For Soloists, chorus and Orchestra
SEARCHING FOR A SACRED STYLE
Rossini’s “Messa di Gloria”
For more than a 150 years, Rossini’s “Messa di Gloria” was known only on the basis of a few contemporary references, offering starkly contrasted visions of its content and quality. First performed on 24 March 1820. Several complete and incomplete manuscripts of the “Messa di Gloria” have also been found. The most important is in the Ricordi archives. This score originally offered a version of the piece identical to that in the original parts. In an 1820 letter, however, Rossini himself refers to the composition as a “Messa di Gloria”, the title adopted by the critical edition. Nothing in the “Messa di Gloria” suggests that Rossini approached his work with less than complete conviction. Perhaps the most successful choral number is the “Kyrie”, a composition of considerable force and unity. It is constructed around a short rhythmic figure in the orchestra. This motif appears first as a melodic and rhythmic ornament in the introduction, but it continues to be used as part of the orchestral theme of the Kyrie and throughout there orchestral fabric. The opening measures of the composition are harmonically unusual, initially obscuring the tonality. Following the Kyrie there is a duet for two tenors on “Christe eleison”, with a delicate orchestral accompaniment, followed by a shortened reprise of the Kyrie.
The Gloria is a great deal more theatrical than the Kyrie and can indeed be described as juxtaposing choirs of angels and joyful shepherds. Two contrasting sets of thematic material are used, first presented in the orchestra. The shepherds’ theme is carried in the lower sections of the orchestra and chorus and is treated as a crescendo, each repetition cloaked in more elaborate orchestration. The heavenly choirs, on the other hand, sing a graceful melodic line in the upper registers, in sharp contrast to the sober theme of the shepherds. This thematic material is never developed, but is simply repeated, so that the strength of the composition lies entirely in the appeal of its themes. It is an effective chorus, and one can understand the excitement of the Neapolitans. Six years later, the terrestrial theme became part of the overture and Act II finale of “Le siège de Corinthe”.
The solo arias, “Laudamus”, “Gratias” and “Quoniam”, are all virtuoso pieces, although the “Laudamus”, a soprano aria, differs markedly from the others. Its bipartite construction (Andate maestoso-Allegro) and the internal structure of each section resemble the aria type (cantabile- cabaletta) most commonly used by Rossini in his Neapolitan operas. Indeed, the orchestral introduction of the Andante maestoso is a phrase Rossini employed in operas, notably for the cavatina of Bianca in “Bianca e Falliero” and the aria of the Contessa di Folleville in “Il viaggio a Reims”. “Gratias” (for tenor) and “Quoniam” (for bass) are quite different. Both are in a single section and feature instrumental obbligatos. Their roots are in eighteenth-century ritornello arias, where the initial ritornello played by the orchestra or by an obbligato instrument presents musical material from which the remainder of the composition is constructed. Rossini rarely uses this technique in operas and the inclusion of these compositions in his Mass invokes an older, conservative style.
There are two solo movements for tenor in the “Messa di Gloria”. Analysis of the vocal parts indicates that two separate performers were intended, and the presence of two tenor parts in the “Christe” confirms this. The “Gratias” was written for the kind of voice we associate with Giovanni David, of high tessitura and great flexibility. The “Qui tollis”, on the other hand, requires a more powerful voice of deeper extension, comfortable with extreme leaps, similar to the vocal style in parts written for Andrea Nozzari. That both David and Nozzari performed in Pietro Raimondi’s “Ciro in Babilonia” at the Theatro San Carlo on 19 March 1820 suggests that they probably participated in the first performance of Rossini’s “Messa di Gloria”. The “Qui tollis” is one of the most dramatic sections of the Mass: its tone and characteristic interaction of chorus and soloist anticipate the “Inflammatus” in Rossini’s “Stabat Mater”. But the “Qui tollis” is more frankly operatic than the “Inflammatus”. It concludes with what can only be described as a perfectly regular (and stunning) cabaletta.
Thanks to studies carried out by Jesse Rosenberg, it seems probable than the famous contrapuntalist Pietro Raimondo did indeed collaborate with Rossini on the “Messa di Gloria”, and that the final number of the work, the “Cum sancto” was composed by Raimondi. The thematic substance of the concluding fugue and the contrapuntal techniques employed are comparable in point after point to the style of Raimondi, as manifested in similar works written in the years immediately surrounding the Rossini “Messa di Gloria”. Rossini presumably wished to conclude his Mass with a strong fugal finale. Either because of pressures of time or a sense of insecurity that continued to affect the “disgrace” of Padre Mattei’s contrapuntal school, he called on Raimondi to assist him. Raimondi’s rousing fugal finale is in two parts, the second based on an inversion of the theme of the first. Rossini’s “Messa di Gloria” (with the help of Raimondi) is both a beautiful work and a work of great importance, as we begin to explore Italian sacred music of the nineteenth century. It is the first sacred music of Rossini’s maturity, indeed the only sacred work to come from his period of active theatrical composition. It shows the influence of his Neapolitan operas, particularly “Mosè in Egitto”, in its masterful orchestration, its fine sense of detail, and its firm command of a wide range of musical structures, while manifesting the composer’s search for a sacred style.
PHILIP GOSSETT (Decca libretto of Rossini’s Messa di Gloria- 2006)