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8.554443 - ROSSINI: Stabat Mater
How best to remember one of the most influential artists of the early nineteenth century? Fêted by writers like Stendhal, rival and ouster of even Beethoven in some quarters, creator of the gourmet's Tournedos Rossini steak, composer of the William Tell Overture and the comic opera The Barber of Seville. It seems odd to reconcile the jokey, portly figure of the bon viveur with a composer of religious music. Until the lights dim and the music starts to play.
Rossini intentionally gave up composing operas after his epic five hour long William Tell, written for all the pomp that Paris required and setting the style for French Grand Opera for the rest of the nineteenth century Exhausted, out of touch with what might follow, this Italian in Paris retired on his laurels – or so the story goes. What followed were trifles, songs and piano pieces and two religious settings – the Stabat Mater and the Petite Messe Solennelle.
Rossini was born on 29th February 1792 in the unremarkable small port of Pesaro on the Italian Adriatic coast, to barely literate but musical parents. Those early years saw revolution and war in Europe and young Rossini was well aware of the national sentiments that began to stir in Italy shortly afterwards His rôle was not that of the great musical patriot: that was to be given to Verdi, his junior of thirty years. But Rossini did grow from his humble beginnings to become the opera composer of the day and toast of the times.
His career began in Venice at an early age but soon moved via Bologna and Ferrara to that great operatic centre, Milan and particularly to La Scala, Italy's foremost opera house. Success arrived with the première of La Pietra del paragone which brought both fame and an exemption from military service. By 1815, Rossini had moved to Naples, climax of the English Grand Tour circuit and the best place for Italian comic opera or opera buffa.
Rome was next stop on his travels, to supervise revivals of previous operas and the première of his latest work, The Barber of Seville, received there with utter contempt in one of the greatest failures of all operatic first nights. Despite this setback, Rossini was well on the road to becoming the major opera composer of his day. He travelled the country throwing off scores at breakneck speed. Some are now forgotten, many are remembered by their overtures only and others have been revived for the memorable melodies that had originally made them popular.
Although London beckoned and Rossini met the King at Brighton, no London opera was ever to see the light of day. William Tell was set to be both final triumph and the very reason for no more Rossini operas. Wagner and Verdi were on the horizon and their influence would be too strong now. As an operatic composer, Rossini had reached the point where he felt unable to continue and equally unable to adapt to a new style. His health too, after many years of dalliance, was in sad decline. Yet there was still enough life in the great man to produce his choral religious masterpiece.
The Stabat Mater is to Rossini what the Requiem would be to Verdi, a unique full-scale religious setting which still seems to have its essence in the lyric theatre. For Rossini it was also a case of a composer coming out of retirement to create one of his finest works and then retreating back to compose little salon pieces to please his Parisian friends.
The poem describing Mary's grief at the foot of the cross is a medieval text that has been set by many composers up to the present day. Rossini was commissioned in 1831 by a Spanish Bishop, but ill health meant that of the twelve sections originally envisaged, he completed only six, leaving the rest of the composition to the Bolognese composer, Giovanni Tadolini. Officially, Rossini was suffering from lumbago, although it is likely that his illness was far more serious and in 1832 he took the cure at Aix-les-Bains for a disease that by its recurrence seems most likely to have been venereal in origin.
In 1837, Rossini's Spanish Bishop died and when a publisher wrote to say the score was to become available for publication, the composer had to admit that it was not all his own work. Spurred on by the challenge, the score was completed and first performed in Bologna in March 1842.
The Stabat Mater is written for full orchestra with four soloists and chorus and divided into ten sections Operatic and highly melodic in style, it ranges from an impressively grand opening through the popular tenor aria Cujus animam to the two remarkable unaccompanied chorus passages that impressed Wagner so much. The serious nature of the piece is confirmed by the use of a big double fugue as conclusion. Certainly more looking forward to Verdi than back to Bach, this is one of Rossini's finest and most attractive works. The jokes of the Barber may not be there, nor the patriotic words of William Tell, but the popular expression of Mediterranean belief in life and faith shows that Rossini still was able, after his self-styled retirement, to create another new masterpiece.
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