Requiem for Rossini

Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)(Photo: Wikipedia)
Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868)(Photo: Wikipedia)

How many sopranos does it take to change a lightbulb? At least five. One to change the bulb and four others to kick the ladder out from under her.

You can substitute tenor, bass, violinist, conductor and certainly composer for soprano. Bad enough having five sopranos collaborate in any situation. Can you imagine one work involving 12 different composers.

Such was the problem posed by the Messa per Rossini. This Requiem Mass was intended to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Gioacchino Rossini. Most of us know Rossini for The Barber of Seville. Figaro is a delight but Rossini was much more than one work.

Rossini was revered by the French and Italians as Beethoven had been a generation earlier. His operas, comic and tragic,  were standard fare throughout Europe and America. He had retired from opera 30 years before his death.

Rich, and in the arms of his French mistress, Rossini enjoyed being fussed over in glamorous Paris.  Photographs of the composer late in life show him corpulent, well-fed certainly, and a bit dazed from gout. He dabbled in sacred music and published a volume of piano pieces he called Sins of My Old Age. Inactivity did not prevent Rossini from being revered by composers from Verdi, Wagner, Brahms and the elderly disciples of Schubert and Beethoven.

Giuseppe Verdi saw the occasion of Rossini’ death first as a great loss and secondly as the impetus to celebrate the Italian republic. There was no greater patriot for the unification of Italy than Giuseppe Verdi. His earlier operas, Nabucco>, I Lombardi, and I due Foscari all contained rousing patriotic choruses. Whether sung by Egyptian slaves, or knights of the crusades decked out in 12th century garb, no audience member failed to recognize these coded calls to arms and patria.

Verdi suggested a memorial mass for Rossini to be performed on or about November 13, 1869. The work was intended to be performed once only, preferably at the Cathedral at Bologna, then all of the parts were to be locked up forever at the Fondazione Rossini in Pesaro, the late composer’s hometown. One different composer would complete each section of the mass.

Verdi himself provided the finale, Libera me Domine, in morte aeternam. Eleven of his contemporaries, none remembered today, were given three months to submit their work.  Surprise, surprise. There was so much in fighting, so much tug of war between the theaters of Bolgona and Pesaro, between Verdi and the Catholic church, for which he had contempt, between the publisher Ricordi, and over money that though the mass was completed it was never performed.

It was locked away, ignored and forgotten. Statues went up to Rossini and hymns were sung but the Requiem was dropped like yesterday’s dinner.

One hundred and one years later the Requiem was rediscovered, reassembled , re-edited and several years after that the Messa per Rossini was finally performed at last. Helmut Rilling conducted the American premiere in 1989. The work was recorded with the Prague Philharmonic, the Stuttgart Choral Society, five soloists and Rilling conducting. It took a century but Rossini’s memorial can be heard a last.

Verdi was smart to insist on one performance only. The Messa is a superb curiosity but the contrasting styles and frankly the mediocrity of a few of the compoers make this a work wonderful to hear once. I do like Alessandro Nini’s Ingemisco and the contributions of Frederico Ricci and Antonio Cagnoni.

It comes soon to Musica Sacra, which you can hear Sunday nights at 8 pm on Classical 101. I want to present this polyglot Mass at least once. A work like this informs Verdi’s own Requiem-that most magnificent of choral works- completed in 1874. In this year of Verdi’s bicentennial his thoughts about music and the politics of music are worth hearing again.

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