Chora Nova Rolls Out Rossini’s Mass “for Three Sexes”
At first glance, the ironic assessment attributed to the emperor Napoleon III that Rossini’s Petite Messe solennelle is neither little, solemn, nor even really a Mass, seems hardly worth a second thought. Its flippancy invites derision, but the comment astutely highlights some of the most interesting elements of this late-Rossini work: its scope, its affect, and its purpose. The Petite Messe was written in 1863, just five years before the composer’s death, and first performed for the consecration of a private chapel at the home of a close friend. The Mass proved very popular, particularly as a choral-orchestral piece, when it was first published after Rossini’s death. Even today, it is considered by scholars to be one of his greatest works, yet it is nonetheless little known by modern concert audiences.
Chora Nova’s performance on May 29, under the direction of Paul Flight, provides an opportunity to hear this Mass in something close to its original version. Rossini’s autograph score, for two pianos, harmonium, and singers, states that “twelve singers of three sexes — men, women, and castrati — will be enough for its performance: eight for the chorus, four for the solos, a total of twelve cherubim.” This austere scoring may be why Rossini called the work a “small” Mass, for by the mid-19th century the typical Mass was composed for a full complement of instruments, in addition to the singers.
Chora Nova has many more than 12 singers (and no castrati!), and will present the work with soloists, one piano, and harmonium. Flight suggests that leaving out the second piano brings the chorus to the fore, since “the second piano part largely doubles the choir and is entirely unnecessary.” The single piano also allows the harmonium and piano to be in more of a duet, and creates three distinct sonic timbres that sound both on their own and in concordance.
Yet Napoleon, or whoever uttered that witticism, was not altogether wrong to suggest that the Mass is not so small. It is built on a large scale — prominently featuring many extended arias for the soloists — and it rivals Beethoven’s Missa solemnis in length. The musical style is varied, including traditional choral writing, a cappella sections, old-style fugues, and lyrical Romantic melodies. The writing for the piano and for the singers paints numerous different affects, in keeping with the emotional connotations of the text. Rossini calls for extreme dynamics throughout the piece, regularly indicating shifts from quadruple piano to pianissimo, from pianissimo to forte, or from forte to triple forte in only a few bars.
These many contrasts make this a challenging piece to perform, and at the same time they strongly call to mind Rossini’s operatic writing — which is perhaps what “Napoleon” meant when he suggested the work is neither very solemn nor much of a Mass. Flight, too, notes the dramatic character of the piece, saying that “it betrays the operatic influence without being overly melodramatic or weighty. It is an extremely tuneful work, and the music shows Rossini to be a fine craftsman.”
Despite its abundant operatic tendencies, it is clear that the work was conceived as a heartfelt and loving praise of God. Rossini wrote to a friend in 1866: “You know that I composed a Messa solenne, performed in a large hall at the home of my friend Count Pillet-Will, which excited much interest. The performance was perfect ... with two pianos and a harmonium. Despite the entreaties of both the wise and the ignorant, I greatly hesitate about orchestrating it, to permit its performance in a large basilica, because of the lack of soprano and contralto voices [required by Pope Pius IX], without which it is impossible to sing the glories of the Lord.”
The Mass suggests that, in the composer’s mind, there was no conflict between a dramatic style of writing that was at home on the operatic stage and a passionate style suited to the church. So, was “Napoleon” correct in his judgment of the Petite Messe solennelle, and in his implication that it was too dramatic and joyous, and not enough of a Mass? On May 29, thanks to Paul Flight and Chora Nova, you can decide for yourself.