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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUBERT, F.: Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major / Stabat Mater (Immortal Bach Ensemble, Schuldt-Jensen)
One of a remarkable series of works Schubert wrote in his final year, Mass No. 6 in E flat lay unperformed until a year after his death. With an unusually prominent part for trombones, this is a powerful and disquieting masterpiece, reconciling the liturgical grandeur and monumentality of the vast fugues that end the Gloria and Credo, with the composer's natural lyricism and daring chromatic digressions.
By David Denton
Franz Schubert (1797–1828)
Mass No. 6 in E flat major, D. 950 • Stabat Mater, D. 175
Franz Schubert was born in Vienna in 1797, the son of a schoolmaster, and spent the greater part of his short life in the city. His parents had settled in Vienna, his father moving there from Moravia in 1783 to join his schoolmaster brother at a school in the suburb of Leopoldstadt and marrying in 1785 a woman who had her origins in Silesia and was to bear him fourteen children. Franz Schubert was the twelfth of these and the fourth to survive infancy. He began to learn the piano at the age of five, with the help of his brother Ignaz, twelve years his senior, and three years later started to learn the violin, while serving as a chorister at Liechtental church. From there he applied, on the recommendation of Antonio Salieri, to join the Imperial Chapel, into which he was accepted in October 1808, as a chorister now allowed to study at the Akademisches Gymnasium, boarding at the Stadtkonvikt, his future education guaranteed.
During his schooldays Schubert formed friendships that he was to maintain for the rest of his life. After his voice broke in 1812, he was offered, as expected, a scholarship to enable him to continue his general education, but he chose, instead, to train as a primary school teacher, while devoting more time to music and, in particular, to composition, the art to which he was already making a prolific contribution. In 1815 he was able to join his father as an assistant teacher, but showed no great aptitude or liking for the work. Instead he was able to continue the earlier friendships he had formed at school and make new acquaintances. His meeting in 1816 with Franz von Schober allowed him to accept an invitation to live in the latter's apartment, an arrangement that relieved him of the necessity of earning his keep in the schoolroom. In August 1817 he returned home again, when room was needed by Schober for his dying brother, and resumed his place, for the moment, in the classroom. The following summer he spent in part at Zseliz in Hungary as music tutor to the two daughters of Count Johann Karl Esterházy von Galánta, before returning to Vienna to lodge with a new friend, the poet Johann Mayrhofer, an arrangement that continued until near the end of 1820, after which Schubert spent some months living alone, now able to afford the necessary rent.
By this period of his life it seemed that Schubert was on the verge of solid success as a composer and musician. Thanks to his friends, in particular the older singer Johann Michael Vogl, a schoolfriend of Mozart's pupil Süssmayr, Leopold von Sonnleithner and others, his music was winning an audience. There was collaboration with Schober on a new opera, later rejected by the Court Opera, but in other respects his name was becoming known as a composer beyond his immediate circle. He lodged once again with the Schobers in 1822 and 1823 and it was at this time that his health began to deteriorate, through a venereal infection that was then incurable. This illness overshadowed the remaining years of his life and was the cause of his early death. It has been thought a direct consequence of the dissolute way of life into which Schober introduced him and which for a time alienated him from some of his former friends. The following years brought intermittent returns to his father's house, since 1818 in the suburb of Rossau, and a continuation of social life that often centred on his own musical accomplishments and of his intense activity as a composer. In February 1828 the first public concert of his music was given in Vienna, an enterprise that proved financially successful, and he was able to spend the summer with friends, including Schober, before moving, in September, to the suburb of Wieden to stay with his brother Ferdinand, in the hope that his health might improve. Social activities continued, suggesting that he was unaware of the imminence of his death, but at the end of October he was taken ill at dinner and in the following days his condition became worse. He died on 19 November.
During Schubert's final years publishers had started to show an interest in his work. He had fulfilled commissions for the theatre and delighted his friends with songs, piano pieces and chamber music. It was with his songs, above all, that Schubert won a lasting reputation and to this body of work that he made a contribution equally remarkable for its quality as for its quantity, with settings of poems by major and minor poets, a reflection of literary interests of the period. His gift for the invention of an apt and singable melody is reflected in much else that he wrote.
From childhood Schubert had had a particularly close association with church music. He had started at the age of eight as a choirboy at the parish church in Liechtental, where he was taught by the choirmaster Michael Holzer, a pupil of Albrechtsberger. In 1808 he won a place at the Imperial and Royal Chapel in auditions supervised by the Court Kapellmeister Antonio Salieri, with a concomitant place at the Stadtkonvikt, where his education was assured. He remained in the choir until his voice broke in 1812, bringing an end to seven years of regular practical participation in the music of the church. His many liturgical compositions seem to have started in 1812, with his first Mass in F major, D. 105, written in 1814 for Liechtental and first performed there under Schubert's direction. He continued to write music for the church until the final weeks of his life.
The last of Schubert's six completed Masses, the Mass in E flat major, D. 950, was written in the summer of 1828, possibly with an eye towards a future career appointment, to be followed, interestingly enough, by a setting of the Hebrew Psalm 92 for the synagogue cantor Salomon Sulzer. The Mass may have been intended from the first for the Church of the Holy Trinity at Alsergrund, where Michael Leitermayer, two years Schubert's junior and a fellow-pupil of Michael Holzer at Liechtental, was now choirmaster, having established his Alsergrund Church Music Association. It was Leitermayer who prepared the choir for the first performance of the new Mass, given under the direction of Schubert's brother Ferdinand in September 1829. In 1822 Schubert had completed his fifth Mass, the Mass in A flat major. This he revised in 1826 and offered to Josef Eybler, who had succeeded Salieri as Court Kapellmeister in 1825, hoping for the position of second Kapellmeister, an application that was unsuccessful. The Mass, in any case, did not fully conform to the conventions demanded by the conservative court. In the Mass in E flat major, however, Schubert sought to remedy these perceived deficiencies, and was, in any case, planning to improve his grasp of counterpoint by taking lessons with Simon Sechter, a course on which he embarked only in November 1828.
The Mass in E flat major is less operatic than had become the fashion, making less distinctive use of the soloists, and generally follows convention in its choice of relative keys and in its use of counterpoint. As elsewhere, Schubert omitted from the Credo the phrase 'Et in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam' ('And in one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church'), an omission widely taken to indicate an element of alienation from the Church (qv. Conductor's Note). It has recently been suggested, however, that Schubert here was conforming to the standard contemporary practice of the Catholic Enlightenment (qv. Manuela Jahrmärker: Schubert - ein Anhänger der katholischen Aufklärung? …, Schubert-Jahrbuch 1997).
The Kyrie brings an outburst of sound at the Christe eleison. The first phrase of the Gloria is proclaimed by the choir, a movement now in B flat major. Antiphonal use is made of the men's and women's voices and there is a recurrent dynamic contrast between the emphatic 'glorificamus te' and the gentler 'adoramus te'. Trombones add an ominous element to the second section, 'Domine Deus', with its plea for mercy to sinners, presented almost with the air of a Dies irae. 'Quoniam tu solus Sanctus' provides a link before the inevitably fugal 'Cum Sancto Spiritu', in which Schubert displays his increasing command of contrapuntal devices. The introductory words of the Credo are again given to the choir, proceeding to further use of counterpoint. Strings introduce the A flat major 12/8 'incarnatus est', with two solo tenors, to be joined by a solo soprano. There is a dynamic climax at the choral 'crucifixus', hushed at the words 'passus et sepultus'. The timpani start the following section, 'et resurrexit', once more in E flat major, with its fugal texture, leading to a full fugue at the words 'Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen'. The Sanctus brings moments of ominous drama, followed by a brief fugal 'Osanna in excelsis'. The A flat major Benedictus, introduced by the strings, deploys the solo voices, before the full choir introduces a fugal texture. After this there is a fugal E flat major Osanna in excelsis. There is a further deployment of contrapuntal resources in the C minor Agnus Dei, with a gentle plea for peace, at the words 'dona nobis pacem'. The words addressing Christ and the petition for peace return again in two brief final sections.
Schubert's Stabat Mater, D. 175, was written in April 1815, a setting of the first four stanzas of the Marian sequence, and again using the three trombones that add solemnity to sacred music. It is a very much less ambitious work than the Mass in E flat, set in the appropriate key of G minor and avoiding operatic contrast between the voices employed.
Schubert himself never heard his Mass in E flat major. When he composed the work, he had known for years that he was living on borrowed time and many with hindsight have sought to show that the Mass may be regarded as his statement of belief and his own Requiem. Perhaps it is so. Schubert's few but decisive changes in the text shift the theological content away from orthodox Catholic belief and show, above all, that he had taken a position on every phrase of the text. It can be taken from this that his adherence was nominal and just no more than that. Schubert himself was fully aware that he would be considered in conflict with his Catholic surroundings.
It is striking that the music immediately changes in character as soon as there is mention of human or earthly things. Or of Christ as the incarnation of the divine, in contrast to the strict, unapproachable Father.
After an altogether almost ironic announcement (Domine Deus - Quoniam) of the suffering of Jesus Christ in the Gloria, Schubert fully develops in the last part, together with the words Agnus Dei, his musical cross-motif that he uses also in his last song, the Doppelgänger; perhaps an indication of the autobiographical Requiem character of the Mass. He indicates thereby not only where the last dramatic scene takes place but also who could be there. With the soloists as advocate Schubert seeks to have contact with Jesus and receive an answer before he can hear no more: Dona nobis pacem! In vain. The plea not accepted? And finally, too late.
A moving document on challenge and self-knowledge. It is no surprise that Schubert provided a particularly prominent part for the trombones in his score.
Sung texts and translations are available at www.naxos.com/libretti/570381.htm
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SCHUBERT, F.: Mass No. 6 in E-Flat Major / Stabat ...