The Soirées musicales started life as a set of songs composed by the Italian composer Gioacchino Rossini between 1830 and 1835, who whilst enjoying a self-imposed retirement at the grand old age of 40, started to arrange ‘salon style’ chamber music evenings with his friends. Amongst the attendees was Count Carlo Pepoli, a poet and librettist, and Rossini set 8 of his texts for voice and accompaniment. Along with settings of 4 texts by the dramatist Pietro Metastasio, these songs formed the basis of the original Soirées musicales.
Almost 100 years later, Benjamin Britten took some of Rossini’s songs, not just from the Soirées musicales but also from some of his other compositions, and produced his own arrangements as a suite of ballet music for orchestra. Five years later he would orchestrate more of the songs and call his second ballet suite Matinees Musicales. The two suites were combined in 1941 to form one ballet suite specifically for a South American tour. Although the main themes are taken from works by Rossini, the orchestration and harmonies are unmistakeably Britten’s.
The five movements are:
1) March – based on the Pas de Soldats from act 3 of William Tell
2) Canzonetta – based on the first of Rossini’s songs: La Promessa
3) Tirolese – based on no. 6 of the Soirées musicales: La Pastorella delle Alpi
4) Bolero – based on the 5th song from Rossini’s collection: L’Invito
5) Tarantella – a faster and more energetic version of a religious chorus: La charité from 3 Choeurs religieux