Schubert’s Romantic prayer for deliverance

Paradise on earth. © Charles Thibo

Long ago I made the painful experience that the harder I sought love the less likely I was to find it. Chasing it was a hopeless endeavour it, I had to let it find me. I am wondering whether I am about to make the same experience with faith. In a post early this year about Bach’s Mass in B minor I had announced to study theological works and to try to settle for myself the question of the Christian faith: To believe or not to believe.

Why should I believe in God?

Two things happened. Number one: My resolution triggered a new question. Why? Why should I believe in God? I lack nothing and I am not afraid of death. Although I am aware of my mortality, my life does not seem absurd to me, since I fill it with sense every day. Number two: I haven’t touched one theological book so far! Just as there is a time for a specific music, there is a time for specific books. And time was not right.

Easter came and went by, it did not make any difference this year. I listened to sacred music before and after, there was no link between the calendar and my listening preferences. Last year was very different. I felt a strong attraction to all things linked to religion, especially around Easter. This year – nothing. Very strange. Very interesting too. I remain puzzled. Religion seems to give answers to questions I haven’t asked.

A mass not to the emperor’s liking

So where does it leave us as far as music is concerned? With Franz Schubert. Yes, he did write sacred music. And it was quite popular at the time since church archives in Austria are abundant with mentions of Schubert’s masses. One that I really, really like is Mass No. 5 in A flat major, D.678. Schubert did not wrote it for a specific occasion. He wrote a first version between 1819 and 1822, a second version came into being around 1826. He presented it to the Imperial Court in Vienna, however the reception was not at all enthusiastic. “It is a good mass, but it is not composed in a style the Emperor likes”, Schubert was told. This left the composer rather cold. “I said to myself: I wouldn’t be too happy to write to please the emperor’s taste.”

Longing for peace

Schubert’s Mass in A flat major is interesting in the sense that it expresses a deep longing for peace and deliverance, a theme developed mainly in the Credo. Deliverance from the oppressive regime under Chancellor Metternich. Deliverance from daily hardship in a country still recovering from the Napoleonic wars. It emphasizes the contrast between Jesus, son of God, as the perfect creature, and the brutality of mankind not afraid of nailing a defenseless preacher to the cross. The mass has been recorded by The Arnold Schönberg Choir and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

I am not too much impressed by the Kyrie, I must confess. But the Gloria, oh the Gloria! Listen to this: Gloria! Wham! Gloria! Wham! Such force. Such conviction. Wonderful! This makes me want to fling myself into the arms of the church. And then the slow, sententious “Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam” (We give you thanks for your great glory) leading to the delicate “Qui tollis peccata mundi” (Who takes away the sins of the world) – Schubert displays a fantastic balance between emotion and solemnity. The Gloria ends on a fugue that Schubert wrote from scratch for the second version of the mass. Impressive for a composer who never felt any deep emotional bond to the Catholic church.

Brass and strings for the Credo

The Credo’s beginning is remarkable: Brass fanfare. “Credo in uno Deo, factorem caeli et terrae” (I believe in one God, maker of heaven and earth). Strings. Brass fanfare. “Credo in uno Deo, factorem caeli et terrae”. Strings. Tutti! This structure is repeated throughout the Credo and it gives it a very persuasive power. Faith and the different theological aspects of faith – the role of God as the maker of all things, the triple nature of God (the trinity – the Father, the Son, the Holy Ghost), Jesus as the bearer of the cross and the messenger of hope and deliverance – are affirmed by the musical structure, voice and instrumental parts alternating and enhancing each other. The credo finishes on a part for eight different voices, and  I can feel the manipulative power of this profession.

The Sanctus has a Romantic touch, the horns conjures a world far away (lost?), the string section builds up the tension – appropriate to introduce the culminating point of the mass, the consecration of bread and wine. The Benedictus resolves the tension, its emphasis is on solemnity, the orchestra has mainly a supporting role for the choir and the solo voices. The last part, the Agnus Dei, has a melancholic ring, a fatalistic reconciliation with  life on earth. Schubert strove with this composition towards the “highest in art”. It did not secure him an appointment as a composer for the Imperial court, but it secured him a lasting fame as a composer of sacred music.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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2 thoughts on “Schubert’s Romantic prayer for deliverance”

    1. You’re welcome! I came across a German pianist comparing a score to a composer’s most intimate diary where he could bury all his emotions – in this specific case he spoke about Felix Mendelssohn’s “Songs without Words”. We are privileged to be allowed to share these emotions and make them our own. What treasure is hidden behind these myriads of notes!

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