Hear a mass that’s loaded with opera in a performance by the Dartmouth College Glee Club on Sunday, May 5, 2 pm, in Dartmouth’s Rollins Chapel.
Gioachino Rossini wrote his Petite messe solennelle (Little solemn mass) during his long “retirement” from composing opera. Although it’s a sacred work–in contrast for the comedic opera buffa Rossini was known for–Petite messe is loaded with operatic melody and color.
“As a mass, it’s bizarre, in a good way” said Glee Club Interim Director Filippo Ciabatti. “He showed he could write fugues and counterpoint, but even his fugues are Italian fugues–there’s a lot of sunshine in them.”
Dartmouth’s premier student chorus, the Glee Club soars through this work, joined by four graduate students from the vocal program of New England Conservatory of Boston, with two pianists and a harmonium, in accordance with Rossini’s original arrangement.
The soloists are soprano Saori Erickson, tenor Seiyoung Kim, mezzo soprano Ana Mora and bass-baritone Zizhao Wang. The instrumentalists are pianists Evan Hirsch Natsuko Yamagata and, on harmonium, Elizabeth Borowsky.
Writes Joseph DuBose in program notes for this concert, Rossini was Italy’s foremost composer of opera and had earned the title of “The Italian Mozart” when he ended his highly successful career at age 38 with the production of Guillaume Tell in 1829, his 38th opera. Though nominally retired, Rossini continued to compose and lost none of the proficiency in his craft. For the next 39 years of his life, he composed small pieces intended for private performances, usually in the drawing room of his estate in Passy. Most of these were nothing more than salon music, though tempered with Rossini’s sense of refinement; some, however, were private excursions into his long-suppressed desire to compose serious music.
One example of the more serious music Rossini indulged in was the Petite messe solennelle, composed in 1863, for a private performance at the home of Count Michel-Frédéric Pillet-Will. He referred to the work, which is really not that “petite,” as the last of his ironically titled Péchés de vieillesse (“Sins of Old Age”). Continuing in his ironical tone, he even prefaced it with the witty apology (whose humor is unfortunately lost in its English translation): “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!”
Originally scored for 12 voices, two pianos, harmonium and chorus, the Petite messe solennelle is a setting of the ordinary of the mass. The work is dominated by the solo voices, as no number is wholly absent of them, and shows that the composer lost none his command during his retirement. Though written for a private performance, Rossini did not wish this little work to fall into obscurity after his death. Even more, he feared another hand orchestrating. And so, during 1866-67, Rossini orchestrated it. However, a public performance of this version did not occur until February 28, 1869—roughly three months after the composer’s death and the day which would have been celebrated as the composer’s 70th birthday (he was born on leap day 1792).