The College Choir presents Mass no. 6 in E-flat major by Franz Schubert

The College Choir presents
Mass no. 6 in E-flat major by Franz Schubert

Franz Schubert’s Mass no. 6 in E-flat major has been a controversial work since its first performance in 1829. It fulfilled part of a commission from the Society for the Cultivation of Church Music for Holy Trinity Church in Vienna, the same church where Ludwig van Beethoven’s remains had been consecrated in 1827. Schubert died soon after completing the Mass and never heard it performed.

There are several features of this Mass which have generated criticism and admiration. The length and grand scale of the work breaks with earlier Viennese tastes for short works and compact liturgies (partly due to tastes of the new Austrian emperor). The large orchestra is impressive but noticeably lacking a pair of flutes, and the timpani play a commanding role (including many solos) rather than merely assisting at cadences. Even though Vienna was enamored with operatic arias, Schubert created this work as a showcase for the chorus, brass, and winds. He features a vocal quartet and trio to lighten the texture or engage in dialogue with the full chorus but offers not a single solo aria.

Mass no. 6 was Schubert’s last mass but the first to omit the organ from the orchestra, parting from the old custom of continuo accompaniment. The chromatic fugues and stunning modulations within Mass no. 6 foreshadow the rich harmonic system of the mature Romantic style to come. Schubert eschews 18th century polyphony in favor of continuous homophonic choral text declamation, and he uses new extremes of loud and soft dynamics in a vast formal architecture perhaps inspired by Beethoven.

The sacred text itself is one of the most contentious points. Schubert removed several lines from the Gloria and Credo while repeating other lines (as he did in all of his concert masses). This is quite bold considering the piece was to be used for Roman Catholic worship. Some conductors created arrangements and versions of this Mass with the complete text, creating further arguments of musical intention and quality. Eventually (1897) Schubert’s masses were specifically barred from being used as liturgical music due to the text omissions.

The Mass begins with the swelling dynamics and long phrases Schubert uses to paint the brief text of the Kyrie. The middle section (Christe eleison) seems contrasted because of the change in dynamic and register, but the movement is highly unified by melodic material. A soft, unison eleison acts as a retransition to the repeated kyrie until a deceptive cadence leads to a Viennese-style coda.

The Gloria opens with a cappella chorus and brilliant string arpeggio. Once again Schubert derives a continuously varied musical landscape from a limited thematic palette. The exact repetitions morph with the contrasting textures in the first section as we hear chorus versus orchestra, men versus women, and winds contra strings contra brass, all building to a climax that deceptively ends pianissimo. The ensuing Domine Deus, in triple meter and minor mode, is a dark and heavy affair, but Schubert balances the weight with gentle miserere choral refrains, and not surprisingly this musical material returns in the final movement on the same pleading text.

The opening Gloria theme then reappears, creating additional motion into the final cum sancto Spiritu… Amen. Schubert honors a long-standing tradition in setting this text as a fugue, but Schubert’s cum sancto fugue rivals Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and anything else written up to then. This fugue is as long as the rest of the Gloria and far more harmonically dense than anything in the Mass so far.

The third movement begins quietly, and Schubert reveals his study of Beethoven by starting the Credo with timpani solo. The chorus answers a cappella followed by a gentle echo in the winds – even today a startling triptych of contrasts. This scheme is repeated while proceeding through the sacred text, adding tension with brief imitative sections. A climax is reached by change of register (just like the Kyrie) at Qui propter nos homines but we sweetly resolve downward with one of the few instances of word painting (descendit). One of Schubert’s most beautiful melodies follows for et incarnatus est, a trio of two tenors and soprano accompanied by the orchestra. The chorus contrasts the vocal trio with densely modulating chords on crucifixus, and drifts away in melancholy with the words “died and was buried.” Timpani announce a return to a close recall of the opening material, but this time the contrapuntal nature of the imitative entrances is underlined and built in sequence until another grand fugue starts at et vitam venturi… amen. This fugue is even longer than the closing of the Gloria and exhibits every type of contrapuntal technique known. There are twenty sectional episodes where Schubert mixes entrance intervals and durations. He even counterpoints amen over et vitam as well as allowing the orchestra its own homophonic statements between fugatto episodes.
For the Sanctus Schubert returns to the dramatic swelling of the Kyrie. The adagio tempo is ended by a sprightly Osanna in excelsis, a fugue almost baroque in its learned concision. Romantic chromaticism appears just prior to the conclusion, along with the Viennese cadential material used in the previous movements.

The Benedictus is reminiscent of Mozart, Haydn, and Viennese composers generally in that the solo quartet presents all of the text. The orchestration is superbly interesting without ever overstepping the vocalists. The chorus eventually joins with a stalwart theme to contrast the lyricism of the first theme. The quartet and chorus trade and develop each other’s material as the first theme is passed through the various lines of the orchestra and quartet. Just as the Benedictus seems about to end the Osanna fugue returns to round out the two movements.

Agnus Dei, the final movement, begins as a dark, double fugue of contrition. The first subject, a single plodding syllable per bar, is taken from the C# minor fugue of J.S. Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier volume II (Schubert also used this subject in his tragic song of the same year, Der Doppelgänger). The basses begin but after two measures the tenors offer Schubert’s counter-subject, a theme so rhythmically interesting that it energizes the first subject. The main subject is also directly related to the Domine Deus theme of the Gloria movement, further evidence of Schubert’s long-range planning. This growing complexity gives way to a simple unison and homophonic miserere (another musical echo from the Gloria) and these textures alternate until the dona nobis pacem text is reached, whereupon the triple meter and minor modality Agnus gives way to duple flowing and relative major. A vocal quartet joins the strings and the soprano leaps an octave for the highest pitches of the entire work. A four-way conversation develops (chorus, quartet, strings, winds) in an operatic groundswell until the original Agnus Dei fugue returns a third time. But this dark mood lasts only a little while before the sweet tranquility of dona nobis pacem brings Mass no. 6 to a close. – all rights reserved to Richard Gard