English Arts Chorale

Gioachino Rossini

Gioachino Rossini

In October 2015 the choir performed Rossini's jaunty and exciting "Petite Messe Solennelle"  Neither little, nor solemn, nor particularly liturgical according to Napoleon. Rossini called it "the last of the sins of my old age "

This is Catherine's interview with Gioachino Rossini - fictional based on fact!

Signor Rossini, thank you for sparing your time today to speak to us. It is an honour.
My pleasure, but do call me Gioachino. 

Perhaps you could tell us a little about your early life.
I was born in Italy into a musical family. I launched my operatic career in 1810 when I wrote my first comedy for a Venice theatre. Further commissions followed. Though I say it myself, ‘La pietra del paragone’ was a great success at La Scala.

So you received national acclaim at a young age?
At 20 I was Italy’s most prominent composer! I wrote two operas for different Venetian theatres: the serious ‘Tancredi’ and the comic ‘L'italiana in Algeri’. As for Milan... well, I would rather not talk about my two operas there ... But then there was Naples....

Was this your first directorship?
Yes, in my early twenties I became the Musical and Artistic Director of the Teatro San Carlo in Naples. What a dream! I could concentrate on serious opera there, and at the same time compose comedies for other theatres. I had great fun writing ‘The Barber of Seville’ and ‘La Cenerentola’.

When did you move to Paris?
I was already famous throughout Europe when I took on the directorship of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris, aged 32. I stayed for a glorious five years. 32 operas, two symphonies, cantatas, oratorios, you name it. But after composing my final opera ‘Guillaume Tell’...well married life, you know...

Was that when you decided to retire from composition?  
I had never been happy with my wife Isabella. After she died in 1845, I was finally free to marry my beloved Olympe, who had been... Let’s say... my special friend for fifteen years. With Olympe my health and humour returned, together with my urge to compose. I devoted myself to writing sacred music, as well as over 150 miniatures for both piano and voice. 

Where were these works performed?
At my salon in Paris. Just for private audiences, with many celebrities like myself of course. They were the last of my sons of old age! Full of wit and parody as you might expect.  

This was when you wrote ‘Petite Messe Solonnelle’? 
That’s right, in 1863. I am delighted it is still performed today. Napoleon 3rd said my Messe is “neither little not solemn, nor particularly liturgical”. My answer to that? "Is it indeed sacred music that I have just written, or merely some damned music? 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!”

When was it first performed?
In 1864 at the dedication of Count Pillet-Will’s private chapel. I wanted to avoid all that sentimental opulence of most liturgical works. I wrote it for 12 singers, with soloists doubling as chorus, two pianos and harmonium.

Why a harmonium?
The harmonium had only been invented in 1841, and was created to give a reed organ with expression. I am so pleased that we have Charles playing one tonight in the lovely Reigate St Mary’s. 

Finally, can you tell us a little about the work itself?
I enjoyed mixing march rhythms and majestic tempos, and keeping everyone on their toes with some surprising harmonies.  Rhythm and modulation play an important part in the Kyrie and the rhythmic excitement continues throughout the Gloria. I hope the Cum sancto spiritu will be one of the most lively Amens you will ever hear!

Yet the Credo feels like orthodox 19th century sacred music.
Yes, but I could not resist some dramatic recitative style at times. My dedication for this Mass was “Thou knowest, o Lord, as well as I, that really I am only a composer of Opera Buffa.”

The instrumental Preludio Religioso is the most heartfelt section of the whole piece. Why this complete change of mood? 
I was 71 and near the end of my life when I wrote the Mass. At that age, you know, one starts to  think that maybe one shouldn’t entirely laugh off life, death and that which was to come. 

And how does the work end?
With the luminescent Agnus Dei for contralto, which is my favourite voice. The Chorus brings the work to a dramatic close.  

Did you know that when your grave was transferred from Paris to Santa Florence, the ceremony was attended 6,000 admirers? 
It has been said that I was the most popular composer in history. Certainly one of the wealthiest! I am so pleased to know that the vast fortune I left was used to establish a music conservatory, and sponsor the Rossini Opera Festival today.

You have certainly left a legacy, Signor. Thank you for your time.
The pleasure was all mine. 


© 2015 Catherine Nasskau and English Arts Chorale

If your choir would like to use this material in your own concert programmes, please contact Catherine Nasskau at the EAC for permission.

Information for these interviews was taken from various sources including Classic FM and Wikipedia.