The Sacred Rossini

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Regular readers of my articles know that I absolutely adore the music and the spirit of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), whom I rank with Haydn and Berlioz as the most underrated of major composers. Those who only have a casual acquaintance with him through his comic operas, witticisms and passion for food and wine think of him as a jocose bon vivant not to be taken seriously as a cultural figure.

Rossini was a trailblazer. He wrote some of the most challenging and gorgeous music for the voice. His overtures are practically unrivaled even if Mozart, Wagner, Verdi and other composers wrote some very good ones. His sophisticated expansion of the orchestra as a dramatic and emotional device was matched in the early 19th century only by Beethoven and Berlioz.

He was a great Italian at a time when Italy was more a concept than a nation. He made glorious use of the language in his operas and in his letters. Rossini inspired Italians with his music and wrote arias such as “Pensa alla Patria” (Think of Your Homeland) from L’Italiana in Algeri in which the Italian Girl exhorted audiences to embrace their identity even though they were under foreign domination. The opera premiered in Venice, under the thumb of Austria, on May 22, 1813, the day Wagner was born in Leipzig and five months before Verdi’s birth. Listen to the aria sung by Daniela Barcellona.

Though Verdi became famous for his patriotism and generosity, he acknowledged Rossini’s influence on the formation of his attitudes. Rossini’s Italianness awakened similar feelings in Verdi. We know that Verdi built a hospital for workers and, at the end of his life, the famous rest home in Milan for retired musicians. Rossini built a similar institution a full 50 years earlier. Most of his biographers, and those who commented on his life and work, were not aware of this. For them, the familiar tropes of Rossini’s being a frivolous comedian and not a serious artist were easier to reinforce.

Like any great artist, Rossini drew on reserves of deep and often contradictory emotions. He used humor to cover the depression that was an almost constant presence in his life, the proverbial “black dog” that Winston Churchill would later describe so well. Rossini had severe medical problems for much of his life, a lot of them due to the syphilis he contracted at the age of 14. His choice to ultimately live in Paris was based on his search for doctors who could provide him some relief. It is remarkable that he lived to the age of 76, though he significantly curtailed his composing after his last opera, Guillaume Tell, premiered in 1829, when he was 37.

If he took comfort from religious observance, we don’t know too much about it. His letters are seldom pious in nature, referring to God in general ways as do many people in conversation. We don’t have evidence of his being anti-clerical in the way Verdi was, a stance that was quite unusual for the 19th century. Part of the fascination with Verdi is that his Messa da Requiem (composed in 1874 in memory of the writer Alessandro Manzoni the year before) is felt to be a profoundly religious work.

When Rossini died on Nov. 13, 1868, Verdi wrote, “A great name has been lost to the world! He had the widest reputation, the most popular of our time, and he was the glory of Italy!” A letter from Verdi appeared on Nov. 20 in the Gazzetta Musicale di Milano proposing that a Mass be composed in Rossini’s memory with 14 Italian composers each writing a section. The deadline was Sept. 15, 1869 and it seems that 13 pieces came in. 

The project ultimately did not come to pass because of friction between Verdi and an impresario in Bologna, where the work was supposed to be given. In fact, it was not heard until 1988 in the Liederhalle in Stuttgart. The part written by Verdi, the “Libera me, Domine”, was repurposed with some modifications and used in the Requiem. Listen to Leontyne Price’s amazing rendition of it and imagine it as Verdi’s tribute to Rossini:

Rossini wrote five works that could be described as a Mass. Two were composed in 1808 by the 16-year old. The first one was done collectively at his music school in Bologna and he is thought to have written three or four segments of it. He did a work in three parts—a Kyrie, Gloria and Credo—for Ravenna. He wrote another three-part Mass the following year for performance in Milan, although the Credo was incomplete.

In March of 1820, in Naples, he received a request for a Mass from the Arciconfraternità di San Luigi, to be performed on the 24th of that month in the church of San Ferdinando. Even for someone who composed as fast as Rossini, there was not enough time to do this alone. He sought help from Pietro Raimondi, a colleague then at the Teatro San Carlo. Rossini wrote solos and some of the choruses but Raimondi had a large hand in the final product. The Giornale delle Due Sicilie of Naples described the Mass as “learned, grave, sublime.”

The famous and quite fanciful biography of the composer by Stendhal often sounds more like a picaresque novel than a faithful telling of a famous life. Here is how the Mass is described in that book: "It was a delightful spectacle: we saw pass before our eyes, and in a slightly different form that lent piquancy to the recognition, all the great composer’s sublime arias. One of the priests cried out in all seriousness: ‘Rossini, if you knock on the gate of Heaven with this Mass, St. Peter will be unable to delay opening it for you despite all your sins!’”

The fifth Mass is quite different from the others in that it was written by the elderly composer who had not produced much music for a very long time. The Petite Messe solonnelle was composed in Paris in 1863 and performed in the home of Countess Louise Pillet-Will on March 14, 1864. It is a “little Mass” in that it was composed for 12 voices (four soloists and a chorus of eight) accompanied by two pianos and harmonium. It was performed twice in 1865 in the presence of most of the foremost composers in Paris and drew praise, especially from Meyerbeer. Rossini decided to orchestrate the Mass and one wonders if he envisioned it as his own Requiem. It was performed for the first time, posthumously, at Paris’s Théâtre Italienne, on Feb. 24, 1869. 

The Theatrical Stabat Mater

August 13 and 14 have been circled in my calendar for quite a while because Rossini’s Stabat Mater comes to Avery Fisher Hall as part of the Mostly Mozart Festival.  It had an unusual genesis. The ten-part work is based on a text by Jacopone da Todi, a 13th-century Franciscan monk. Through a French banker friend, Rossini received a commission from the archdeacon of Madrid, Francisco Fernández Varella, to be performed only once, on Good Friday 1833. Rossini wrote parts 1, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 but illness prevented him from doing the rest. The others were composed by Giuseppe Tadolini.  

In 1841, Rossini decided to compose parts 2, 3, 4 and 10 and the Stabat Mater was performed in Paris. In 1842, it had its Italian premiere, in Bologna, and the conductor was none other than Gaetano Donizetti. Funds from that performance went to build a home for needy musicians.

If you listen to the Stabat Mater, I think you will find it at least as theatrical as the Verdi Requiem and quite lyrical too. If at all possible, go hear it at Lincoln Center, where deluxe musical forces will be at work. The conductor is the excellent Gianandrea Noseda, who has been going from strength to strength recently. His Rigoletto at the Aix-en-Provence Festival was heaped with praise. He just did the Verdi Requiem at the Verbier Festival and arrives in New York with four outstanding singers.

Soprano Maria Agresta is a fast-rising star in her native Italy and elsewhere in Europe.  Mezzo Daniela Barcellona makes her Mostly Mozart debut. She is now a fixture at top European houses and a big star at the annual Rossini Festival in Pesaro. She will sing in the Verdi Requiem with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony on Oct. 10, the composer’s 200th birthday, in a performance that will be broadcast worldwide.

American Gregory Kunde began as an elegant Rossini tenor and his repertory has expanded in recent years to include Berlioz, Verdi and others. He is the rare singer to perform both the Rossini and Verdi Otellos. The talented young American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen completes the quartet of singers, all performing with the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra and the Concert Chorale of New York.

Photo of Gianandrea Noseda by Chris Christodoulou