Petite messe solennelle

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Gioachino Rossini's Petite messe solennelle was written in 1863 and described by the composer as "the last of my péchés de vieillesse" (sins of old age).[1]

The witty composer, who produced little for public hearing during his long retirement at Passy, prefaced his mass—characterized, apocryphally by Napoleon III, as neither little[2] nor solemn, nor particularly liturgical—with the words:

"Good God—behold completed this poor little Mass—is it indeed sacred music [la musique sacrée] that I have just written, or merely some damned music [la sacré musique]? You know well, I was born for comic opera. Little science, a little heart, that is all. So may you be blessed, and grant me Paradise!"[3]

Its first performance was at the dedication (14 March 1864) of the private chapel in the hôtel of Louise, comtesse de Pillet-Will,[4] 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. Rossini specified twelve singers in all,[5] with the soloists doubling the SATB chorus, and scored it for two pianos and harmonium. (The second piano plays only occasionally, and then merely doubles the first.) Among the first hearers were Giacomo Meyerbeer, Daniel Auber and Ambroise Thomas, who would succeed Auber as director of the Paris Conservatoire. Albert Lavignac, aged eighteen, conducted from the harmonium. The soloists were Carlotta and Barbara Marchisio, Italo Gardoni and Luigi Agnesi. It has been said that all this piece requires is a small hall, a piano, a harmonium, eight choristers and the four greatest singers on Earth.

Partly for fear that it would be done anyway after his death, Rossini discreetly orchestrated the Petite messe solennelle during 1866-67, without losing its candor and subtlety, and the resulting version had its first public performance on 28 February 1869, three months after the composer's death, and as close as could be to what would have been Rossini's seventy-seventh birthday[6]— at the Théâtre-Italien, Paris. That year both versions were published.

The structure of the piece is as follows:

The hymn O salutaris hostia is not usually a regular part of a Mass; neither are Rossini's two instrumental episodes (Preludio religioso and Ritornello).

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ A few piano pieces follow it, and a piece for the opening of the Exposition Universelle of 1867.
  2. ^ A performance lasts about an hour and a half.
  3. ^ "Bon Dieu; la voilà terminée, cette pauvre petite messe. Est-ce bien de la musique sacrée que je viens de faire, ou bien de la sacré 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."
  4. ^ The eighteenth-century early Louis XV boiseries of the countess's salon are now installed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  5. ^ "Douze chanteurs de trois sexes, hommes, femmes et castrats seront suffisants pour son exécution ; à savoir huit pour le choeur, quatre pour les solos, total douze chérubins" Rossini noted on the title page: "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". Castrati had not recently been heard on a French stage; only the choir of Pope Pius IX still featured castrati.
  6. ^ He was born on Leap Day 29 February 1792.

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