Opera composers go Sacred … about Puccini’s Messa di Gloria and Rossini’s Stabat Mater

HCS Puccini + RossiniOne of my choirs Highgate Choral Society sings next Saturday, 4 July at 7 pm at All Hallows Gospel Oak, London NW3 2JP a concert of Puccini’s Messa di Gloria and Rossini’s Stabat Mater.

I love both works and I am also intrigued by them, because – irrespective of their differences – they have striking similarities and both are wonderful dramatic pieces. You can find my thoughts about both pieces below and maybe some of you are even interested to come to our concert.

1. Giacomo Puccini (1858-1924) wrote his Messa di Gloria very early in his career – in fact before he really had a career. He composed the mass in 1876 and he was just 18 years old. Puccini was born into a musical family. For generations his family occupied the post of the organist and chapel master at the Duomo San Martino in his home town Lucca. This was also his destiny since he started his musical education as a boy soprano in the church choir of San Martino. However, something significant had happened to him the year before he composed his mass. He went to the theatre in Pisa (about 20 km from Lucca) and saw his first opera: Verdi’s Aida. From this moment on it was clear for Puccini that he wanted to become a composer of operas. He wanted to write for the theatre and not for the church.

In a sense his Messa di Gloria has a place between both genres – between music for the church and music for the theatre. It follows the classical structure of a mass with five movements (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Agnus Dei). It is written for two soloists (tenor and bass), mixed chorus and orchestra. But it is not the kind of piece you would expect to hear on Sunday during a service. The whole piece lasts roughly 45 minutes and the lengths of the five movements are very different. You might be able to imagine the Kyrie, Sanctus or Agnus Dei in a liturgical context, but certainly not the Gloria and Credo. The Gloria last about 20 minutes and the Credo about 15 minutes. If nothing else, they would be far too long for an ordinary Sunday mass. The whole treatment of the choir and the soloists and the wonderful melodies give already a foretaste of all the operas which Puccini will write later. You have the impression that Puccini did not so much want to write church music with this piece, he rather used the traditional well know texts and tried to express every emotion which the text encompasses. There is exuberant joy in his setting of the Gloria and singing the “qui tollis peccata mundi suscipe deprecationem nostram” (“you take away the sins of the world, receive our prayer”) feels like singing the famous chorus of the slaves of Verdi’s Nabucco. In the setting of the Credo each part of the text gets its own emotional expression. For the “et incarnatus est de spiritu sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est” (“he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man”) the tenor joins the choir and the text is sung with great tenderness. The orchestra is not playing at all or very subdued and you have almost the feeling of intimacy. The next part of the credo about the crucifixion is sung only be the bass soloist and is dark and full of anguish. In the following part of the resurrection the orchestra and the choir constantly raise and you can hear the triumph that Christ has conquered death. Another part I really like is the part “et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam” (“We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church”). It is celebratory and the voices sing in unison (all voices sing the same melody). By this Puccini almost seems to evoke the “catholic” in sense of universal and all-inclusive. 

The Messa di Gloria had its premiere in 1880 and was enthusiastically received by the first audience. Strangely Puccini never published the work, but he used parts of the mass in his operas. The work was finally published in 1951 and received then its second performance.

2. Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) wrote the Stabat Mater between 1831 and 1841. He was not an old man at this point and he lived for more than 25 years after the first performance of the work in its current form. Nevertheless, this work is the work of someone at the end of his career.

As Puccini Rossini is primarily known as an opera composer. He was hugely successful and wrote between 1806 and 1829 almost forty operas. In his middle years – between 1815 and 1823 – Rossini produced 20 operas (including his most famous opera “The barber of Seville”). He wrote his last opera William Tell in 1828 which had its premiere on 3 August 1829 and retired from writing operas with only 37 years.

Rossini got the commission to compose the Stabat Mater during a trip to Spain in 1831 by Father Manuel Fernandez Varela, general commissioner of the Santa Cruzada. As with Puccini’s Messa di Gloria Rossini used a well know text. The Stabat Mater is a medieval poem by the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi (1230 – 1306) which evokes the sorrows of the Virgin Mary for her crucified son Jesus. Initially Rossini was only able so set part of the poem (no. 1 and no. 5 -9). His ill health prevented him from finishing the work and he asked a friend Giovanni Tadolini to compose the other movements. This Rossini-Tadolini version was performed for the first time in Madrid in 1833. Rossini did not want this version to be printed. Therefore he wrote later the “Cujus animam”, “Quis est homo”, “Pro peccatis” and also the Amen for the end.

The Stabat mater is set for four soloists (soprano, mezzosoprano, tenor, bass), mixed chorus and orchestra. Rossini divided the poem into 10 movements and he used various combinations of forces for each movement. This means that the character of each movement is very different. Whatever forces Rossini uses, you get the impression that his interest lies mainly in the drama and in the human emotions of the text.

The first movement is for choir and four soloists and it is dark and beautiful. It is followed by an aria for tenor which follows the tradition of dramatic opera arias and is often performed separately as a demonstration of the singer’s bravura technique. But there are also movements like the “Eia mater fons amoris” (movement 5) or the “Quando corpus morietur” (movement 9) which are fully or partially a capella (for singers only without orchestra). The movement 5 feels like an intimate prayer of the bass soloist (who is accompanied by the choir) to the Virgin Mary. These movements stand more in the tradition of Palestrina’s settings of sacred music than a setting for an opera. The last movement is again for the choir and the four soloists. It repeats the sombre start of the first movement, but finishes in a triumphant end. It is a wonderful idea to connect thereby the beginning and the end of the piece and give the piece a greater unity.

The premiere of the Stabat Mater in the current form took place in 1841 and it was a triumph. There is another performance worth mentioning. On the day of Rossini’s funeral in Paris on 21 November 1868, Giulia Grisi arranged that the Stabat Mater was performed in the Duomo at Florence. Giulia sang the soprano solo in the performance of the piece in 1841. In 1868 she was at the end of her career. Since her debut with 14 years when she sung a small part in Rossini’s Zelmira, she had a close relationship with Rossini, because he had predicted that she would have brilliant career. With this performance of the Stabat Mater in 1868 she wanted to pay a final homage to him.

3. What is final verdict on the foray of these two composers into sacred music? In both pieces you can clearly see and feel that you have an opera composer (or a future opera composer) writing sacred music. Both composers write wonderful tunes and are able to express in their music all human emotions. But are these pieces really sacred music? Critics (in particular from Northern Europe) said in relation to Rossini’s Stabat Mater that it is “too worldly, sensuous, too playful for a religious subject, too light, too pleasing, too entertaining”.

Do I agree with them? No, I think I rather agree with the German poet Heinrich Heine. He wrote about the Paris premiere of Rossini’s Stabat Mater in his Lutetia, Art. XLIII, the following: “Nicht die äußerliche Dürre und Blässe ist ein Kennzeichen des wahrhaft Christlichen, in der Kunst, sondern eine gewisse innere Überschwenglichkeit, die weder angetauft noch anstudiert werden kann”. (“Not external meagreness and paleness is an indicator for the truly Christian in art, but rather a certain internal exuberance which can neither be acquired by baptism nor by study”). There is no doubt that you can feel the exuberance in both pieces. I think we should relish this exuberance and enjoy the music and not try to judge the inner motivation of the composers who wrote it, because we will never know with which feelings and beliefs Puccini and Rossini wrote their pieces.

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