The Genius that Lies Within: Schubert’s Mass in E Flat Major

Beethoven’s funeral took place in 1827 at the Dreifaltigkeitskirche in Vienna and Schubert was one of his torchbearers. Despite living his entire life in the same city, this is perhaps the closest the two great composers had ever been. Following the service, the Dreifaltigkeitskirche’s Society for the Cultivation of Church Music approached Schubert to compose a mass. This commission would result in Schubert’s Sixth and final mass–one of the many compositions that Schubert completed just before his death but never heard performed.

As with Beethoven, much is made about Schubert’s spirituality and supposed atheism. Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis confirms that Beethoven was more Deist than Catholic, but Schubert may have been the real deal. While Beethoven used music to stress certain parts of the sacred text above others, Schubert edited it. Not only does Schubert repeat lines (perhaps not the greatest heresy), he deleted part of the Credo, the most sacred part of the mass itself–the profession of faith. Indeed, none of Schubert’s six masses contain the line Credo in unam Sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam (I believe in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church). Perhaps this is understandable, as Schubert’s first five masses were composed for the concert hall, not for the Church. But this commission was different: Schubert was paid to compose a mass for Catholic worship. Unsurprisingly, in the fullness of time, all of Schubert’s masses were barred by the Church for liturgical purposes.

So what was Schubert playing at here? My view is that you need to take a deeper look into the music. Because, as is the case with all great composers, therein lies the genius. Schubert is the greatest songwriter in music history because the text serves his music and not the other way around. And that’s exactly what he’s doing here, in the highest form of songwriting. Schubert bends the text of the Catholic mass to suit his music. But that music is far from anti-religious or even anti-Christian. It is glorious on high.

In this mass, Schubert steps right up to the very precipice of the Romantic Movement, pushing Classical composition to its absolute limits. He strips the organ from the orchestra, using strings to create a sort of chromatic continuo throughout the work. Schubert may not go as far as Beethoven did in his Late String Quartets in pushing the harmonics all the way through to the 20th century, but the richness of Schubert’s harmonics here are rendolent of what would come in the mature works of Robert Schumann and other Romantic composers.

As a songwriter, Schubert makes two very interesting–and perhaps telling–compositional choices. First, he eliminates polyphony, which had dominated liturgical composition for more than two centuries, in favor of a more early Rennaisance homophonic style that perhaps takes its cue from Martin Luther and popular composition. To replace the power of multiple overlapping vocal parts creating a rich textual harmony, Schubert relies on dynamics, rhythm and formal architecture to bring the drama to his work. Second, Schubert’s mass is completely devoid of solo vocal arias. Especially in light of his decision to embrace homophonic composition here, his decision to eliminate the solo voice is telling. Schubert’s mass is about chorus, sometimes reduced to quartet or trio, backed by brass, winds and percussion. Strings play, as the often do in Schubert, a supporting role. In the scoring, Schubert has therefore made a very important statement. The mass is about community, not the individual. Beethoven had been the great iconoclast, the artist is supreme individual shaking his fist at the world. Schubert was more communal by nature and these decisions shape his composition. Peace be with you, my neighbor.

Masses open with Kyrie, a brief prayer for mercy. Schubert, however, stretches out the three lines of the prayer to symphonic lengths. Unquestionably, we have found ourselves in the same musical landscape as the Great Symphony. There is a peacefulness about the opening of this section that slowly gives way to uneasiness. Schubert may be asking of mercy, but he seems far from certain that his request will be granted. This tension between anguish and calm will pervade the entire score.

The Gloria opens in grand fashion. Here is where the shift from polyphony to homophony becomes most pronounced–it doesn’t take a degree in Latin to understand what is being sung. But Gloria is not all about the light–as was Schubert’s way, he balances the light against the darkness. And the darkness creaps into the music as the text turns inward towards human reflection, the Domine Deus section is the first to refer to Christ’s sacrifice (You who take away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.). The light returns when the text returns to glorification (For you alone are holy, you alone are Lord, you alone are the Most High). The grand theme returns, as if as a coda, and Schubert ends the section in a grand four part fugue (Cum Sancto Spiritu was traditionally composed as a fugue).

The Credo–the profession of faith–lies at the heart of the mass. Schubert shows his reverence for the moment, announcing it with solo timpani. The chorus enters, unaccompanied, then echoed by the winds and brass. This pattern continues for several passages. Schubert saves some of his most beautiful and haunting melodies for this section. Consider the soaring melody presentedby a trio of two tenors and soprano for the text Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto, ex Maria Virgine; et homo factus est (“And was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary; and was made man.). This graceful and tender melody is contrasted with the darkness of what follows: Cruifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato, passus et spultus est (He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried.). Schubert’s love for the infant Jesus is contrasted with his horror and shame at Jesus’ suffering on the cross. Throughout this work, Schubert questions whether he is deserving of God’s love, of Jesus’ sacrifice. And that determination lies very much in the balance. If there is one emotion I hear repeatedly throughout this mass it is one of regret and sadness. And for those who would dismiss Schubert as an untrained popular song writer, I submit for their consideration the conclusion of the Gloria, an extended 224-measure long fugue that seemingly uses every form of contrapuntal composition known to man. It is as virtuosic a composition as any written by Bach, Mozart or Beethoven.

The Sanctus and Benedictus sections look backwards to barouqe fugue and high Classical composition, respectively. Yet even in these sections, and particularly the Sanctus, Schubert’s creative chromaticism and highly emotional dynamics seem to pave the path for the Romantics, notably Anton Bruckner. But as with so many masses, these sections are merely a bridge from the heavy Credo to the closing Agnus Dei.

The concluding prayer, Agnus Dei, asks Jesus, the Lamb of God, to show mercy and grant us peace. Images of peace–notably, the dove, the lamb, the child, the mother–are especially prominent in Christian iconography. For a religion that places the worst of human brutality at its very center, it is perhaps surprising that mercy and peace form the central themes of the mass. These contrasts, between the brutality of the crucifixion, the nobility of Jesus’ sacrifice, and our prayers for mercy and peace, were not lost on Schubert. His music is more of a direct communication of these powerful emotions and themes than the somewhat staid text can convey. Edits aside, this is powerfully spiritual music.

Schubert opens his Agnus Dei with a double fugue, in part borrowed from Bach’s C-Sharp Minor fugue in Book II of the Well-Tempered Clavier. But only in part. The second subject is pure Schubert, which contrasts rhythmically with Bach’s theme in a way that the old Baroque master could not have envisioned. Here, Schubert refers back to the darker section of the Gloria–the Domine Deus is the only other section of the mass that also contains a reference to Jesus as Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. The mercy (Miserere) theme from the Gloria also returns, which of course is itself a reflection of the opening Kyrie. Schubert thus links the overarching themes of the mass musically: sacrifice and mercy. Which leads to the wholly original Dona nobis pacem–Grant us peace. Moving from the darkness of C minor to the relative major (the tonic E-Flat Major), Schubert scores a four-part harmony between chorus, vocal quartet, winds and strings. The dynamics swell, the dark Agnus Dei theme returns, but, in the end, Schubert’s suggests that our prayers may be granted: The mass ends in a moment of profound peace. Yet it is an uneasy moment. We feel the contrast between grief at Jesus’ sacrifice and the calm of the peace that we seek. We grieve in C Minor, and yet we hope in E-Flat Major. That link between grief and hope, so fundamental to Christian faith, is made tangible by Schubert’s shift from the relative minor to the tonic major. More than divining meaning from text, we can feel that link made real in Schubert’s art. Here, in this moment, and perhaps more than in any other work by Schubert, his poor decisions regarding the operatic form are felt most keenly. The man surely had many great operas in him. Had he lived, perhaps he would be considered to have been the great operatic genius of his age.

But he did not live. Within months of completing the Mass in E Flat Major, Schubert was dead at 31. His final wish was to be buried next to his idol, Beethoven. Havng helped to carry Beethoven to his rest a year earlier, Schubert’s request was granted. Having never met in life, the two would remain side by side in death for nearly half a century, until ubran planners, in their infinte wisdom, chose to separate them once more.

Franz Schubert, Mass in E-Flat Major, D.950:

One thought on “The Genius that Lies Within: Schubert’s Mass in E Flat Major

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s