Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) was only 37 years old after the premiere of William Tell in 1829. He was the leading operatic composer in the world. Yet for reason still unresolved, he never wrote another opera during the four decades of life which remained to him. He was not mute during this period away from the lyric theater. Producing two large religious pieces and collection of 150 vocal, chamber and solo piano pieces he called Péchés de vieillesse – sins of old age.

His Stabat Mater was begun in 1831. Because of illness or laziness, after retiring from the theater he was prone to both, he did not finish the composition according to plan. In 1832 when the piece was due to be delivered he had written only half of it. He asked his friend the composer Giovanni Tadolini to write the missing movements. This resulted in a law suit in 1841 eventually won by Rossini’s publishers after Tadolini’s heirs sold the composition to another Parisian publisher. Rossini having written the remaining parts of the piece had it first performed in1842 at the Théâtre-Italien’s Salle Ventadou. It was an unequivocal success and has been frequently performed ever since.

The Stabat Mater is a 13th-century Christian hymn to Mary, which portrays her suffering as Jesus Christ’s mother during his crucifixion. Its author may be either the Franciscan friar Jacopone da Todi or Pope Innocent III. The title comes from its first line, “Stabat Mater dolorosa”, which means “the sorrowful mother was standing.

Rossini divided the poem’s twenty 3-line verses into ten movements and used various combinations of forces for each movement:

  1. Stabat Mater dolorosa (verse 1) – Chorus and all four soloists
  2. Cujus animam (verses 2–4) – Tenor
  3. Quis est homo (verses 5–6) – Soprano and mezzo-soprano
  4. Pro peccatis (verses 7–8) – Bass
  5. Eja, Mater (verses 9–10) – Bass recitative and chorus
  6. Sancta Mater (verses 11–15) – All four soloists
  7. Fac ut portem (verses 16–17) – Mezzo-soprano
  8. Inflammatus (verses 18–19) – Soprano and chorus
  9. Quando corpus morietur (verse 20) – Chorus and all four soloists
  10. In sempiterna saecula. Amen (not part of the standard text) – Chorus

The Cujus animam for tenor is often done as a recital piece. The tenor on this version is the outstanding singer Giuseppe Sabbatini who voluntarily gave up his very successful singing career at age 50 to concentrate on conducting. Cujus animam. The next most frequently performed excerpt from the piece is the Inflammatus for soprano and chorus. It show Rossini’s capacity for dramatic impact was still as intact as it had been during his period of operatic hegemony.

Rossini wrote his Petite messe solennelle in 1863. Despite its title it is a missa solemnis that is not little. It was originally scored for twelve singers, four of them soloists, two pianos and harmonium. The mass was first performed on 14 March 1864 at Rossini’s home in Paris. He later produced an orchestral version, including an additional movement, a setting of the hymn “O salutaris hostia” as a soprano aria. The version for orchestra was likely written because Rossini was aware that should the mass remain in its original form, someone else was sure to orchestrate it.

The piece is a more gentle one than its religious predecessor of more than two decades earlier. Here are three excerpts from its beginning, middle, and end. The Kyrie eleison starts the mass. It is a restrained statement of “Lord, have mercy.” Cum Sancto Spiritu is in the final segment of the Gloria. It is a virtuosic fugue with elaborate counterpoint. The Agnus Dei is the final number of the mass.

At the end of mass’s score Rossini wrote: Dear Lord, here it is finished, this poor little mass. Have I just written sacred music, or rather, sacrilegious music? I was born for opera buffa, as you well know. Not much technique, a little bit of heart, that’s all. Blessings to you and grant me Paradise.

The last 10 years of Rossini’s life were spent in Paris where years of ill health in Italy dissipated. He and his second wife Olympe Pélissier ran the most fashionable salon in the Paris suburbs. These Saturday evening gatherings – the samedi soirs – were first held in December 1858, and the last, two months before he died in 1868. It was for these social events that he wrote Péchés de vieillesse. They are salon pieces not meant for display or the concert hall. There are 14 volumes of them. In 1918, Ottorino Respighi orchestrated a number of the piano pieces for the ballet La Boutique fantasque. In 1925, he arranged some more piano pieces, from Vol. XII (Quelques riens), as the orchestral suite Rossiniana. Benjamin Britten also used some of Rossini’s themes in his orchestrally arranged suites “Soirées musicales”, Op. 9, (1936) and “Matinées musicales”, Op. 24 (1941).

Here’s Rossini’s Siberian Dance for solo piano. Respighi turned it into a Cossack Dance for his ballet. The orchestration is so good that La Boutique fantasque is mostly a denizen of the concert hall. Rossini remains a treasure with a forever locked secret. But he did enough.