Rossini's return to Paris in 1855 rekindled his enthusiasm for composition, previously abandoned for twenty years in a period of ill-health and depression. The Petite messe solonnelle is the crowning achievement of these last years, composed in 1863 for the Countess Louis Philet-Will and first performed at the consecration of her private chapel on 14 March 1864.
Scored for 12 voices, two pianos and harmonium, the 'Petite' of the title refers to the size of forces rather than the length of the work; at ninety minutes it's far from small! Rossini later orchestrated the accompaniment, fearing that someone else would do it if he did not, but the piano and harmonium original remains the preferred version.
Unsurprisingly, considering the composer's operatic masterpieces, the Mass is filled with wonderful melody. More unusual, however, is the presence of Bach-influenced counterpoint; Rossini even includes two double fugues, in Cum Sancto Spiritu and Et vitam venturi.
Deeply felt, with none of the frivolity of the composer's earlier career, the Petite messe thus takes its place in a long line of tradition stretching back to J S Bach. Yet it's written very much in the musical language of its day and remains one of Rossini's greatest works.
The last word belongs to the composer, writing after the final bars of the manuscript:
"Dear God. Here it is, finished, this poor little Mass. Have I written sacred music [musique sacree] or damned music [sacree musique]? I was born for opera buffa, you know it well! Little science, some heart, that's all. Be blessed, then, and grant me a place in Paradise."
Rossini’s first international success came in 1813 when he was still in his early twenties, when he wrote several operas for Venice. These include L'Italiana in Algeri (The Italian in Algiers), one of his most enduring comic operas. He also wrote operas for performance in Milan, but these were not quite so successful. In 1815 Rossini went to Naples and became Musical and Artistic Director of the Teatro San Carlo. While there, he wrote some comic operas for other opera houses, such as Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber Of Seville) (1816). This was a failure at first, but later became very popular and was acclaimed by such composers as Beethoven and Verdi .
In 1817 Rossini also wrote La Cenerentola, but his prestigious post prompted him to write more serious operas, and these are some of the most complex of his works. They include Otello (1816) and Maometto II (1820). It was also around this time, in 1822, that Rossini married the principal soprano at Naples, Isabella Colbran. She was the mistress of the impresario Barbaia, and the marriage quickly became unhappy.
Rossini left Naples and returned to Bologna, and shortly afterwards left for London. He then went to Paris in 1823, and took on the directorship of the Théâtre-Italien, composing for that theatre and the Opéra. It was here that he wrote Guillaume Tell (William Tell).
At the age of 37, Rossini retired from composing opera. He lived with Olympe Pélissier, and in 1837 left Paris to live in Bologna once again. He became ill and hardly composed at all. His estranged wife Isabella died in 1845, and the next year he married Olympe, with whom he had now lived for 15 years. One notable composition from this time is his Stabat Mater.
Rossini, by now an respected musical figure, was often called upon to give his opinion of new works, and so it was that during this period that he is said to have remarked, "One can't judge Wagner 's opera Lohengrin after a first hearing, and I certainly don't intend hearing it a second time."
In 1855 Rossini returned to Paris much healthier, and began to compose in earnest once again. It was in Paris that he wrote the highly popular Petite Messe Solennelle (1863), scored for piano, harmonium and singers. He died in 1868, a very popular figure and one who had brought a great deal of lyricism and wit into both opera and other forms of music.