Today, when hearing the name Gioacchino Rossini, everybody thinks of The Barber of Seville. Yet the most celebrated opera composer of the first quarter of the 19th century also composed musical pieces in other genres, and his most important works include two sacred compositions: Stabat mater and Petite messe solennelle (Little Solemn Mass). The latter was written in 1863-64, the last period of the composer’s career, when, after decades of physical and mental illness, he was ‘reborn’ in Paris, as his health had improved dramatically, his famous sense of humour had returned and he was composing again. He dedicated the mass to the consecration of the private chapel of a couple who belonged to his circle of friends. This explains the unusually small performing apparatus, which in the original version consists only of a 12-member choir, four soloists from the choir, two pianos and a harmonium. In our concert today, the work will be performed with a larger choir, accompanied by a piano and a harmonium.
The adjective “little” in the title of the mass can only refer to the number of the original performers, since the work, which consists of 14 movements and lasts more than 80 minutes, is anything but small. In addition to the standard, invariable parts of the mass, Rossini also composed the offertory music, entitled Preludio religioso, a purely instrumental movement, and later even inserted the hymn O salutaris hostia between the Sanctus-Benedictus and the Agnus Dei. The music of the mass is a mixture of styles: in addition to the arias, which are often very operatic, the chorus “Christe eleison” recalls the time of Palestrina, and the two choral fugues at the end of the Gloria and Credo are brilliant examples of baroque polyphony, the so-called ‘stile antico’.
With his characteristically sarcastic humour, the composer called his mass “the last mortal sin of my old age”, and in the original manuscript of the work he wrote a dedication not only to the countess but also to God: “Dear Lord, here it is finished, this poor little mass. Have I just written sacred music, or rather, sacrilegious music? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know. Not much technique, a little bit of heart, that’s all. Blessings to you and grant me Paradise. G. Rossini. Passy 1863.”