Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868)
Petite Messe Solennelle
A performance of the Petite Messe Solennelle by Rossini with an ensemble suggested by the composer himself (in the version of 1863 and 1864 at the Pillet-Will Palace, without the Salutaris Hostia), is not merely a scholarly operation, though that in itself would be a worthy undertaking. For Rossini’s last masterpiece is best realized with the salon sound of chamber music—a sound all the more modern when tied to the timbre of the instruments and to the increased independence between compositional language and the size of the ensemble (a direction which would be further investigated in the twentieth century). In my opinion, certain structural characteristics of the Petite Messe Solennelle become more evident in a strictly chamber performance with 12 singers—12 (between chorus and soloists), as Rossini imagined with ironic symbolism (the twelve apostles), perhaps tied to the instrumental trinity in which the Father is undoubtedly the premier piano and the Holy Ghost accompanied by the (humble but insinuating) sound of the harmonium. The global architecture created from the individual parts is, in fact, a truly masterful aspect of the Petite Messe. Not only are the Kyrie and Agnus Dei constructed according to a single design (a solution favored by the structure of the text); the Gloria and Credo are also founded on vast cyclical patterns (assisted by a theatrically episodic return to the first words of the text), though the former opportunely highlights the various solo numbers. The Credo, in particular, isolates the Crucifixus within a single harmonic and contrapuntal flow, interrupted only by imitative tour de force (“et vitam venturi saeculi – Amen”) and by the dramatic peroration of the finale. The great expressive force of this movement is created by discarding the traditional and frequently employed mood of profound hypersensitivity in favor of a painful but serene atmosphere in which subtle tensions are embodied in the chromatic appoggiaturas of the intense vocal line of the soprano soloist, in the syncopations of the accompaniment, or in the startling leaps of tonality. The Sanctus, too, dispenses with the common formula of exalting the eloquent joyfulness of the text, with the Benedictus set as a lyrical oasis between the climaxes of the Osannas: in this Sanctus the focus is on the intimacy of the a cappella choir, preceded by a brief versicle played on the harmonium, and the text is set in a single movement in which the full-bodied exclamations frame the sweet mediations of the Benedictus.