Petite messe solennelle

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Portrait of Gioachino Rossini by Vincenzo Camuccini, Museo Teatrale alla Scala in Milan.

Gioachino Rossini's Petite messe solennelle ("Little Solemn Mass") 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 sacrée 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[edit]

The score, which takes an hour and a half to perform, is divided in two parts of seven numbers each, mixing march rhythms and majestic tempos, over harmonies that are sometimes surprising.

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).

The dynamics for the singers rarely exceed piano, and sometimes quadruple piano is required, as in measure 18 of the Kyrie. Rossini gives the singers a few moments of forte such as the exclamations of eleison in movement 1, the beginning of the Gloria (no. 2), the similar part in the Cum Sancto Spiritu (no. 7), the beginning and ending of the Credo (no. 8), Sanctus and Hosanna (no. 12), and the last measures of Dona nobis pacem (no. 14).[7]


The structure of this movement is in the form A-B-A :

  • A first part Andante maestoso (eighth note = 108) piano-harmonium, reprise sotto voce with the chorus and soloists in A minor, evolving into C major (measures 1 - 35) ;
  • a double canon a cappella, Andantino moderato (half note = 66) in C minor (measures 36 - 57) ;
  • a reprise of the first part, but in other keys (measures 58 - 90).[7]

The work open in A minor, the piano playing a bass ostinato in octaves interrupted by dry chords in the right hand.[8] Over this oppressive motif , the harmonium plays a counterpoint later repeated by the chorus. The key of C major appears in measure 18, carrying a warmer color.[7]

The middle part is a double canon sotto voce in an archaizing style on the text Christe eleison. The dynamics contrast with the first part.[7]

The third part consists of a return to the first, but through a tonally inverted path: C minor instead of A minor, then A major instead of C major. After this second exposition, the finale runs through a chain of surprising harmonies (measures 75 to 80) leading to the final cadence, which lasts a dozen measures.[7]


The remainder of the first part presents the entire second prayer of the Order of Mass in six movements; both this section and the first of its movements (No. 2) are entitled Gloria.

This movement presents successively:

  • a piano introduction, Allegro maestoso (quarter note = 120) (measures 1 to 8) ;
  • a short passage where the soloists and the choir sing in unison (measures 9 to 18) ;
  • six measures for piano in another spirit Andantino mosso (quarter note = 58) ;
  • the rest of the movement in the same spirit (measures 25 to 82).

The piano introduction is composed of two sequences of three chords, separated by a measure of silence. According to Claire Delamarche, these represent the three blows of the staff announcing the rise of the curtain in the French theater tradition.[7] The key of F major is announced majestically, although without a perfect cadence. This will be the style throughout the movement, where the modal character is omnipresent.

The following section is in the same character. The organization resembles the classic style of singing in religious communities: a cantor, here the soprano soloist, begins alone, and the rest of the community repeats or follows in chorus. The chorus has seven voices at double forte, in accord with the maestoso marking, and concludes with a perfect cadence in C major (the dominant of the original key).

The following part, for piano solo, triple piano, is a rhythmic motif repeated three times, which prepares for the key (F major) and prayerful mood that follows.

In the rest of the movement, the piano plays an extremely simple ostinato composed of two chords (F major - B major) repeated 10 times in quarter notes, accompanying the solo bass in a melody of great seriousness.

A modulation a minor third higher (A major) intervenes, with a perfect cadence (measure 37) before the ostinato begins in the new key. The soprano intones Laudamus te on a reciting tone which is then taken up by the chorus. This pattern is repeated several times in the same key, then in a new key another minor third higher (C major). This key becomes B (leading tone of C major) in measure 60 and we have come home again to the dominant key (C major) before returning to F major in measure 65. The different voices have staggered entrances on a sober sort of scale, which is nothing but the development of the piano ostinato. The modal style continues, and the prayerful movement finishes without a perfect cadence being heard.


This movement is a trio for soprano, alto and bass. It is based on the words Gratias adgimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam. Andante grazioso ( eighth note = 76) in 2/4, it is made up of:

  • an introduction for piano;
  • theme A, used in different voices (measures 24 - 51) ;
  • presentation of a new theme, B (measures 51 - 58) ;
  • a chromatic digression for piano (measures 59 - 65) ;
  • a brief return to theme A (measures 67 - 76) ;
  • development of theme B (measures 76 - 94) ;
  • a long plagal cadence (measures 96 - 114).

The introduction begins with three forte chords, then after a measure of rest, the piano murmurs what will later become the accompaniment to theme A at triple piano . This theme is then heard in A major in the bass solo, supported by the discreet accompaniment. This theme hints at the key of C minor (measure 26 - 27) in the guise of repose in the middle of its statement. The alto takes up this theme in the dominant (E major) at measure 33 while the bass takes part in the accompaniment. The tenor enters then at measure 42, completing the trio, and singing the theme in C. The motif of theme B, with its jump of a seventh, is next heard briefly on propter magnam in the bass and tenor, while the piano accompanies with E dominant seventh chords. The piano interrupts the duo with a chromatic digression which leads back to the key of A major. The theme is then sung by the trio.

Theme B is then taken up again and developed in sixteenth notes started from staggered entrances of the three voices. It finishes with a perfect cadence in A major. A long plagal cadence with piano and the trio terminates the movement.

Preludio religioso[edit]

This movement is actually a prelude and fugue. The prelude, sixteen measures of 4/4 Andante maestoso (quarter note = 92), is written for piano and asks for dynamics ranging from double forte to double piano una corda. It announces at the same time the F tonality, and the modulating character of the movement, by chords borrowed from distant keys. The solemn rhythmic style (half note quarter note.. sixteenth note) will not recur until the four-measure postlude of the fugue.[7]

Rossini indicates that the fugue (without the postlude explicitly written for piano) may be played equally on piano or harmonium. In 3/4, Andantino mosso (quarter note = 76) with a regular rhythm of eighth notes, the fugue has a theme in the form of a turn like the BACH motif, which has the same chromatic opening as the famous subject of the Fantasy and Fugue on the Theme B-A-C-H by Franz Liszt. Rossini proves both his inventiveness (particularly at the level of management of the tonality, which frequently evolves into distant keys) and his impressive capacity for mastering the contradictions.[7]

The structure begins classically with a fugue with the exposition of the subject successively in the three voices at a piano dynamic. The turn motif in F minor is repeated four times at the interval of a rising third (C , E , G , and B), followed by a development by a sequence of arpeggios in descending thirds. The melodic line proceeds to the dominant to accompany the exposition of the subject in the second voice, with a series of eighth notes arranged in a constant interval of a third or a sixth with the subject. This arrangements repeats itself during the exposition of the subject in the third voice in F minor.[7]

A long episode of 29 measures follows, where the modulations are legion. For example, a sequence based on the three first notes of the turn theme is repeated eight times in a row starting in measure 47. Numerous dynamics are marked in the score: piano, forte, crescendo and decrescendo. This episode ends with the dynamic double forte decrescendo on a perfect cadence of G (D dominant seventh → G major), repeated twice identically. The G major chord becomes the dominant of the key of the second exposition.[7]

The second exposition of the subject begins at measure 70 in the left hand, in C minor, then in the right hand in G minor at measure 78. The same 29 episodic measures as before are heard, but transposed, then extended by 26 measures of new development, always using numerous sequences.[7]

A full measure of rest (measure 140) precedes a cadence in F minor, then F major, of which the A transforms into the tonic of the key B minor for the postlude, then the dominant of the cadence in E minor, followed by an E major chord, and concluding without transition on an F major chord.[7]


The unanimous opinion is that Rossini wrote this brief instrumental passage so that the singers can find their note for the beginning of the Sanctus a cappella, since the Preludio religioso finishes in the distant key of F major.[9] The Ritornello and the Sanctus which follows are in effect in the same key of C major (both in 6/8). These measures do not constitute the beginning of the Sanctus and are well positioned by the editor[10] before movement no. 12.

These nine Andante measures are limited to developing the C major chord in double piano dynamic, concluding with a perfect cadence in the same key, triple piano.

O salutaris Hostia[edit]

This movement does not appear in the original version for two pianos and harmonium, but was introduced by Rossini in his version for full orchestra.[9] It appears in all editions for piano, even the rigorous edition of Flemming. It is customary to produce it even in a performance with piano(s).

Although Thomas Aquinas's prayer O salutaris Hostia occupies only a small place in the Catholic liturgy, Rossini gives it significant importance in this mass. Only the first four verses of the hymn (out of eight) are used around a theme which is among the most generous in the work. Based on an arpeggiated seventh, the melodic line of the soprano soloist seem pulled irresistibly towards the heights. Rossini is not the only one to have his attention caught by the serene character of the text: Guillaume-Gabriel Nivers, Henry Madin, and Jean-Paul-Égide Martini before him in the 18th century, then Franz Liszt in the 19th, notably set it to music.[7]

This movement in 3/4, with tempo Andantino sostenuto (quarter note = 88), is structured as:

  • an introduction for piano of twenty measures ;
  • an A-B-A section (measures 21 to 91) ;
  • a reprise of the introduction, shared between the piano and the soloist (measures 92 to 103) ;
  • an A'-B'-A' section (measures 104 to 154) ;
  • a finale with piano in a noble style , as similarly throughout the work.[7]

The theme and its arpeggiated seventh (G-B-D-F) which characterize this movement is stated first as a major seventh in the two first passages of the first sub-part A with a discreet accompaniment. To finish this sub-part, the theme arpeggiates a dominant seventh. In the second sub-part A, the theme first repeats the major seventh before developing into a minor seventh with a minor third in the second passage (G-B-D-F).[7]

The melodic line of part B is contrasting in both its static character and the vehemence of the piano accompaniment, and by the double forte dynamics, as much by the double forte dynamics which give a brutal character, as by the use of sequences (E major to begin with, then B major, G major, E major, etc.). This sub-part ends with a chromatic descent in the accompaniment at quadruple piano dynamic, up to a dominant seventh of G major, to prepare the return of the second sub-part A in the original key.[7]

A reprise of the first measures of the introduction uses only the text Bella premunt ("The armies pursue us"). While the piano repeats the introduction identically, the soprano doubles it several times for one or two measures interspersed with silences.[7]

The rest (sub-part A') is largely in the form of sequences. Sub-part B' uses the most static part of theme B in another sequence. The return to the key of sub-part A', repeated identically, operates on an enharmonic equivalence (G→F) as elsewhere in the work.[7]


  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.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r Claire Delamarche, « Gioacchino Rossini » in François-René Tranchefort (dir.), Guide de la musique sacrée et chorale profane de 1750 à nos jours pp. 884-894.
  8. ^ An effect repeated by Johannes Brahms in his Rhapsody in G minor op.79, composed 16 years later.
  9. ^ a b Nancy P. Fleming, « Petite Messe solennelle de Gioachino Rossini » in Jesse Rosenberg (dir.), Notes, Second Series, vol. 51, n°1 (sept. 1994), Music Library Association, pp. 413-418.
  10. ^ Second edition piano-vocal score, Ricordi & Co, 1968.


External links[edit]