Gioachino Anto­nio Rossini was born on Leap Day, Feb­ru­ary 29, 1792 in Pesaro, Italy, and dies at his home in Passy, then a sub­urb of Paris, on Novem­ber 13m 1868. His Sta­bat mater is a set­ting of the thirteenth-century Latin hymn attrib­uted to Jaco­pone da Todi, con­cern­ing the Vir­gin Mary watch­ing Jesus die on the cross. The rather con­vo­luted story of this work’s com­po­si­tion is detailed below. The defin­i­tive ver­sion of Rossini’s Sta­bat mater was pre­miered in Paris on Jan­u­ary 7, 1842 in the Salle Ven­ta­dour with three of the most famous singers of the day as soloists: Giu­lia Grisi (soprano); her hus­band, Gio­vanni Mat­teo Mario (tenor); and Anto­nio Tam­burini (bass). The mezzo-soprano (labeled sec­ond soprano in the score) was a lady named Alber­tazzi. The first Ital­ian per­for­mances were at the Con­ser­va­tory of Bologna, con­ducted by the com­poser Gae­tano Donizetti on March 18, 19, and 20 1842. Two of the soloists, Clara Nov­ello (soprano) and Nicholas Ivanoff (tenor), are famous in the his­tory of singing. Singing in the cho­rus of the Bologna per­for­mances was a young girl who would become an extra­or­di­nar­ily famous con­tralto by the name of Mari­etta Alboni, reputed to have one of the most per­fect voices of the nine­teenth cen­tury. The score calls for four vocal soloists, two sopra­nos (the sec­ond soprano part is always sung by a mezzo-soprano), tenor, and bass, plus a four-part cho­rus of the same makeup. The orches­tra con­sists of two flutes, two oboes, two clar­inets, hour horns, two trum­pets, two bas­soons, three trom­bones, tim­pani, and strings.

Gioachino Rossini is a much an enigma to con­cert­go­ers today as his works are mis­un­der­stood and often inad­e­quately per­formed. Despite his fame, we know sur­pris­ingly lit­tle about his life other than its sketchy out­line: the obvi­ous dates, of course — his birth, mar­riages, the­atri­cal pre­mieres, dates of var­i­ous legal con­tracts, his death. Much of what we accept as truth can only be traced to sto­ries told by the com­poser and his friends dur­ing his last stay in Paris, begin­ning in 1855, long after the events would have occurred.

This Paris period some­times seems to have been one eter­nal Sec­ond Empire salon: the revered Rossini, grown cor­pu­lent on rich Parisian food, trad­ing bon motes—often at his own expense — with other guests (every­one who was any­one in Paris, which is to say every­one who was any­one in Europe), and, every once in a while, accom­pa­ny­ing a singer at the piano, or even singing himself.

Grisi and Mario sang the première.

There are almost no let­ters between the com­poser and his libret­tists like the let­ters that give us so much insight into the lives, emo­tions, and thoughts of com­posers such as Verdi, Richard Strauss, Puc­cini, and even Rossini’s younger con­tem­po­raries Bellini and Donizetti. There are remark­ably few pri­mary doc­u­ments con­cern­ing some of Rossini’s most pro­lific years, espe­cially the time he spent in Naples (1815 – 23), dur­ing which he expanded the forms of Ital­ian opera in dar­ing, remark­able ways.

One Rossini we know is the com­poser immor­tal­ized by a sump­tu­ous dish, Tourne­dos Rossini, which, as Julia Child observed in her book Mas­ter­ing the Art of French Cook­ing, “takes the filet steak about as far as it can go”: Place a per­fectly cooked (in but­ter) tourne­dos onto a hot arti­choke bot­tom. Onto the steak lay a slice of (fresh) foie gras, that has been gen­tly warmed and basted with Madeira and rich mush­room essence, and top the foie gras with slices of fresh truf­fle. Driz­zle the entire dish with the reduced, and thick­ened, com­bined juiced from the foie gras, truf­fles, and the steak — and for­get about check­ing your cho­les­terol for weeks.

Rossini worked hard to make sure “the truth” about him con­sisted of sto­ries such as the fact that he cried only three times in his life: once when his mother died, once when The Bar­ber of Seville flopped at its pre­mier. And once when a tri­fled turkey fell from his canoe into a lake and was lost before he had eaten of it. “I never cried after The Bar­ber of Seville,” Rossini would always insist when guests asked him if the story was true.

But Rossini was much more inter­est­ing, much more sub­stan­tial, than the sto­ries would sug­gest. For one thing, few puz­zles in West­ern art equal Rossini’s sud­den — and per­ma­nent — retire­ment from the opera stage after the pre­mier of Guil­laume Tell in 1829.  Why, at the age of thirty-seven, did this great com­poser, at the height of his pow­ers and fame, sim­ply retire from the opera world before his life had reached its mid-point?

Jaco­pone da Todi by Paolo Uccello, ca. 1434 – 35.

Sev­eral par­tial expla­na­tions exist. (Rossini, of course, usu­ally claimed he retired because he was innately lazy and no longer had to work, so why should he.) The composer’s declin­ing health was par­tially respon­si­ble, as was the sense of exhaus­tion stem­ming from almost two decades of con­stant gru­el­ing work. His first opera, Demetrio e Poli­bio, was a stu­dent work, but from the time he was eigh­teen with La cam­biale di mat­ri­mo­nio (1810), until Guil­laume Tell nine­teen years later, Rossini com­posed thirty-seven operas, often writ­ing sev­eral a year, as well as super­vis­ing their pro­duc­tion and some­times con­duct­ing as well.  Another fac­tor in his retire­ment was the Rev­o­lu­tion on 1830, which forced Charles X from the French throne and meant Rossini’s finan­cial secu­rity was, for a time, in jeop­ardy, forc­ing him into a lengthy law­suit to secure his annu­ity (he even­tu­ally won). The artis­tic cli­mate in Paris changed, too — a new man­age­ment at the Opéra intro­duced Meyerbeer’s first French operas (begin­ning with Robert le Dia­ble in 1831), which took the oper­atic world by storm.

Rossini left Paris in 1836, and his life from then until he returned in 1855 some­times seems quite des­per­ate, His health was con­stantly under­mined by a vari­ety of ill­nesses (ure­thri­tis and related afflic­tions were a per­sis­tent prob­lem along with the very painful reme­dies of the day), aggra­vated by his grow­ing insom­nia and hypochon­dria. Read­ing accounts of Rossini writ­ten by his friends between 1852 and 1855, one must won­der if the com­poser sim­ply had a ner­vous break­down. Cer­tainly he seems to have become obsessed with death and sui­cide. In all prob­a­bil­ity his life was saved only because his sec­ond wife, Olympe Pélissier, insisted he return to Paris for med­ical treat­ment (he had mar­ried Pélissier in 1846 after the death of his first wife, the famous singer Isabella Col­bran). Under the cir­cum­stances, one begins to under­stand why Rossini would avoid the ardu­ous labor of writ­ing and pro­duc­ing an opera.

It was dur­ing the begin­ning of the rather bleak period, in 1841, that Rossini revis­ited the first ver­sion of his Sta­bat mater and cre­ated his sec­ond, defin­i­tive ver­sion. The first ver­sion of the Sta­bat mater was writ­ten in 1831, only a cou­ple of years after Tell’s pre­mière, on a pri­vate com­mis­sion from a wealthy Span­ish prelate, Fer­nán­dez Varela. Rossini was dis­in­clined to accept the com­mis­sion for sev­eral rea­sons, not the least of which was his admi­ra­tion for Pergolesi’s famous and pop­u­lar Sta­bat mater. But his good friend the Span­ish banker Alexan­dre Aguado urged him to accept. Of the world’s orig­i­nal twelve num­bers, Rossini set only six to music (num­bers 1 and 5 through 9), con­sign­ing the oth­ers to his friend Gio­vanni Tadolini, a com­poser and musi­cal direc­tor of the Théâtre-Italien in Paris. One of the stip­u­la­tions on which Rossini insisted was that the work never be pub­lished or ever leave Varela’s pos­ses­sion. This 1831 ver­sion was first heard on Good Fri­day (some sources say Holy Sat­ur­day) 1833 in Madrid, at the Cap­pella di S Fil­ippo El Real. The grate­ful Varela gave Rossini a gold snuff­box encrusted with eight large diamonds.

Upon Varela’s death in 1837, his heirs sold Rossini’s man­u­script to Oller Chetard. In turn, Chetard sold it to the Parisian music pub­lisher Antoine Aulagnier, who promptly wrote to Rossini on Decem­ber 1, 1837 to ask “if he had made any secret for­mal reser­va­tions about its publication.”

Pol Plançon

Rossini swiftly replied that he had merely ded­i­cated the Sta­bat mater to Varela, reserv­ing for him­self the right to have it pub­lished or not. He also informed Aulagnier that only six of the num­bers in the publisher’s pos­ses­sion were by Rossini, but that he had now fin­ished the entire com­po­si­tion. “I declare to you, mon­sieur,” he wrote, “that if my Sta­bat mater should be pub­lished with­out my per­mis­sion, whether in France or abroad, my very firm inten­tion is to pur­sue the pub­lisher to death.”

Rossini’s biog­ra­pher Her­bert Wein­stock says that the com­poser had known of the sale before being noti­fied by Aulagnier and that he had already signed a con­tract with his Paris pub­lisher, Eugèné Troupe­nas, for this sec­ond ver­sion of the Sta­bat mater, com­posed entirely by him — the ver­sion always per­formed today.

A bit­ter law­suit ensured. Mat­ters became so heated that employ­ees of the two pub­lish­ing firms came to blows in a court antecham­ber. Even­tu­ally a mag­is­trate ruled that Rossini’s accep­tance of a snuff­box — even a gold one encrusted with dia­monds — did not con­sti­tute a sale, so the Sta­bat mater was still his to dis­pose of as he wished. How­ever, the court also threw out Troupenas’s suit against Aulagnier. Troupe­nas pub­lished the all-Rossini Sta­bat mater, con­sist­ing of ten num­bers. Aulagnier pub­lished the six num­bers com­posed by Tadolini.

Rossini’s ten num­bers are divided between his forces. Each of the four vocal soloists has an indi­vid­ual num­ber, plus two quar­tets, one accom­pa­nied by the orches­tra, the other sung a cap­pella. The soprano and mezzo have a duet, the bass has an addi­tional, unac­com­pa­nied num­ber with the cho­rus, and the work begins and ends with num­bers com­bin­ing all the forces — soloists, cho­rus, and orches­tra. One of the ways Rossini uni­fies the work is by repeat­ing, toward the end of the con­clud­ing “Amen” cho­rus, the ris­ing melodic line in the bas­soons and cel­los with which the work opens.

Though Rossini’s Sta­bat mater was received with the great­est enthu­si­asm by the audi­ences of its time, many peo­ple today would raise their eye­brows at Hein­rich Heine’s com­ment, “I find Rossini’s Stabat much more truly Chris­t­ian than [Mendelssohn’s] ora­to­rio Saint Paul.” Fash­ion in eccle­si­as­ti­cal music changes as much as fash­ion in any­thing else. Music rou­tinely heard in many churches today would have been frowned on in the 1950s, and in this coun­try our Puri­tan her­itage makes us innately sus­pi­cious of the per­haps more full-blooded, emo­tional expres­sions of piety some­times char­ac­ter­is­tic of the faith­ful in other coun­tries, It today the occa­sion­ally “jaunty” or “swing­ing” tunes (to quote some Anglo-Saxon crit­ics) Rossini gave his soloists seem to us to be decid­edly at odds with the text, nei­ther Rossini — nor his con­tem­po­raries — felt the music was inappropriate.

Kirsten Flagstad

The vocal lines Rossini wrote for his soloists require superbly trained singers for their com­fort­able exe­cu­tion, and some of the great­est singers of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury have left record­ings of arias. Enrico Caruso’s famous 1913 record­ing of “Cujus ani­mam” and Pol Plançon’s 1908 “Pro pec­ca­tis,” with its unbe­liev­able trills and superbly artic­u­lated rhythms, are two early exam­ples. Per­haps most unusual of all is an air-check of Kirsten Flagstad singing the soprano’s “Inflam­ma­tus” from a March 1935 radio con­cert only a few weeks after her astound­ing US debut as Sieglinde in Die Walküre. Sans cho­rus, but accom­pa­nied by orches­tra, Flagstad’s limpid, ele­gant singing, com­plete with per­fect thrills and effort­less high Cs, give a good idea of what all the fuss was about.

Our North Amer­i­can ears are likely to find this music more oper­atic than eccle­si­as­ti­cal — evi­dence, per­haps, of our cul­tural lim­i­ta­tions. Han­del, whose ora­to­rios are often filled with trills and runs to rival any, is con­sid­ered as “sacred” a com­poser as can be found — per­haps because those heav­ily embell­ished musi­cal lines were approved, even revered, by the Vic­to­ri­ans.  But if we embrace mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, we should try to rise above our own, pri­vate reli­gious pref­er­ences to unite — at least for a lit­tle while — in shar­ing Rossini’s reli­gious vision as man­i­fested in his glo­ri­ous Sta­bat mater.


This arti­cle appeared orig­i­nally in the pro­gram book of the San Fran­cisco Sym­phony and is used here by per­mis­sion.