You don’t have to be a man of the church to write a great sacred masterpiece. Rossini was quintessentially a man of the stage. He wrote more than 30 operas, and then he basically gave up composing, and moved to Paris. But he came out of retirement in 1842, when he completed his setting of the Stabat mater. It proved so popular that it was performed in 29 cities in the year following its premiere.
The premiere, incidentally, was in a theater, not a cathedral. People still comment on the music’s intensely dramatic quality. Gustav Holst, on the other hand, premiered his “Hymn to Jesus” in England, just after World War I. Based on one of the Gnostic gospels, the text refers again and again to dancing and wisdom. While it gets a lot less airplay than “The Planets,” “The Hymn to Jesus” is considered the more original and visionary work, quite unconventional for its time, passionate and exulting.
The Sacramento Choral Society performs Saturday, March 4th in the Community Center Theatre.