Program notes, Fall 2009

SCHUBERT: Mass No. 6 in E-flat major, D.950

by Arlene Sagan

In June 1828, the last year of his life, Schubert began work on the Mass in E flat major, D. 950.

Over a halting bass line, solemn brass and woodwind chords unfold the initial motive, which is then taken up by the chorus, whose plea never rises above a piano, with the exception of fairly regular accents. The next orchestral interlude again adumbrates the choral entry, and Schubert constantly entrusts the first exposure of thematic material to the instruments. We get our first intimation that this is a "choral mass" when the chorus continues to sing at the Christe eleison, a section traditionally given to soloists. We experience our first sustained outcry intensified by syncopated octave leaps in the cellos and basses, but the climax does not occur until the middle of the second Christe with an abrupt change from B flat to D major! The section ends with sopranos and altos in unison, answered by the tenors and basses singing the same note, the first of many passages in which all are united in a plea for mercy. An orchestral bridge leads lo the last Kyrie with a reprise of the opening.

The opening of the Gloria is sung a cappella, the strings, with a two-octave arpeggiated rise, provide a unifying thematic motive. There is a starting shift from B-flat to D-flat and then to D minor (adoramus te), one of many constant harmonic modulations, often to distant keys. At the second adoramus, the a capella chorus in a low register moves to C fiat major (a key in which all notes are flat) -- a complete abasement.

Schubert changes texture with the gratias. Phrases are sung by different combinations of 2 voices in close harmony, with the chorus singing the gratias as a refrain. The pattern is repeated six times and, after an extended orchestral bridge, we return to the beginning of the Gloria.

With the cum sancto, Schubert demonstrates his mastery of the Art of the fugue. In tribute to the Master, not only does he borrow his main subject from the E flat major fugue in Book II of the Well Tempered Clavier, but the notes are enharmonic equivalences of Bach's second entry, 150 measures later, after what could have been a climactic "Amen", the orchestra's importance is again demonstrated. The woodwind and trombones unfolds the subject, followed by a coda in which the voices enter in rapid succession, each in a different key! and then sing the final amen with the longest-held notes of the Mass.

The timpani tremolo ushering in the credo provides not only an ominous portent but a unifying motive for the extended text. So does the repeat of the Credo subject in different sections. Note the omission, one of several, of a section of the text, patram omnipotentem. It is obvious from his religious works as well as his own statements that Schubert deeply believed in a ''Divine presence." At the same time, his choice of deletions, in his various settings of phrases such as Credi un unam sanctam catholicam intimate a discomfort with the established Church. Interestingly, although a good student, in Teachers' College, he received a low grade in religious studies.

At the Et incarnatus, key and meter abruptly change. In the lilting 'lullaby' rhythm, the orchestra and then (for the first time the soloists in turn sing shades of Verdi) one of the most poignant Schubertian melodies. All too suddenly we are plunged into an ominous world (crucifixus) as over 'shuddering' strings, each phrase of the now 7-part chorus descends a half step in tonality. The intensity increases to a fff on the third repetition after which the chorus, accompanied by the woodwinds, subsides in unison (passus et sepultus est). Unusually, both the Et incarnatus and the Crucifixus are repeated.

Because Schubert did not employ traditional devices of counterpoint, he has been criticized for the construction of his fugues. But the final fuge of the Credo (et vutan) which takes up about half of the movement, again demonstrates Schubert's mastery of imitation. Notice especially his interwining of an extended chromatic descent.

The opening of the Sanctus is an excellent example for what in Schubert's time would have been rapid and extreme harmonic changes. After a short Osanna, the soloists reappear in alternation with the chorus (Benedictus) with another glorious melodic passage. A reprise of the Osanna and we plunge again into despair (Agnus Dei). Bassoon, trombone, and bass intone a motive Schubert again borrows from Bach's 'Well Tempered Clavier this time the C Sharp minor fugue in Book I. Later in the final year, he would again use it in his setting of Heine’s Doppelganger.

The mood shifts. The sweet sounds of the second Miserere momentarily lighten as the music shifts from C minor to E flat major. Abruptly we again hear the anguished sounds of the Agnus Dei but are succeeded by simple clear plea (dona nobis pacem) with its Schubertian fourfold tonal repetition. The soloists make a final appearance, as before in alternatim with the chorus. The Agnus Dei once more interrupts, but we get another momentary glimpse of the sun as the music again shifts, this time from E flat minor to E flat major. With the return of the dona nobis there is another return to the minor, but the Mass ends with a reaffirmative chorale of faith in the home key.

The E flat major Mass marks a climax in Schubert’s career. Had it been published in his lifetime, as few of his prodigious output were, it would have startled his listeners for its advanced harmonic thinking and unusually imposing brass sound. Unfortunately, it was published almost 40 years later when his radical tonal and orchestra experiments had become commonplace.

Handel’s Messiah was one of Schubert’s favorite works. During the time he was composing the Mass in E flat, he acquired the scores of Handel’s complete works. He is reported to have said, “Oh the daring of these modulations! Things like this could not occur to the likes of us (sic) even in a dream!” We must disagree. On his memorial is written, “The art of music here entombed a rich possession but even fairer hopes.”

-- Arlene Sagan