Despite its title (meaning “little solemn mass”) this setting of the Latin mass, lasting around 85 minutes, is neither little nor solemn! Rossini is best known as a composer of comic operas; but he finished writing his operas in 1829 aged 37 and only started composing again when he was in his sixties. Many of these late pieces are quirky and written with tongue partly in cheek. Rossini called them “the sins of old age” and this mass “the last mortal sin of my old age”.
The mass was written in 1863, when Rossini was over 70, for the dedication of a private chapel owned by a wealthy friend. Because of the circumstances the number of musicians needed was small: 12 singers accompanied by 2 pianos and a harmonium; but Rossini later recast the mass for 4 soloists and choir with full orchestra. Nonetheless, the piano/harmonium combination is still the more popular, though the second piano was simply intended to reinforce the first in some sections and is not vital for a performance.
Rossini famously wrote at the end of the score “I do not know if this music is sacred or sacrilegious”. But although the music is always entertaining and sometimes playful – not quite what we would associate with the solemnity of a formal mass – it is never irreverent. Rather, it highlights the joy and exuberance which reflect a genuine enthusiasm for the worship of God. This is particularly true in two fast fugal sections for the choir (Cum Sancto Spirito in the Gloria and In vitam venturi in the Credo). Throughout the work we can recognise Rossini’s supreme gift for artless melody and witty accompaniments; while his dramatic power is especially evident in some of the solo passages.
Rossini set all the usual parts of the mass: Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei. He also included a setting (for soprano solo) of a separate text, O Salutaris Hostia, a devotional prayer suitable for the Communion. In addition, between the Credo and the Sanctus, there is an extended solo for the piano (entitled Preludio religioso) which reveals an unexpectedly serious and reflective side to the composer.
Peter Harbord, North Yorkshire Chorus