"Dear God: here it is finished, this poor little Mass... I was born for opera buffa, you know it well! A little science, some heart, that's all..."
- composer's envoi to "Petite Messe Solennelle".
The "Little Solemn Mass" strikingly stands out from among the works of the late years of Rossini's life. Rossini called his little composition the "last mortal sin of my old age", emphasizing that eye-winking, completely ironic distance that speaks out of the postscript addressed to the Almighty, with which the last page of the score closes: "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")?" The play of these lines on the suggestive double meaning of the word "sacré", give eloquent testimony to the ambivalence that Rossini saw even in the style of writing of his church music. The title is also contradictory: the Mass is at the same time "petite" (because of its chamber music format) and "solennelle" (in view of its length and entirely weighty bearing). The music itself seems completely unmannered in style, more classicist than belcanto, though admirers of Rossini's art are bound to single out some operatic pieces. Surprisingly, there is a sense in which Rossini's continuously extraordinary musical facility is one of his weaknesses. He once remarked: "Show me a laundry list and I will set it to music!". To some extent, this is what he has done in the "Messe". Of course, there are many sections which beautifully reflect the words, but in other places one feels that Rossini has paid little regard to the essential meaning and form of the text. Yet at no point in the work does the music become remotely dull or routine. Such was Rossini's genius that even when the spirit of the music seems to depart from the spirit of the text one can't help but be captivated by the beautiful melodies and sheer joie-de-vivre of the piece. As he himself said: "delight must be the basis and aim of this art" - and that is what he has achieved: a work not of profound religious insight, but one that is a delightful, life-enhancing musical experience. Rossini originally specified twelve singers in all, with the soloists doubling the SATB chorus, and scored it for two pianos and harmonium. This version is considered by most the authentic and the only true one. The singular scoring for soloists, choir and yet quite compelling accompaniment by two pianos and harmonium is partially due to the occasion for which the piece was composed. Its first performance was at the dedication (16 March 1864) of the private chapel in the hôtel of Louise, Comtesse de Pillet-Will, to whom Rossini dedicated this refined and elegant piece which avoids the sentimental opulence of most contemporary liturgical works, such as those by Charles Gounod.
And yet, in 1867, Rossini himself revised the work for orchestra and chorus, for fear that someone else might accomplish the task if he did not. The performance of this version took place only on the 28th of February, 1869, at the Theatre-Italien of Paris, after the composer's death. I'm going with the latter version for many reasons, chief amongst them being my preference of a full orchestra and chorus over a piano accompaniment.
As in the previous pieces, I'm providing the whole structure of the piece, while only noting the sections I'm posting. Also I have to mention that I'm using (both in the above and following texts) sections from John Bawden's, the musical director for Fareham Philaharmonic Choir, excellent notes on the work for a scholar overview of the work.
Nuccia Focile - soprano,
Susanne Mentzer - contralto,
Raul Gimenez - tenor,
Simone Alaimo - bass.
1. Kyrie (the whole section is scored for chorus). The quiet A minor opening of the Kyrie Eleison contrasts sustained choral writing with a running bass line. This soon gives way to a brighter mood as the music moves into the major.
2. Christe. A deliberately archaic style is adopted, echoing the church music of Palestrina some 300 years earlier.
3. Kyrie. The section is resolved by a return to the serious mood in which it began.
4. Gloria in excelsis Deo (chorus & terzettino for contralto, tenor and bass).
5. Gratias (terzettino for the same).
6. Domine Deus (aria for tenor).
7. Qui tollis (duet for soprano and contralto).
8. Quoniam (aria for bass; in all three posted masses this movement is given to a bass soloist).
9. Cum sancto spiritu (chorus).
10. Credo (chorus & quartettino for all soloists).
11. Crucifixus (aria for soprano).
12. Et resurrexit (chorus & quartettino for all soloists).
13. Il preludio religioso.
14. Sanctus - Benedictus (chorus with soloists' interjections).
15. O salutatis (aria for soprano).
16. Agnus Dei (aria for contralto with extensive choral interjections).