Come and Sing : Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle – Saturday 14th May 2011

Posted on May 14, 2011

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Back in May we held the first (of what we hope will be many) “Come and Sing” events; throwing open the doors of Christ Church to welcome anyone willing to join the choir for a day long rehearsal, culminating in an evening performance. The inaugural event was led by Jeremy Jackman –former King’s Singer and renowned Choral Director, who was invited toChristChurchby our own Dave Hinitt, who had acted as a recording engineer on several of Jeremy’s CDs. The doors opened at 10am and we were soon joined by past and present members of the choir and their friends and family, choristers from nearby churches, members of local choral societies and people who simply enjoy singing!

Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle was our first “Come and Sing” work – an eighty minute setting with the Kyrie and Gloria in the first part and the Creed, Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei in the second. The piece was chosen because it contains fourteen sections which can be tackled by singers of all abilities, which allowed the less experienced (like me!) to take part, as well as stretch the talents of our more experienced members of our choir – Alison St-Denis (Soprano) and Liz Hill (Alto) took on the many challenging solo parts to fantastic effect.

We learnt the piece in a single day and performed it in the evening

The Petite Messe Solennelle was composed in 1863 for the consecration of the private chapel of Countess Louise Pillet-Will in Pariswhere Rossini had been living at the time and, perhaps not surprisingly from the composer of The Barber of Seville is full of fantastic tunes and catchy rhythms! The sacred text is set to music which is unashamedly operatic in style – with wonderful melodies and moving arias. We performed the piece as originally composed (and favoured by Rossini), with accompaniment by two pianos and a harmonium. Dave Hinitt and Harvey Brink each took a piano, sitting either side of Rosie Tweddle on the harmonium. Rosie had the task of performing the Prelude Religioso one of the two ‘additional’ movements which appears in the piece (in common with the style of French masses of the time). To enable the choir to see the conductor over the three instruments, Dave (who counts organ building among his many talents) had constructed a robust podium supported by four newel posts!

Rossini, famed for his opera buffa (comic operas) was a prolific composer, writing over forty operas for the French and Italian audiences up until the age of thirty-nine, when he retired – which must have required some serious pension planning! Reminiscent of current events, he sued the government of France (successfully) after they refused to honour a lifetime pension granted to him by Charles X under the terms of a five year contract – a period which culminated in William Tell. During his forty years of retirement, Rossini composed around 150 mainly shorter works, dedicating more time to each. He described these pieces as his “Péchés de vieillesse” (Sins of Old Age) which concluded with the Petite Messe Solennelle. Rossini’s introductory note states that: “Twelve singers of three sexes, Men, Women and Castrati, will be enough for its execution – that is, eight for the chorus, four for the solos – twelve Cherubims in all. Gracious God, pardon me the following comparison. Twelve are also the Apostles…Be reassured Lord, I guarantee there will be no Judas at my Supper and that mine will sing in tune and with love your praises and this little composition which, is, alas, the last mortal sin of my old age”. 

Alison and Liz were joined by William Knight (Tenor) and Ben Lewis (Bass) to sing the four solo parts, but thankfully for those of us who were new to the piece, more than eight people came to join the chorus (and to the relief of the menfolk, Jeremy did not enforce Rossini’s requirement for Castrati!) We began with warm-up exercises and, despite the pressure of time (an eighty minute piece is a lot to learn in a single day!) Jeremy punctuated the rehearsal with useful tips on technique. Before breaking for tea, we focussed on the parts of the Kyrie and Gloria sung by the chorus and before lunch we had conquered the whole piece.

Dave constructed a podium supported by four newel posts to allow us to see the conductor above the two pianos and harmonium!

Those in the know tell me that ensemble scenes in Rossini’s comic opera’s drew on simple devices such as the crescendo – the repetition of a single phrase, getting louder and louder each time – to great effect. This technique is certainly apparent in the chorus sections of the Solennelle, in particular after the toe-tapping fugues at the conclusion of the Gloria (“Cum Sancto Spiritu”) and Credo (“Et vivtam venture saeculi”) which were the most complicated parts of the piece for the chorus to learn but most enjoyable to sing – leaving you with a tingling sensation, as if champagne is running through your veins! All that as a prelude to prayer!

Any underlying tension between the operatic style and the sacred text is resolved in the solos, especially the moving Cruxifixus within the Credo – an aria sung by soprano Alison St-Denis and the poignant Agnus Dei, led by Liz Hill, which brings the piece to a profound close.

Liz Hill performs the alto solo in the Agnus Dei

Throughout the day our vocal chords were kept well oiled by Patricia and Nick Harper’s refreshment stall at the back of church, (for which and to whom we are extremely grateful – as we are to Dave Hinnit and his team who organised the event). Rehearsals finished at 5.00pm and we had an hour or two to relax before the performance – by the end of which, those in the choir and members of the audience could hopefully answer Rossini’s question at the end of the score in the positive;

“Dear God. Here it is, finished, this poor little Mass. Have I written sacred music or damned music? I was born for opera buffa, you know it well! Little science, some heart, that’s all. Be blessed, then, and grant me a place in Paradise.”

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