Sincerity and Sin
Updated: Jun 27
I have work to do. As anyone following this blog - and, amazingly, there do still appear to be people following it - will realise, I have been painfully inactive over the last twelve months. I still have promised literary posts to write (including my final thoughts on Lovecraft) and the completion of my two-part survey of Birtwistle. Plus, I have pledged my friends on this year's farewell excavation at Blick Mead an account of our activities there in October. These projected offerings are all underway - I intend to have my Birtwistle completion up to mark the anniversary of his death in April - and I do have the excuse of having been either late at work or away from home almost every day since the start of September, and uncharacteristically under the weather over Christmas and January.
But first, a few shorter, review style pieces, to bring me up to speed for what I intend to be a Springtime bloging blitz.
Perhaps I can take some inspiration from the subject of the first of these - a man accused throughout his life (not least by himself) of being chronically lazy, but who surely couldn't have been.
Between 1810 and his mysterious early "retirement" in 1828 Gioachino Rossini wrote 39 operas, some of them extremely long and several acknowledged masterpieces. Yes, he was guilty of a certain amount of recycling - (hardly surprising in an age before recording and legal copyright ) - and, doubtless, he was more inspired on some days than others, but the overall standard of his work is quite astonishingly consistent. For too long I have taken him for granted, assuming him little more than the composer of one amiable comic warhorse and a dozen or so spiruted overtures to works otherwise deservedly forgotten. Now, belatedly, I am coming to see him as the supreme creative genius that many of his contemporaries - from Stendhal (who wrote his first biography) to Verdi (who conducted at his funeral) - took him to be.
He was a Janus-like figure, embodying the bold entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of the Nineteenth Century whilst remaining aesthetically anchored to the era preceding. The one meeting he had with Beethoven appears to have been cordial enough (if hampered by the latter's encroaching deafness) and the admiration both men expressed for the other's music was clearly genuine. Essentially, however, they could hardly have been less alike. Rossini thrilled to the dynamic, questing, developmental innovations of Beethoven's Eroica without displaying the slightest inclination to emulate them. His was an art, not of the exploratory, but of the spontaneous, elevated - often to near sublimity - by sheer mastery of craft and style. There is no real profundity in his work, though he is perfectly capable of grandeur, and the unforced lyric joy that irradiates his best comedies is truly special. The soaring step-like melody that concludes Cinderella is capable of bringing tears to my eyes, as is the final ensemble of The Barber of Seville.
Comparison of this last with Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro of 1786 is instructive. Interestingly, Mozart and Da Ponte adapted the second of Beaumarchais' popular Figaro plays, possibly thinking its predecessor too lightweight for their purpose. Twenty years later, it is precisely the frothy, insubstantial qualities of the first play that Rossini's opera seizes upon with glee. (The extraordinary sourness of the final Figaro play - The Guilty Mother - was eventually to find its own appropriate match in Darius Milhaud's opera of 1966, which combines rather good period pastiche with bracing bitonality.) Of course, Figaro is (or should be) a sparkling experience, convincingly encompassing a wise, forgiving knowledge of human folly and frailty within it's farcical frame. The Barber, by contrast, sees little in human folly to forgive. It is all farce, timed and tempered to perfection and touched off with the merest dash of romance. Where Figaro offers four acts of deepening intrigue, The Barber comes in two acts whose pattern of action is more or less identical. In both, the Count Almaviva, with Figaro's assistance, attempts to gain entrance to the house of the curmudgeonly Dr. Bartolo in order to make off with his ward, the beautiful and high spirited Rosina. The first attempt breaks down in happy chaos, the second - after generating more chaos - succeeds. That's it. Much ado about nothing, I suppose, if you are jaded enough to regard the triumph of love and reconciliation as nothing. In his Anatomy of Criticism, Northrop Frye observed the tendency of comedy towards formal repetition, suggesting (rather desperately, perhaps) that there is something about repetition that humans find inherently funny. Rossini may have suspected this too, as The Barber is repetitive on both macro and micro levels. Not only are its two acts near dramatic duplicates, but the music they are set to is rooted in techniques of repetition. Indeed, the very technique with which Rossini's name is most associated - the long controlled crescendo - is essentially a device for building climax through the repetition of small musical figures and it is worth noting that most of his crescendos are themselves repeated in their entirety.
Actually, aside from the salvaged Overture, The Barber contains only one real crescendo number - Don Basilio's superb "La Calumnia", perhaps the score's single moment of real menace, instantly deflated. Even the celebrated aria with which Figaro introduces himself derives its sparkle from its tongue-twisting virtuosity, rather than any build up in dynamics, though it does rely upon repetition in order to generate its comic sense of anticipation and release, as does Rosina's "Una voce poco fa", with its delicious balance between the plangent and the playful - (can any comic opera heroine be more irresistibly characterised?) - or the hilarious, self-parodic "Buona Sera" ensemble. The composer's sense of touch and proportion remain infallible throughout. The one late aria for Bartolo's perpetually sneezing housekeeper, Berta, for instance, offers a sharp perspective on the action surrounding it and enables what might seem a stock supporting figure to emerge with clarity and dignity. (Compare the unexceptionable - often excised - arias for Basilio and Marcellina with which Mozart and Da Ponte needlessly delay the resolution of their Figaro opera.)
And, to crown it all, there is the most economical and delicate of all musical thunderstorms; a cloudburst to stand proudly, if cheekily, alongside those evoked by Beethoven, Berlioz, Verdi, Wagner, Strauss, Janacek or even - in William Tell - Rossini himself. Perceived through a window and never quite breaking overhead, it acts as a magical clearing of the comic air before the final rush to resolution. In an opera that moves from the street to the locked up chambers of Bartolo's townhouse - the opposite movement from that of Figaro, which starts in cramped servant's quarters and ends in the garden - it is also an unexpected reminder of the presence of the natural world and a telling, restorative counterpart to the black torrent of artificially induced calumny threatened by Basilio. Only a very confident master could have conceived and got away with it.
The Barber is, of course, the obvious place to start with Rossini, but too many of us are tempted to stop there. I am slowly coming to appreciate his ambitious efforts in tragedy, especially the early Ermione, with its astonishing part choral overture, and the late Semiramide - a work of real splendour, if somewhat forbidding length. Unfortunately, I am only patchily familiar with William Tell , the vast Romantic/heroic epic with which he departed the operatic stage. It is a lack I hope soon to remedy. More and more it is becoming apparent to me that, far from being the lazy slave of formula, Rossini's was, in its way, a restless, even experimental spirit.
Why a composer of such obvious fecundity and imagination should have abandoned a form he had come to dominate at the height of his powers is a question that has never been satisfactorily answered. Rossini certainly had plans - had, indeed, accepted commissions - for operas to follow Tell , but none ever emerged. It seems unlikely that he felt artistically exhausted, nor do the traditional accusations of gluttony and sloth ring true. Most likely ill-health and depression are to blame for the near creative dearth of his time in Italy during the 1830s and 40s. He seems to have felt that the choral Stabat Mater, completed after a decade's labour in 1841, would be his last work. His 1855 resettlement in Paris - the scene of his greatest triumphs - happily re-married to his long-time mistress and in receipt of the best medical attention, saw a late flowering as strange and enigmatic as it was unexpected.
The thirteen volumes of songs, piano and chamber pieces he published during his final decade under the collective title Sins of Old Age are all too easily dismissed as trifles. Written initially for private performance, they represent a wise, resigned turning away from an operatic stage given over to the grandiose productions of Meyerbeer, Halevy and the young Wagner and might be seen as significant precursors of musical "neo-classicism". Both Respighi and Britten plundered them for sparkling material to dress up in bright orchestral colours, whilst Saint-Saens' own after-dinner entertainment, The Carnival of the Animals, seems to be conceived very much in their spirit, tipping its hat to Rossini with a sly quote from The Barber. The two little Orchestral Suites of that other Parisian by adoption, Stravinsky, also seem to be modeled on them, in their self-conscious embrace of the banal and trivial and, later, would pay explicit homage in the uninhibited ballet score Jeu de Cartes. (Is it possible that the odd references to William Tell in the first movement of Shostakovich's final symphony are intended as a wry reminder that, in the cheeky pre-Lady Macbeth phase of his career, the boy wonder of Russian music was not infrequently referred to as "the Soviet Rossini".)
But the most surprising and extravagant of Rossini's late sins came late, in the form of his greatest and most substantial concert work - the unique and wonderful Petite Messe Solennelle of 1864.
I had not heard this piece all the way through for well over quarter of a century, until recently attending a fine performance given by the Ely Choral Society in my local cathedral, where something I had long put down as a garrulous curiosity revealed itself as a near miracle of invention and feeling.
Some mystery surrounds the circumstances leading to the Mass's composition. It's first performances were private affairs given in the Paris residence of the wealthy banker Alexis Pilet-Will, who is usually assumed to have commissioned it. Very possibly, however, it was quite possibly offered to the world gratis by a devout old man with mortality on his mind. The inscription Rossini placed on the score
Dear Lord, here it is finished, this poor little mass. Have I just written sacred music, or rather, sacrilegious music? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know.
has too often been taken as a form of disclaimer, priming listeners not to expect much genuine devotional sincerity, just as the adjectives Little and Solemn have too often been seen as a sort of long-wided joke.
At around 120 minutes, the Messe is hardly "little" in its temporal scale. It is, however, modest in the resources it calls for - just twelve singers, two pianos and a harmonium. Yes, Rossini did subsequently create a version for large choir and full orchestra with triple woodwind, cornets and two harps but insisted he had only done so to prevent someone else's doing it badly. I like the colour and majesty of the orchestral version, but also respond to the intimacy and clarity of the original (the version the Ely Choral Society chose, though with a fuller compliment of voices than specified.) The term Solemn is more problematic, though I don't think the composer intended it as a joke. The preconception that the music is somehow flippant, or trivial is utterly mistaken and insensitive. The overall tone of the Messe actually strikes me as one of deep sincerity, a personal act of worship whose touching humility is only enhanced by its moments of secular release; a juxtaposition elaborated through an extraordinary range of technical means. Indeed, for many early listeners the work's academic aspect appears to have been more of a stumbling block than its lack of conventional piety. I think it used to be for me but now I am increasingly struck by the way Rossini deploys contrapuntal effects as a means of enhancing the the elusive emotional atmosphere. Thus, the quietly haunting opening piano ostinato, with its jaunty rhythm is tempered by its dark-hued minor-key tonality and the near inaudible harmonium countermelody that sounds against it in what must be one of the most engagingly human openings of any large-scale sacred choral work.
It is hard to imagine that Giuseppe Verdi, who was initially dismissive of the Messe's display of learning, wasn't thinking of it when he came to write his own major sacred choral work only a decade later. His Requiem was completed in honour of the Italian novelist and patriot Alessandro Manzoni, but it's Libera Me was conceived in memory of Rossini. Like the Petite Messe, it deploys it's composer's operatic armoury, but bolsters it with formal set pieces - most spectacularly the blazing double fugue of the Sanctus. Also like the Messe, it has habitually been accused - often, ironically, by those of no evident personal faith - of not being quite the real thing. True, Verdi was, if not an atheist, certainly something close, but it is cheap and unilluminating to say that he was creating "an opera in clerical garb", just as it is to imply that Rossini was somehow clowning in the cloister. Both men adapted their highly developed personal styles to the serious contemplation of morality and mortality.
In the case of Rossini, it should be observed that the Messe is informed at least as much by the quirky "dramatic" manner of the tragic operas, as by the evervesance of the comic ones. Witness the extraordinary instrumental Preludio Religioso, with its dark harmonic colours and questing chromatic modulations. Even the most ostensibly "jolly" number - the vast fugal "Cum Sancto Spiritu" - is prefaced by the chorus rapping out the fugue theme's rhythm in unison on a single pitch with a rising minor third at the end, to rather startling effect. Most impressively of all, the wonderfully eloquent concluding Agnus Dei, where the impassioned, twisting lines of the contralto soloist push against the tight ostinato patterns of the accompaniment, thrice interrupted by the choir's simple unaccompanied refrain of "Dona nobis pacem". The unexpected use of contralto here is a reminder that Rossini was a great champion of the lower female voices. Rosina and Cinderella are amongst several romantic lead roles he entrusted to singers of mezzo range or below (though often these days transposed higher). If the Ely performance of the Petite Messe I attended the young contralto Chloe Allison seized her moment with fresh, rich tone, lyric flexibility and persuasive communicative intensity, before the sobering impact of the unexpectedly stark final chords.
When I said earlier that there was no real profundity in Rossini's music, I should probably have said that this implacable ending is the exception that proves the rule. It was not quite the final thing he composed, but clearly it sounds a testamentary note. Stendhal, who died too young to have heard the Petite Messe, ended his baggy, eccentrically perceptive study of the composer by suggesting that his music was "not really merry, but supremely vain and excitable; never passionate, but always witty; and, if never boring, very, very rarely sublime". True enough, I suppose, but surely the sublimity Rossini touched upon here in his valedictory masterpiece is of a very, very, rare order.