Last week at Carnegie Hall, the Collegiate Chorale presented a concert performance of Moïse et Pharaon — Rossini's 1827 revision, for the Paris Opéra, of his 1818 Biblical drama Mosè in Egitto. John Yohalem and Zachary Woolfe have reports. It was my first live encounter with the piece, and I was especially fascinated by the ending: an orchestral epilogue that depicts the parting of the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the Egyptians. ("Exterminons une coupable race!" exclaims Aménophis as he leads them to their doom — "Let us exterminate a culpable race!") David Shengold, whose review is forthcoming, remarked afterward on the resemblance of this finale to that of Götterdämmerung — another apocalypse in the major mode. I had the same thought, and was also struck by the peculiar harmonies that Rossini deployed in the last two pages of the score. Just before the end, the lower strings twice play a descending figure – C, B-flat, A-natural, A-flat — over a pedal-point C. Nothing unusual in that, but with the addition of other instrumental voices a piercing dissonance arises: a chord of C, A-flat, B-natural, F, and E-natural, containing two clashing major sevenths. You can hear this passage at 5:53 in the Riccardo Muti video above:
Then, in the following bars, double basses and bassoons twice intone the figure C, B-flat, A-flat, G, a classic "lamento" motif that one would expect to find in the key of C minor. But the remainder of the orchestra resolves to C major, creating an uneasy ambiguity, a sense of lingering shadows. After that, three quiet C-major chords, and silence. In the original performing material at the Opéra, there follows a cantique of thanksgiving for the Israelites —"Chantons, bénissons le Seigneur" — but during the rehearsal period Rossini decided to cut that piece, preferring to close with the hushed, eerie music of the Red Sea rising. (My information on this point comes from the great opera scholar Philip Gossett.) I'm hard pressed to think of a precedent: it's a stroke of startling originality.
As for Wagner, he did admire Rossini's Moses music, and very likely saw the French version during one of his Parisian stays. He mentioned the score, along with William Tell, at his famous meeting with Rossini in 1860, during which the old master was surprised to learn that he had anticipated the art of endless melody. ("So I made music of the future without knowing it," Rossini remarked, no doubt with a smile.) Although it's a bit of a stretch, you might be able to see a kinship between the final gesture of Götterdämmerung — the "O hehrstes Wunder" melody unfurling regally over a stepwise descending figure — and the music for the Egyptians' demise.
Readers are welcome to locate their own ironies.