Saturday, 3 March 2012

Massed Schubert

Radio 3 is broadcasting the entirety of Franz Schubert's output later this month. Wow! All those endearing symphonies, piano sonatas, string quartets and so on, plus over 600 songs, all to be broadcast. We'll even get the chance to hear all his many unsuccessful operas and all those fragments. (Anyone who knows Schubert's music will already know that there are many, many more unfinished works besides the 'Unfinished Symphony'.) One of my favourite CD boxed sets is a collection of most of Schubert's sacred music, of which there is a considerable amount, including six full mass settings. This might surprise people as Franz is not known for his choral works. 

My overview of them would say (and, as I'm now typing it out, will say!) that much of the composer's religious output isn't characteristic of the Schubert we know and love. The final two mass settings are characteristic (and both masterpieces), as are some other small, late pieces, but much of the rest sounds sometimes like Mozart, sometimes like Haydn, sometimes like other composers we aren't familiar with but who don't sound like the familiar Schubert! Many were written when Schubert (always young, given his early death) was very young and learning his craft by writing in other composers' styles. That said, Franz was one of the most naturally-gifted of music's geniuses and even these teenage works are full of pleasure-giving writing. I enjoyed getting to know them and this post will concentrate just on them.

There isn't a great deal of this early music available on YouTube yet, so sadly I'm unable to link you to the Tantum Ergo, D461, a work whose ceremonial grandeur recalls Mozart's Magic Flute, or the delicious Auguste jam coelestium, D488, a blithe tenor-soprano duet that recalls Haydn's Creation. One that is available, the aria-like Totus in corde, D136, set for soprano, clarinet and orchestra (though performed with a tenor, clarinet and piano in the linked video), will give you an idea of how like Mozart young Schubert could sound. Also available is the Gloria from the Mass No.1 in F, D105, which begins and ends in brassy ceremonial grandeur and has a stern central passage (the Domine Deus) featuring trombones, but also has time for a gentle Mozartian trio at Gratias agimus tibi and an Agnus Dei whose attractive phrases pass from voice to voice over a walking bass. It's best section comes with the overlapping choral phrases at Miserere nobis. They are beautiful in themselves but the woodwind counter-melody accompanying them makes them even more special. Moving onto the Mass No.2 in G, D167, there's more Mozartian influence in the melodically lovely outer sections of the Kyrie and in the soprano solo at its centre. Haydn's influence is felt in the Kyrie of the Mass No.3 in B flat, D324 - a work where the ceremonial meets the pastoral, most enticingly in its Agnus Dei

The ceremonial and the pastoral are also combined in the Mass No.4 in C, D452, the last of the early masses and the one I think does its composer the most credit. The Kyrie of this mass has some of the singing freshness of a peasant mass in its loveable main tune. The highlights of the Gloria (for me) are the soprano's octave leaps at 'Domine Deus, Agnus Dei'. The highlight of the Credo is surely the central 'Et incarnatus est', where the soloists, led by a soaring soprano, give us beautiful suspension-rich music over a string pattern, changing key gorgeously at 'et homo factus est'. The 'Crucifixus' is equally lovely. The Sanctus is a well-wrought crescendo from unblemished mystery into blazing power, answered by a 'Hosanna' of refreshing cheerfulness from soprano and chorus. The Benedictus again suggests the influence of Mozart. It's a lovely little movement for high-flying solo soprano and strings. The Agnus Dei is also a beauty, with the singers giving us lovely, overlapping phrases to which the chorus respond quietly with 'miserere nobis'. The instrumental accompaniment is exquisite. The 'Dona nobis pacem' is a tuneful, minuet-like section of much charm and provides the mass with a happy Haydn-like ending. 

Much to explore then.

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