Did Franz Schubert believe in God? Most likely. Did he believe in the supremacy of the Catholic church? Most likely not. He wrote six masses and each time he would jump certain parts of the traditional liturgy and omit the Latin words “et unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam ecclesiam”, a central part of the creed stating that the prayer believes “in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church”. It underlines the Catholic claim that it represents the true church as opposed to the followers of Martin Luther. Schubert would not take any sides, but neither would he rally to the Vatican’s pretension.
The supreme symphonic challenge
The last mass he wrote was the Mass in E flat major (D.950). He composed it in 1828, it was first performed in fall 1829. I hesitated to use the word “premiere” and my hesitation points to an inherent dilemma of Schubert’s church music, likely linked to his ambiguous position to the Catholic church.
Schubert considered the composition of a mass as the supreme symphonic challenge. The artistic value of the music, its aesthetic perfection took precedence over liturgical requirements. He did not hesitate to cut out or simplify other parts of the liturgy. The musicologist Manuela Jahrmärkter describes the first performance as “an event, where the position of the mass as functional music was seriously unsettled and established as supreme and absolute music”. This evolution of Schubert’s church music had already set in when he wrote the preceding Mass in A flat major (D.678), that I have discussed in an earlier post. The experience he gained emboldened him to pursue the chosen path.
The language of the heart
It is time now to listen to the recording of the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The Kyrie eleison lacks the passion of, let’s say, Mozart’s “Lord, have mercy”, and down-scaling the ardour of this part allows Schubert to forge a unit of the Kyrie, the following Gloria and the Credo. The overall expressiveness of the mass does not suffer at all as the Credo shows – the affirmation “I believe in one God” is an intimate dialogue with God rather than a triumphant battle cry.
This is perfectly in line with Schubert’s conception of religious devotion. In a letter to his parents he wrote in 1825 that he never would force himself to devotion and never compose hymns or prayers, unless devotion would overwhelm him in a natural way. This would then be true devotion and not something artificial or constructed. This becomes particularly apparent in the very emotional Agnus Dei.
The language of the heart, the true inner voice, this was the driving force behind Schubert’s composition, regardless of the type of work he was writing: a song, a quartet, a piano piece, a symphony, a mass. With the Mass in E flat major he composed a mass that reflected his aesthetic ambitions as well as his conception of faith.
© Charles Thibo