Towards the end of his life, celebrated opera composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote his Petite Messe Solenelle.

A sin of old age, as he called it himself. And one of the few works he composed not for the big stage, but for the salon, featuring an intimate and peculiar scoring. In this one hour and a half long masterpiece, Rossini blended his sense of humour and drama, religious elements and progressive harmonies.

What is original about Rossini’s sacred music is not so much its dramatic power, impressive though that is, as its unashamed romanticism and humour. Like so many of the great composers, Rossini was born into a musical family. His father was the town trumpeter in Pesaro and his mother was an opera singer. As a talented boy treble Gioachino was soon in great demand, and by the time he had reached his teens he could play the viola and the horn and was rapidly acquiring a reputation as a first-rate harpsichord-player and pianist. He went on to study at the Bologna Academy of Music, composing his first opera whilst still a student. From then on his rise to fame was meteoric. He received his first professional commission in 1810, and this led to a string of further commissions.

With the enormous success of his first full-length opera, Tancredi (1812), and the even greater triumph of The Italian girl in Algiers (1813), he became celebrated throughout Italy and his international reputation was firmly launched. He was still only 23 when he was engaged as Musical Director of the two opera houses in Naples, for each of which he was required to compose a new opera annually, the ever-popular Barber of Seville being one of the happiest results. He travelled widely throughout Europe, and in 1824 settled in Paris as Director of the Théâtre Italien. A string of new compositions followed, culminating in his acknowledged masterpiece, William Tell, his thirty-sixth opera, completed in 1829 when he was still only 37.

At this point Rossini’s life changed dramatically. For various reasons, including ill health, he gave up composing, and apart from two important religious works, the Stabat Mater and the Petite Messe Solennelle, he wrote nothing of significance during the last forty years of his life. He eventually retired to a luxurious villa specially built for him at Passy, on the outskirts of Paris, where he would hold court, entertaining everyone with his sparkling wit and good food, and revelling in the adulation of a constant stream of admirers and eminent musicians. Despite his withdrawal from the operatic world, he continued to be held in such enormous esteem that when he died 6,000 mourners, four military bands, a chorus of 400 singers and several of the finest opera soloists of the day attended his funeral.

In his latter years Rossini had turned once again to composition, producing what he called his Péchés de Vieillesse (Sins of Old Age), a collection of instrumental and vocal salon pieces, of which the Petite Messe Solennelle is the most substantial. Composed in 1863 for performance in a private chapel, the Mass was not heard in public until 1869, the year after the composer’s death, when it was performed in his own orchestral version at the Théâtre Italien. The work’s title is misleading, since the Petite Messe Solennelle is not unduly solemn and only ‘little’ in an affectionate sense. Despite the religious text it is unmistakeably operatic in style, in common with the Stabat Mater of twenty years earlier. The music ranges from hushed intensity to boisterous high spirits, and abounds in the memorable tunes and rhythmic vitality for which Rossini became justly famous. At the end of the autograph score Rossini wrote: “Dear God. Here it is, finished, this poor little Mass. Have I written sacred music [musique sacrée] or damned music [sacrée musique]? I was born for comic opera, as you well know! Little science, some heart, that’s all. So may you be blessed, and grant me a place in Paradise!”

- John Bowden (written for the London Concert Choir)

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