All concerts were held at Christ Church, West Temple Sheen unless otherwise stated
On Saturday 17th June 2017 we sang Schubert’s Mass in Eb Major at Christ Church.
Programme details here
A Neglected Masterpiece – Schubert’s Mass in E Flat major
by Simon Renton (Bass singer in our Choir)
Schubert was one of the coffin bearers at Beethoven’s funeral in March 1827. In the spring/summer of 1828 he composed the E flat major Mass. By November 1828, he was dead. The Mass was first performed (as a concert piece and not as part of a liturgical service) in 1829 at the Minorite (Franciscan) Dreifaltigkeitskirche (Trinity Church) in the Viennese suburb of Alsergrund – the same district in which he was born in 1797. The performance was conducted by his brother Ferdinand.
Even today, it is still unclear whether he wrote the E Flat major Mass because he wanted to or because he was requested to do so. Unlike with Mozart’s Requiem Mass, there is no story of a mysterious nobleman commissioning the Mass or of the Mass being left unfinished. The story is much simpler. The Mass was written, performed and then neglected.
The Mass is not a long work. But it has enormous weight – just as the Great C major symphony and the Unfinished symphony have symphonic weight. There is a sense of space and of the long duration of time. It moves in long paragraphs, like the sea and the rise and fall of the tide. It touches the Infinity. It is a “BIG” work – a masterpiece.
It may have flaws, as some critics have observed. But it has a revolutionary character which sweeps all doubts as to its status away. While it doffs its cap occasionally (and perhaps with an almost mischievous smile) to Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis – and perhaps Weber’s Der Freischutz too – there are passages in this Mass which foreshadow the music of Berlioz, early Verdi, Brahms, Saint Saens and Bruckner. It is a work that opens the door to the long musical vistas of the 19th Century and the Romantic Era.
We associate the great Requiem Masses with operatic composers – Mozart, Berlioz and Verdi. Schubert’s operas are rarely performed or even recorded. But, in this Mass, Schubert uses the chorus to drive the work forward. The chorus acts as congregational community, as if permanently on-stage in a one act opera. The times when the soloists make their contribution are moments in which Schubert seeks a special intensity or effect to complement the chorus. It as though the soloists emerge like individuals from the group, perform their lines and then merge back into the chorus. And, all the while, the orchestra frames and supports the drama. The counterpoint is between the different textures of the chorus and of the orchestra.
As the foremost Lieder composer, Schubert is famous for his sensitivity to the setting of words. Examples of his skill abound too in this work – for example, in the Credo. One expects a firm opening statement of belief. But the chorus’ entry is soft and hushed. The firmer statement is saved for later. Then the majesty of the Deity (et ex Patre natum) is described with awe and amazement – forte and piano alternates. This passage dissolves into the chorus’ expression of wonder that the Deity has descended to earth (Qui propter nos homines). Three soloists (two tenors and a soprano) emerge to sing a breath-takingly beautiful trio where they recount that the Deity has been made man (Et incarnatus est). The agony of the crucifixion follows but is encompassed within the consolatory music of the Et incarnatus est. This gives way to a vigorous quasi-fugue depicting the Resurrection and the Ascension of the Deity to heaven (Et resurrexit). Finally, the second mighty fugue in the entire Mass (Et vitam venturi) brings the Credo to an awe-inspiring close.
In the great C major string quintet (completed in the autumn of 1828), one encounters contrasts of light and darkness – between long stretched melodies and agitated interruptions. These contrasts are present throughout the Mass as well. The opening Kyrie eleison provides a moment of intense tranquillity which is reinforced by the forceful central section of the Christe eleison. In the Gloria, the opening confident march like section (Gloria in excelsis Deo) eventually gives way to the stormy interruption of the Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Miserere. The Sanctus, which follows the Credo, is of such power and imagination that it takes your breath away – it stops you in your tracks!* Massive chords in a succession of unexpected keys create the impression of a gigantic storm with towering clouds which reflect the Splendour of the Universe. Even at the end of the work, when the agitation of the Agnus Dei is repeated and is then dissipated by the tranquillity of the dona nobis pacem, the angst is not fully dispelled. To the very last bars, a recurrent C flat continues to try to undermine the serenity of the music reaching the home key of E flat major. The peace of the world is not assured.
Schubert’s E flat major Mass D 950 could be described as being like an orphan. Within the corpus of the late works of Schubert, it is the C major string quintet, the B flat major piano sonata (the last of the final trilogy of sonatas), the Great C major symphony and the collection of individual songs collected under the title “Schwanengesang” which are most remembered. Within the world of composed masses, it is the requiem masses of Mozart, Verdi and Berlioz which dominate – as well as Brahms’ German Requiem and Beethoven’s mighty Missa Solemnis. Perhaps the reason for the comparative neglect of this Mass is that it is a transitional work. It is neither anchored in the 18th nor the 19th Century. Like Caspar David Friedrich’s painting “The Wanderer” (1818), It looks into the future – into what may be.
* Schubert moves straight from E flat major to B minor, then to G minor, and to E flat minor. The Sanctus ends in a blaze of A flat major before moving seamlessly into the Hosanna.
On Saturday 17th May 2016 we sang two works: Saint-Saëns Requiem and Schubert’s Mass in G Major
For many years Saint-Saëns earned a living as organist of the Church of the Madeleine in Paris. He was not a religious man, and indeed spoke of his ‘repugnance for religious ceremonial’. In the spring of 1877 he finally felt able to escape the appointment and support himself independently. At the same time, the lease on his flat expired and he was helped to find a new apartment by a wealthy friend and admirer, Albert Libon.
At the end of May, Saint-Saëns returned from a concert tour to find that Libon had died and left him 100,000 francs. The will, dated several years before, stated that the bequest was intended to free Saint-Saëns from his appointment at Madeleine. Libon had also included the condition that Saint-Saëns should compose a Requiem to be performed on the anniversary of his death. Although Libon had later deleted this condition, Saint-Saëns felt such a keen debt of gratitude that he nevertheless composed such a piece. He conducted the first performance of his Requiem on the morning of 22 May, just two days after the anniversary of Libon’s death, with Charles Widor as the organist and vocal soloists from the Paris opera.
One cannot help but wonder if Saint-Saëns came to regret his Requiem. He must surely have thought of Mozart (whose Requiem had presaged his own death) when, six days later, his two-year old son fell to his death out of the window of their new apartment. His other son, a baby of only six months, died just a few weeks later through illness. Saint-Saëns’s marriage did not survive the devastation. He parted from his wife who retreated to the country and only returned decades later, shrouded in black, at Saint-Saëns’s own grandiose funeral – once again back at the Madeleine.
Schubert Mass in G Major
The G Major Mass is an astonishingly great work of the eighteen-year-old Schubert. The gentlest of masses, the work opens with a lyric and tuneful ‘Kyrie.’ The ‘Christe’ with soprano solo darkens the texture, but sunlight reappears in the repeat of the ‘Kyrie.’ The ‘Gloria’ is in D Major, triumphant in tone, but still permeated with a kind of sweetness rare in Mass settings. Probably the greatest section of this Mass is the hypnotic ‘Credo.’ Schubert finds a rapt weightless tone for this movement that even carries through the ‘Crucifixus’ section. This is without a doubt the least dogmatic ‘Credo’ ever set. The ‘Sanctus’ is brief with a tiny ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ and a little fugal ‘Hosanna.’ The Benedictus is patterned on a quartet from Beethoven’s “Fidelio.” Even at this young age Schubert was au courant with the latest of Viennese musical developments. The ‘Agnus Dei’ is, appropriately, of a darker cast, but the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ revives the joy of the ‘Gloria.’