La Petite Messe Solennelle
Royal Castle in Warsaw
Sylwia Krzysiek – soprano
Joanna Lalek – alto
Pavlo Tolstoy – tenor
Jarosław Bręk – bass
Krzysztof Marosek – positive organ
Marta Kostrych – piano
Vocal Ensemble of Warsaw Chamber Opera
There lives more faith in honest doubt, than in half the creeds
One thing can be said about the work of Gioachino Rossini – it has a title that is completely inconsistent with reality. It can also be said that there are few compositions whose fate would be as intriguing as the Little Solemn Mass (La Petite Messe Solennelle).
Originally, it was created as a rather intimate work, and probably that’s the reason why it was titled Petite, since it was not intended to be a complete form, but only a cast of artists necessary to perform it. The reason behind it was truly prosaic – the venue of its premiere. The chapel in the private residence of Count Alexis Pillet-Will on Paris’ rue Moncey was not very spacious, hence Rossini decided to divide the score into only four soloists, a mixed choir, two pianos and a harmonium. The commissioner dedicated the work to his wife, Louisa. He enjoyed the respect of the composer, since he sat down to work, despite the fact that he had not composed for over three decades.
Rossini composed the Mass in a summer house in Passy (1863), near Paris (today one of the districts of the French capital), and it was performed for the first time in a following later, on 14th March. Notable guests were present at the premiere, including the elite of the music world, among them there were Daniel-François-Esprit Auber, Giacomo Meyerbeer and Ambroise Thomas. The work was introduced to a wider audience on 24th April 1865, although Nancy Fleming in 1990 reported in the “Choral Diary” of the American Association of Choir Directors that the performance, open to the public, took place the day after the world premiere.
Rossini himself did not hide the fact, that he had doubts concerning the value of the work he created and in the dedication, written with great distance to music and himself, he announced:
Dear God. Here it is finished, this poor little Mass. Have I just written sacred music, or rather, sacrilegious music? I was born to opera buffa, as you well know. A little science, a little heart, that’s all. Be blessed, then, and admit me to Paradise.
It is also worth reading his own description of the work from the first page of the Mass:
The Little Solemn Mass consists of four parts, with the accompaniment of two pianos and a harmonium, but the most interesting sentence here is a very intriguing one:
Twelve singers of three sexes, men, women and castrati will suffice for its execution: that is, eight for the choir, four soloists, in all twelve cherubim.
Rossini did not hide that the number of singers is a musical reflection of the twelve apostles, reproduced from the fresco of the master Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, but – as he assured God – Judas will not be found at the supper, and the singing will be con amore for God’s glory. He summed it up wittily, considering his work to be: …the last mortal sin of my old age.
More interestingly, Rossini orchestrated the later Mass, as he said, only to prevent others from doing it wrong and in a way that did not match the character and sound he wanted to achieve. He also stipulated that they could only be performed after his death. And the reason was simple. The Pope, despite Rossini’s requests, did not agree that female voices could be engaged in the performance as intended – in temples. Well, the composer did not appreciate cathedral boys’ choirs. Unfortunately, the Pope did not accede to the creator’s request. The last will of the composer was respected. The world had to wait until 24th February 1869, when the orchestrated version was performed in public for the first time, on the occasion of the Maestro’s 77th birthday, less than four months after the death of the composer of 39 operas.
The premiere of the work met with very mixed reception. Filippo Filippi, extremely influential at that time from “La Perseveranza”, praised the work, recognizing the Mass as a work in Rossini’s oeuvre, in which he surpassed himself, and the fugue contained in it was worth the artistry of Johann Sebastian Bach’s fugues.
On the other hand, in the pages of the weekly “L’Illustration” published at that time, we read:
One could sense, from the first measures, the powerful spirit which animated this artist thirty years ago at the time when he chose to put a stop at his glorious career at its culminating point. The composer of William Tell stands proudly before you in his eminence, and you realize with astonishment that neither time nor inactivity have caused any loss of the intelligence with which he is so marvelously endowed. The same facility of invention, the same melodic abundance, the same nobility of style and the same elegance, the same novel twists, the same richness of harmony, the same audacity and happy choice of modulation, the same vigor of conception and of expression, the same ease of part-writing and disposition of the voices, the same masterful and authoritative skill in the overall scheme of the work, as well as in the structure of each movement.
However, Giuseppe Verdi had a different opinion, writing in a letter to Count Opprandino Arrivabene (journalist and supporter of the unification of Italy, privately a friend of Aida’s creator) on 3rd April 1864: Lately Rossini has made progress and studied! Studied what? Personally, I would advise him to unlearn the music and write another Barber. This allusion probably refers to the opera The Barber of Seville, Rossini’s iconic showcase.
An interesting fact is that although Rossini took part in the first performance of the work’s chamber version, his role – next to obvious supervision of work’s progress and effect – was limited to… translating the notes to the pianist George Mathaias. Critics, supporters of the chamber version, nomen omen see the power of this incarnation of the work in the brilliant and very solid piano part. Rossini was also supposed to correct tempos by nodding his head. The role of conductor, on the other hand, went to Alexander Jean Albert Lavignac, who was sitting behind the harmonium, today better known as a critic, theoretician and musicologist, and… a mediocre composer.
Although it must be admitted that the orchestral version is more popular today, it should be borne in mind that the addressee of the dedication personally pointed to an intimate cast, which was to avoid the sentimental richness of most of its contemporary liturgical works, citing the sacred music of Charles Gounod as a negative example. It is worth knowing that Countess Louise was known in her time for her exquisite taste, refinement and high aesthetic requirements.
Mass is structured according to the five-part liturgical order of the text, with a tripartite Kyrie, Gloria (six-part), Creed (divided into four parts), Sanctus (including Hosanna and Benedictus), and a final Agnus Dei. Compared to the original, Rossini added two instrumental compositions (they were not present in the chamber version) – the religioso prelude and the fugue in Offertorium, he also completed it with the soprano aria O salutaris hostia based on the hymn of Thomas Aquinas. It is worth referring to Nancy Fleming, who in “La Frace musicale” in her reviews of contemporary mass settings mentions the instrumental fragment of the Offertorium and (or) the motet O salutaris hostia. Ultimately, Kyrie and Gloria form Part I of the work, and the remaining parts are combined into Part II. Whereas, O salutaris hostia itself was so liked by Rossini’s successors that it is also included in the chamber version.
Ultimately, Gioacchino Rossini gave us the joy of communing with an extraordinary work, deep one but also full of lightness, so typical of the Master’s earlier operas. And unquestionably, despite the famous Italian’s hiding on the title page (after its composition), with a great work. Could Robert King, the conductor and head of the famous The King’s Consort, be wrong when he said that we are dealing with a solemn and undoubtedly deeply religious work, showing: /…/ extraordinary compositional capabilities of this astonishing man of the theatre: it is full of drama, pathos, colour and intensity.
Critics also hear in it, apart from a certain “operaticism”, echoes of Joseph Haydn and Giovanni Pierluigi da Palestrina, while at the same time heralding the aesthetics of denial of pathos in sacred music, the restraint known from the future phrases of Gabriel Fauré and Francois Poulenc. In a peculiar “Rossini’s testament” (after Christoph Rizoud forumopera.com) – as Baron Charles Tennyson wrote the other day in “In Memoriam”: There lives more faith in honest doubt, than in half the creeds.
In 2019, the Mass was performed in extremely peculiar circumstances. During the concert in Odyssud Blagnac near Toulouse, two pianos Playel and Erard were used, on which Fryderyk Chopin and Franz Liszt were giving concerts (they were found in a shed and at a flea market, respectively), and which were restored by Gérard Fauvin. The positive parts were performed on a harmonium from Alexandre-François Debain’s manufactory, built in 1862, which was probably played two years later during the premiere of the Mass. Debain is a student of Érard himself and he owns the patent for the harmonium in the version used to this day.