Comedia religioso

Last night I had the privilege of being invited to go to a concert in St John’s, Smith Square, given by the Parliamentary Choir. This institution, which I have only recently been made aware of but whose existence brings a warm glow to my heart, is essentially your traditional choral society, with the significant defining factor that it consists entirely of people who work at the Palace of Westminster. This is a choir in which your local MP can give vent to creative energy (as indeed mine does); Parliamentary staff (literally) rub shoulders with Lords and Viscounts, as they peer (no pun intended) at their music and try to follow it with varying degrees of success.

The music itself is but a small factor in the whole exciting set up (although soloists included the splendid Catherine Wyn-Rogers and one of the country’s finest tenors, James Gilchrist, so the choir can’t be short of a bob or two – and not surprising, given the extortionate pricing of their programmes). It’s hard to explain quite how charged the atmosphere of social, political and artistic worlds meeting in head on collision can be, and as I took my seat amongst the political elite (a few chairs away from Rt Hon John Redwood MP) it looked unlikely that things could get any more bizarre.

That was before the concert started.

The performance was of Rossini’s Petite Messe Solennelle, a work I was previously unacquainted with. One knows about Rossini, of course – The Barber of Seville, The Thieving Magpie, pretty overtures, catchy tunes etc. But one expects a classical mass to have rather more dignity.

Far from it. The Petite Messe Solennelle is possibly the composer’s greatest comic achievement. I listened at first slightly aghast and embarrassed, then with increasing enjoyment as Rossini went through every musical joke in the repertoire; silly melodic phrases, comic repetitions, false endings…one movement waited until the soloist had finished, then finished off in a different key. And the whole thing was accompanied by a glorious mixture of pastiche, operatic melodrama and fairground music, all rendered with camp perfection by pianist Malcolm Martineau (when I told him afterwards that he made me chuckle several times, he grinned and said “that was the intention”).

The Credo has never been so jolly, the crucifixus section ludicrously upbeat. The final “dona nobis pacem,” which almost seems to take itself seriously, is followed by a ridiculous series of false starts and stops, each one daring you to think that the work might have finished, before it finally leaps in with an explosive final chord (the audience got the joke: it laughed). It was all utterly utterly inappropriate for a mass. Apparently the Credo is headed “allegro cristiano” – surely it has to be a piss-take? Even the title is a joke: solemn mass? My foot. It has all the solemnity of Monty Python’s fish slapping dance.

Rossini wasn’t a Mozart or a Beethoven, but he wasn’t a fool either. His small solemn mass is a deliberate piece of silliness, a work of comic ambitions unsurpassed even by Sir Arthur Sullivan. I’m not sure what to make of that – did he just think “these Latin words are all very serious, but hey! we can still have some fun!” Was it a more anarchic two-fingers-up to a ceremony he didn’t believe in? Or was it a still more radical reinvention of the same ceremony, the 19th century equivalent of a hippy Vicar with a guitar and a rainbow strap?

What I suspect is that it was simply a big joke, the aging Rossini’s knowing wink at a musical establishment that was never going to rank him as one of the “great” composers. Either way, it seemed entirely appropriate that it was being belted out by a choir of MPs, Peers of the Realm and Parliamentary staff, alongside four properly professional soloists and a magnificently camp pianist, with Sea Cadets all dressed up in their ridiculous costumes to do the ushering and representatives of BT waiting to give us food and wine.

Rossini, I feel, would have approved.

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