Desert Island Discs (3) – Rossini and Wagner

Gioachino Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle (Little Solemn Mass) was written in 1863. The composer prefaced the work with the following words – somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

“Dear Lord – this poor little Mass is finished, Here it is. Have I written sacred music or desecrated music? I was born for opera buffa, as Thou well knowest. A little knowledge, a little heart; that is all. Be therefore blessed and grant me heaven.” Neither short nor solemn, Rossini’s elegant and sophisticated Mass created a sensation.

The first performance took place in 1864 in a private chapel in the house of Louise, Comtesse de Pillet-Will, to whom Rossini (left) had dedicated the mass. In the audience were opera composers Giacomo Meyerbeer, Daniel Auber, and Ambroise Thomas, who would succeed Auber as director of the Paris Conservatoire. Rossini wrote, “Twelve singers of the three sexes, male, female, and castrati will be sufficient for its performance, that is to say, eight in the chorus, four as soloists, a total of twelve cherubs.” He originally scored it for two pianos and a harmonium, but later orchestrated it and that version was heard in 1869, three months after the composer’s death. It was performed in the Théâtre des Italiens, a secular venue because the Pope, despite numerous entreaties, refused to permit female singers to participate in sacred music in a Catholic church.

There are many recordings of the Petite Messe Solennelle. I recommend the Orchestra e Coro del Teatro Comunale di Bologna, conducted by Riccardo Chailly (2001).

Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg (The Mastersingers of Nuremberg) is an opera in three acts, first performed in Munich in 1868. The conductor at the premiere was Hans von Bülow, Wagner’s long-suffering son-in-law. The opera is a serious and deeply moving work that stands apart from Wagner’s other dramas not only because it is a comedy, but because it is about ordinary people. The American composer and critic Virgil Thomson wrote, “It is all direct and human and warm and sentimental and down-to-earth. It is unique among Wagner’s theatrical works in that none of the characters takes drugs or gets mixed up with magic.”

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg is the only one of Wagner’s operas that uses traditional forms and set pieces – ensembles, choruses, dances, marches, processions and self-contained songs. It has a glorious overture, whose high point is the passage when its three main themes converge in a display of joyful exuberance. Sir George Solti described the opera as a “conversation piece” that should be approached almost like chamber music. He wrote, “I have again fallen in love with this opera, which I think is a true masterpiece.”

Of many outstanding recordings (Knappertsbusch, Kubelik, Kempe, Karajan), I recommend Solti’s second version (1995) recorded live with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The singing is superb and the orchestral playing sublime.

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Philip Lee

Writer and musician who tries to join up the dots.

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