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.
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?
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.”
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, Eugène 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.
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.