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, 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.

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.