Schubert: A Short Life, Rich in Music

Franz Peter Schubert was born in 1797 in a suburb of Vienna, six years after Mozart’s death and a generation after Beethoven’s birth.  His father was an elementary schoolteacher of relatively modest means.  Schubert displayed a substantial musical talent early on, and his father made sure the boy received training in piano, violin, and voice.  It is likely the young Schubert began composing as soon as he could read music.  His earliest surviving compositions — some song sketches and a fantasy for piano — date from 1810, when Schubert was 13.

In 1807, his father took the ten-year-old Schubert for a consultation with Antonio Salieri, the Austrian imperial Kapellmeister (music director).  Salieri recommended that, as soon as the boy was old enough, he be entered into an examination for the imperial chapel choir.  Schubert passed the examination easily and, at age eleven, joined the choir.  Membership in the choir came with a free education at the academic secondary school associated with the University of Vienna.

After completing his basic education, the young Schubert trained to be schoolteacher like his father.  He began teaching at his father’s school in 1814 at age 17, but he also continued his association with Salieri, who trained him in theory and counterpoint.  Despite Schubert’s teaching duties, he managed to find the time to compose, which he did at a prodigious rate, creating music in a variety of genres, including songs, masses, string quartets, and compositions for solo piano.

The same year, at age 17, Schubert conducted the first major public performance of his work, his Mass in F Major, composed in honor of the centennial celebration of a local parish church.  The performance was a great success.  In 1816, Schubert received his first paid commission, for the cantata Prometheus.  Soon after, he decided he must dedicate his life to his true passion and calling.  In about 1818, he gave up teaching school and turned his energies completely to music, working hard to establish his reputation as a composer.

Over the next few years, he tried unsuccessfully to obtain a number of different permanent posts as a composer or conductor.  Despite his inability to maintain steady employment in his chosen field, he continued to compose at an amazing pace, reportedly writing sometimes up to eight songs in a day.  Eventually, he was paid relatively well for his work.  He received encouragement and inspiration from a close circle of friends who were artists, intellectuals, poets, and musicians.

In 1823, at age 26, Schubert began to suffer the first signs of ill health and was hospitalized for treatment of syphilis.  Although he continued to be a part of the Viennese musical scene, for the next five years he suffered from intermittent bouts of sickness and became more and more given to fits of melancholy.  He died in November 1828, a few months short of his 32nd birthday.  Even throughout this difficult time, however, he never stopped composing.  When he died, he left more than 1,200 works, including over 600 songs, nine symphonies, 15 string quartets, and numerous piano pieces.

At Schubert’s brother Ferdinand’s insistence, their father made sure that Franz was buried in the same cemetery as Beethoven, who had died a year and a half earlier and whom Schubert had idolized.  Schubert’s grave was inscribed with the words “Die Tonkunst begrub hier einen reichen Besitz aber noch viel schoenere Hoffnungen” (“The art of music has buried here a rich possession, but also [has buried] much finer hopes”).

Although Schubert is probably best known for his Lieder (songs), throughout his life he wrote many sacred works as well, including six masses, of which the Mass in A-flat Major is number five.  As he matured, he found it more and more difficult to accept authority, including that of the Church.  His anti-ecclesiastical views are demonstrated by his refusal to include the traditional words of the Credo — “Et unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam ecclesiam” (“And [I believe] in one, holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”) — in any of his masses.

Despite his antipathy toward the established Church, however, Schubert professed a deep and spontaneous spirituality, perfectly suited to the Romantic idealism of his time.  As he explained in a letter to his father, dated 1825, “I have never forced myself to piety; and never compose hymns or prayers of that kind unless it takes me unawares; but then it is usually the right and true piety.”1

He began writing the Mass in A-flat Major in 1819 and completed it in September of 1822.   He referred to it as his Missa Solemnis.  It must have been an important piece to him, as he uncharacteristically kept returning to it:  he “spent more time, and took more trouble, than over any other single work.”2  He revised it again in 1826, in support of an unsuccessful application for the post of deputy imperial Kapellmeister.

Schubert’s Mass in A-flat Major is part of the tradition of symphonic masses perfected by Mozart and Haydn, and it uses a full orchestra of strings, winds, and timpani.  It is full of dramatic contrasts — by turns intense, majestic, gentle, and joyful.  The lyrical, prayerful Kyrie that begins the piece is followed by the triumphant opening of the Gloria, in which the choral exclamations of praise are propelled forward with an insistent energy created by fast-moving violins.  Within the Gloria are more contrasts, from the soloists’ gentle “Gratias agimus tibi” to the chorus’s repeated plaintive “miserere” and triumphant “tu solus.”  The movement ends with an intricate fugue ascending ever upward to its culmination in multiple, emphatic “Amens.”

The Credo begins with a solemn brass fanfare in two chords, followed by the chorus’s confident proclamation of belief — “Credo!”  The female and male voices of the chorus repeat the word over and over, in a crescendo of faith that hushes reverently in anticipation of the rich and mysterious “Et incarnatus est,” in which Schubert employs eight voice parts instead of the customary four.

In the “Crucifixus,” tone painting in the choral lines first evokes the sharp angles of the cross, moving upward as Christ is raised upon it, and then slowly moving downward as Christ’s body is lowered into the grave.  Then the two brass chords that opened the Credo are repeated, this time as a clarion call to all humanity, as the chorus triumphantly proclaims the resurrection and eternal life to come.

Insistent strings at the beginning of the Sanctus culminate in forte choral chords that suddenly diminish to piano, evoking a sky ringed with echoing angelic choirs.  A light, almost dancelike “Hosanna” follows, conveying pure joy.  In the gentle Benedictus, the strings alternate between delicate pizzicati and richer, more sustained notes, as the soloists and chorus exchange their complementary expressions of devotion.  The piece ends with a lyrical, prayerful Agnus Dei and a satisfyingly assured “Dona nobis pacem.

— by Nina Anne Greeley

 1 Elizabeth Norman McKay, Franz Schubert:  A Biography (Clarendon Press, 1996), 237.

2  John Reed, The Master Musicians:  Schubert (J.M. Dent & Sons, 1987), 194.