The great Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini (1792-1868) is primarily known for his 40 operas, including The Barber of Seville and The Italian Girl in Algiers, but at the age of 37 he went into semi-retirement in Bologna - it was not until 1855, when he returned to Paris, that he began composing again. His later works were mainly small scale and intended for private performance only. However, in 1863, Rossini composed the so-called Petite Messe Solennelle - the first private performance was given on 14 March 1864. After much persuasion, he did produce a version for full orchestra which was premiered at the Théâtre Ventadour in Paris three months after the composer's death, but it is generally recognised that the original version remains superior. Rossini had refused permission for its public performance as he disliked the sound of cathedral boys' voices, but was not allowed to use girls.
Rossini was well known for his sense of humour and his Petite Messe Solennelle is neither small nor solemn… In fact one critic has labelled it economical and graceful. The composer himself noted that it contained 'a little science, a little heart, that is all'. It is scored for soloists and choir, accompanied (originally) by two pianos and a harmonium (replaced for this performance by piano and harmonium). Although he may have amused himself with the heading, Rossini treated the Mass itself seriously - far more seriously than one might assume at first glance. The influences of opera house, church and concert hall are all intermingled, clothed in beautiful melodies, showing that Rossini's skill remained undimmed through all his years of silence. The work as a whole displays a joyful yet profound faith and expresses Rossini's deep religious conviction in the finest way he knew of expressing it. It is quite dance-like in certain sections, and may truthfully be said to keep the audience's attention on its toes. The Camden Choir is delighted to be performing this minor masterpiece to mark the 150th anniversary of Rossini's death in 1868.