Italy’s national spirit, captured en masse
MESSA PER ROSSINI
TChorus and Orchestra of La Scala, Milan, cond. Riccardo Chailly Decca
he expression of national character is something that has more or less died in classical music. It’s not just that nationalism is a suspect quality these days. It’s hard to know which musical markers of Englishness or German-ness would actually be understood as such, in these culturally fragmented times.
There were no such problems in Italy in 1868, the year in which Rossini died and the idea for a grand Requiem Mass in his honour was mooted. The nation wasn’t yet unified politically, but musically it had an unbroken tradition stretching back to Palestrina, the greatest sacred composer of the Renaissance, and beyond.
Giuseppe Verdi, the man who stepped into Rossini’s shoes as the figurehead of Italian music, was no chauvinist – he admired Wagner – but he was determined to preserve the Italian tradition. When he suggested to his publisher Ricordi that he should commission a number of Italy’s leading composers including himself to write a Messa per Rossini, he laid down strict conditions. None of the composers or performers must be paid, and no foreigners included.
The result was a setting of the Latin Requiem Mass by 13 hands for chorus, orchestra and five soloists. Nearly all of the chosen composers divided their careers between the church and the opera theatre, proving Verdi’s point that the Italian tradition is one unbroken unity. One hears it in the music, which mingles sacred and profane in fascinating ways.