new compositions, looking for constructive criticism and advice. After Rossini had only heard the young man’s first new work, he turned to him saying, “I think I like the other one better.” On the last page of the autograph score of the Petite Messe Solennelle, Rossini wrote, “Dear God, here it is finished, this poor little mass. I was born for comic opera, as you well know! A little skill, a little heart, that’s all I have. Be merciful then, and admit me to Paradise.”

Rick Phillips is a Toronto writer, broadcaster, teacher, host and music tour guide.

You are welcome to use excerpts from these notes for your concert program or for educational purposes. If you do, please credit both Rick Phillips and Toronto Mendelssohn Choir. Also please advise TMC by email: Thank you.