Franz Peter Schubert - Life and Music

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Franz Schubert's Church Music - Introduction

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Schubert was occupied with the composition of music for the church from his 15th year until the end of his life. In volume his sacred output falls only slightly short of Mozart and greatly exceeds that of Beethoven.

Schubert attended mass regularly as a child and probably continued the practice into his adulthood, especially while living with or visiting his family. As with other areas of his personal life, direct evidence concerning Schubert's religious beliefs is hard to come by. At times he found it difficult to accept what he saw as the harsh and dogmatic aspects of the Catholic Church, often challenging the established views of the church.

Nevertheless, In an 1824 diary entry he wrote that ‘It is with faith that man first enters the world. It comes long before reason and knowledge, for to understand something one must first believe something … Reason is nothing other than analysed faith’.

After contracting syphilis Schubert made a number of heartfelt utterances in the ensuing years that may show him struggling to come to terms with his bleak destiny. Less than a decade earlier he had written in another diary that ‘Man resembles a ball, to be played with by fate and chance’. Whether or not Schubert evolved a Christian humanism that combined elements of messianic Judaism and Platonism, his involvement with theological questions seems to have been an important theme of his creative life. Between 1812 and 1814 Schubert experimented with several Kyrie settings, as well as a Gloria, Credo, Sanctus and Salve regina. He wrote the first four of his six completed masses in close succession between 1814 and 1816, probably in response to a demand from the Lichtental church, his local parish, and perhaps in an effort to gain the attention of the soprano Therese Grob. They bear an obvious affinity to the Austrian Missa brevis tradition practised most conspicuously by Mozart. The first of these, that in F (D. 105) composed in 1814 for the centenary of the Lichtental church, shows an adolescent composer fully conversant with the Viennese church tradition.

Following this burst of activity, Schubert then withdrew from large-scale sacred projects for several years. He commenced work in the autumn of 1819, at a time when he was reaching beyond his seemingly effortless youthful style towards a more complex and personal mode of expression.

The years between 1818 and 1822 produced, among others, four unfinished symphonies, an unfinished oratorio, an unfinished string quartet and three unfinished piano sonatas.

Work on the mass extended over three years, parallelling very closely the gestation period for Beethoven's Missa solemnis op.123. In 1826, Franz Schubert applied at the court in Vienna for the position as vice-director of music. He was 29 years old at the time, and there was no one who would have thought that he would live for another two years only.

He applied as one of Salieri's students of composition and emphasised that his compositions for voice and instruments were 'known favourably in all of Germany': not just in Vienna, also making particular mention of the five masses he had already written and which had been performed in different churches in Vienna. Schubert did not get the job. Apparently, Joseph Weigl had already been agreed upon and Schubert's mentioning his mass compositions were not thought to be significant. Schubert himself quite rightly had a different opinion on this, for even today these pieces display a very unique attraction arising from the perfectly matched combination of the folk-song melodies and the high classical Viennese era. When listening to Schubert's last few compositions one experiences the feeling that he felt his early death approaching, much stronger than in Mozart's music, and as if this foreboding found its expression in his last works. Schubert's last Mass is a proof of transcendental visions, a moving example of how far Schubert distanced himself from all matters on earth, and sketched his premonitions of worlds in sound.



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