Messa per Rossini

Author: 
Richard Osborne

Messa per Rossini

  • Messa per Rossini
  • Messa per Rossini

Within days of Rossini's death on November 13th, 1868, Verdi proposed to his publisher Ricordi that a Requiem Mass be assembled in Rossini's honour. It would be written by 13 leading Italian composers of the day, each allocated a movement with specific guidance as to key and the distribution of the musical forces. Verdi requested for himself the ''Libera me'', a movement that was to form the basis of the final section of his own Messa di Requiem five years later. Verdi conceded that the finished work would be ''lacking in musical unity''—his embryonic setting of the ''Dies irae'' within the ''Libera me'' is a case in point as it does not match Antonio Bazzini's earlier in the Messa but it would, he said, show how much we revere Rossini's memory.
It was a notable gesture, but in practical terms it was a problematic one. For though Verdi conceived the idea and successfully promoted it, he was not willing to underwrite it financially or administratively. The contributors and the musical authorities in Bologna—correctly seen by Verdi as the early musical homeland of Rossini and his music would have to look after that. There was also the curious stipulation that the piece would be locked away in the Liceo Musicale after the initial performance at Bologna's San Petronio, to be taken out and revived only on specific anniversaries.
As far as the leading lights of Bologna's musical life in 1869 were concerned, this plan was riddled with disincentives. What's more, to a city rapidly developing a reputation as the torch-bearer of the new Italian artistic avant garde, the idea of their being saddled with so backward-looking a project was not especially attractive, not least when it was in origin a Milanese idea. And so it was that as a result of parsimony, indifference, pride and parish-pump politics a situation developed whereby the Messa per Rossini was completed mirabile dictu, but never performed. Or, at least, not in Verdi's or any other contributors' lifetimes.
In 1970, scholar David Rosen unearthed the balance of the autograph manuscripts in the Ricordi archives whilst researching the origins of Verdi's own Requiem. Later, in Stuttgart in 1986 a conference on Bach in Italy that included a paper on the Verdi Requiem and its origins in the Messa per Rossini led Helmuth Rilling to take up with Pierluigi Petrobelli the idea of the Messa being edited into shape for a modern performing edition. And just as in 1869 a committee had been set up to commission the work, so in 1986 a committee was formed to oversee the editing, comprising Petrobelli, Marcello Conati and Julian Budden, and the work duly had its world premiere in Stuttgart in September 1988, a mere 119 years after Rossini's death and Verdi's ideas for the tribute. Tapes of that performance have already been broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and the recording derives from that event using the same singers, choirs and orchestra under Rilling's direction.
The work is not a lost masterpiece, though I think it merits a marginally more positive response than the slightly downbeat one accorded it in the November issue of Music and Letters by William Ashbrook, who concludes that the Messa gives us ''a welcome opportunity to sample the music of a number of obscure composers, writing in an extinct tradition and exhibiting their talents, such as they were''. Petrobelli has argued that the work has a unity by virtue of the common stylistic and cultural ''matrix'' from which the composers come, and it should not be forgotten—some of the music does not allow us to forget it—that Verdi the choral composer was very evidently part of that tradition, albeit its great transforming element.
Even where a composer had no dramatic experience, always a potential drawback in this most potentially dramatic of religious works, the craft was often formidable. Gaetano Gaspari, who writes the multi-voice, multi-key ''Offertorium'', may have been more distingtushed as a bibliographer than as a composer, but he was certainly well trained in composition. He was the Maestro di cappella at San Petronio. By contrast, the organist of Palermo Cathedral, Pietro Platania, who contributes the ''Sanctus'', confirms his status as one of nineteenth-century Italy's great contrapuntalists. There is some splendid partwriting, particularly in the ''Pleni sunt coeli'', and a grandeur that recalls his famous setting for six four-part choruses and orchestras of Exurgat Deus. Even Carlo Coccia, at 87 the oldest contributor and Rossini's senior by a decade, makes a tolerable contribution. The style may be old-fashioned but how well the ''Lacrimosa'' moves from hard-won simplicity, through gentle fugal rectitude to a really rather vital condusion.
The Messa begins strongly. Antonio Buzzolla, organist of St Mark's, Venice, knew his Rossini, and his Mozart and Mendelssohn. The awed G minor opening has plenty of musical presence dark-toned with some impressive writing for bass voices, lower strings and brass. And though Antonio Bazzini's ''Dies irae'' pales beside Verdi's (as yet embryonic) one, it has its own vitality, and power enough to moderate any doubts one might have about his excessive reliance or sequences for dramatic effect. After that, Carlo Pedrotti's ''Tuba mirum'' is, if anything, even more theatrical, even grander. Significantly, Pedrotti was to be the first director of the newly-founded Liceo Musicale in Pesaro, set up in Rossini's memory. He regarded himself in later years as something of a compositional fogey but his contribution to the Messa is impressive.
One of the dangers of the composer-by-composer structure is that each one is inclined to build a static, self-enclosed set-piece that has no relation to the larger context. Federico Ricci's ''Recordare'' and Antonio Cagnoni's ''Quid sum miser'', the latter positively Gounodesque in its later stages, could be accused of over-egging their respective puddings. Both these numbers benefit from competent singing from Gabriela Benackova and Florence Quivar, and it must be said that the purely choral contributions come off very well indeed throughout, as one would expect of choirs under Rilling's direction. Away from the distaff side, though, things are less good. Alessandro Nini's ''Ingemisco'' is badly mauled by James Wagner, a performance that would have amused Rossini, who liked Nini and distrusted tenors who lack musical refinement. And after hearing Raimondo Boucheron's ''Confutatis'' sung by the bass, Aage Haugland, we are not much better able to demur from a notorious French judgement of his music as being of ''une banalite desperante''. Verdi's setting of the ''Libera me'', similar to but also fascinatingly different from the final version in his own Requiem, tests the soprano in the low tessitura writing, and Rilling surely takes the ''Requiem aeternam'' far too slowly for her own or the music's comfort.
What is interesting is the degree to which the composers approached by Verdi tried to please him personally—Lauro Rossi's ''Agnus Dei'' seems to have the great man in mind at times. Verdi's influence on the work, and the work's significance as background to his own Requiem is quite marked: a 'Messa per Verdi', perhaps? But what has not, as far as I know, been much commented on is how remote the Messa per Rossini is from Rossini's own late sacred and choral style as perfected in the Petite messe solennelle.
All of which only serves to make one wonder afresh at how completely Rossini had emancipated himself musically, imaginatively, and spiritually from nineteenth-century Italy, if not from the Italy of Palestrina and Cimarosa, in his last years. There can be no doubt that he would have been gratified by Verdi's project but probably saddened, if unsurprised, that the contributors were neither as discriminating in their backward glances as he was nor as prescient of future developments (the calmer, clearer French style that Rossini so interestingly developed) as he had proved to be in the Petite messe solennelle. In the end, the Messa per Rossini pays its greatest tribute to Rossini by throwing into vivid relief his own originality, his own continuing mastery.'

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