By Richard H. Trame, S. J., Ph.D.
Loyola Marymount University
Besides his Unfinished Symphony Franz Schubert (1797-1828) in his lifetime left more than eighty other works unfinished. The Mass in A Flat (#5, D 678) barely escaped this fate. He commenced the Kyrie in November, 1819 and apparently worked on it, if at all, intermittently until he noted the concluding date of September, 1822 for the Dona nobis pacem.
What motivated him to complete this Mass is unknown, but some suggest that he may have been offered an opportunity to have it performed. Even this surmise appears a flimsy speculation. The assertion that the Mass in A Flat received its premiere performance in the Altlerchenfelder Church in Vienna is denied by Wilhelm Altmann. In his Preface to the Eulenburg score of the Mass Altmann asserts that no complete performance of the Mass occurred for forty years after its completion. Indeed it remained unpublished until 1875, with the revised version published only in 1887.
When Schubert set aside the Mass in 1819, he likewise set aside his Lazarus or The Festival of Resurrection, an intended three-act religious drama. No less a critic than Johannes Brahms upon hearing two fragments of Lazarus testified to the torso's being one of Schubert's most intriguing compositions. The Mass in A Flat also shared company in its time of composition with the creation of the greatly esteemed Trout Quintet and the immortal Unfinished Symphony. It was dedicated to his brother Ferdinand.
Considerable ambivalence exists among Schubert's biographers and commentators respecting the quality and place his sacred works possess and occupy among his compositions. Most view his production in this area to be at the worst perfunctory and religiously vapid, while at best characterized by inspired lyricism and strikingly original passages. These latter passages particularly in the colorful use of the orchestra and the settings of the Et incarnatus est and the beginnings of the Sanctus presage future romantic approaches of Nineteenth-Century Mass settings, especially those of Bruckner. Both Brahms and Bruckner freely acknowledged the impact Schubert's lyric romanticism exercised on them.
These same biographers and commentators exhibit a similar ambivalence regarding the relative merits of the two mature Masses, that in A Flat (#5) and #6 in E Flat of June, 1828, his last large work. Some assert the unqualified greatness of the E Flat Mass, while others such as Roger Fiske judge it a failure. There is no doubt, however, about the true distinction enjoyed by the Mass in A Flat. All echo the judgment of Rosenthal and loft: "The A Flat Mass ... shows clearly the hand of the Master who could later compose so monumental a structure as the ‘Great C Major Symphony:' In this Mass may also be discerned the composer's jubilant self-confidence, a mood so appropriate at this time in Schubert's life when some of his finest works were produced ... and when his genius was beginning to find widespread recognition.”
Although Schubert subsequent to the completion of the A Flat Mass made several melodic emendations here and there, he completely revised the extended and demanding fugue on the words "Cum Sancto Spiritu ... Amen" at the conclusion of the exalted Gloria. In his second version he created a milder, less demanding contrapuntal/homophonic setting. The original version's fugue, however, extending as it does for two hundred measures, dispels once for all the judgment that he was an inept contrapuntalist. But for all of its skilled manipulation of the themes, the fugue taxes our attention span and interest.
Of Schubert's Masses in general and of the A Flat Mass in particular we may echo Rosenthal and Loft's judgment. His Masses give evidence of strong religious devotion. They are filled with the most beautiful melodies ranging from quiet adoration and thanksgiving to apocalyptic visions of death and redemption. The A Flat and E Flat Masses can fill the greatest cathedrals with the solemnity, pageantry, and mysticism of the Roman Rite.
Since the end of World War II, revived interest in Baroque opera seria of the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries has tended to obscure the significant role traditionally ascribed to Gluck and his azione teatrale Orfeo ed Euridice in the evolution of modern opera. In Gluck's day the conventions surrounding the composition and production of opera seria had stifled much of its viability as a dramatic form. Ranieri Calzabigi (1714-95), Orfeo's librettist, formulated for the Austrian Chancellor Prince Kaunitz then fostering Austrian cultural rejuvenation, for the director of the court theater Count Durazzo and other Vienesse literati the principles of opera reform adopted by Gluck. These norms fostered the revitalization of sung drama. Briefly the collaborators, Gluck and Calzabigi, wished to launch both libretto and music on fresh waters advancing the dramatic action and eliminating the suffocating barnacles of convention.
That Gluck has garnered the lion's share of the plaudits for this reform testifies to the undying beauty and power of his music. Calzabigi's absolutely vital contribution to this successful enterprise realized in Orfeo rested on his belief that the libretto, unlike Metastasio's widely used poems, should be specifically written for a distinct composer for whom and with whom he continually collaborates.
That Orfeo ed Euridice exists in two versions highlights even for Gluck's day the fact that certain operatic conventions still exerted influence on him. The original Italian version of Calzabigi, premiered in Vienna, October 5, 1762, cast Orfeo vocally for the contralto castrato Gaetano Guadagni. Indeed the role was written specifically for this artist whose profoundly sensitive interpretation of it assured the opera's success. When Gluck's revised Orfeo to a French text by P. l. Moline was staged in Paris on August 2, 1774, he had had to submit to French operatic taste and cast Orfeo for a tenor while adding more ballet music. Subsequent "modernizations" of the opera have even seen Orfeo sung by a baritone with an admixture of music from both versions.
Gluck himself described the principles which he applied to his composition of opera. Although he is speaking of Alceste, his words are equally applicable to Orfeo. "I have striven to restrict the music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situation of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments, and I believe that it should do this in the same way as telling colors effect a correct and well-ordered drawing ... Furthermore, I believe that my greatest labor should be devoted to seeking a beautiful simplicity, and I have avoided making displays of difficulty at the expense of clearness, nor did I judge it desirable to discover novelties if it were not naturally suggested by the situation and the expression, and there is no rule which I have not thought it right to set aside willingly for the sake of an intended effect:' (Eric Bloom's translation, in Einstein, 1936).
Modern audiences often find it difficult to hear a male role sung in the counter-tenor or contralto register. Nevertheless Gluck's whole tonal pattern and key system for Orfeo underlies the role precisely in the contralto vocal range. The essential critique of the French version has been that the adjustments required to suit the tenor vocal range severely damaged this tonal system. listeners then should as far as possible divorce themselves from their modern prejudices and thrill to the exquisite wedding of all musical elements so wondrously unified by Gluck's genius. Outside of France, Eighteenth-century audiences enthusiastically accepted the original version's whole vocal and orchestral revelation. This evening's concert performance opens for us the possibility of joining them in their original artistic experience.
The Opera's Second Act opens with a solemn orchestral prelude impressively reinforced by the presence of trombones announcing Orpheus' arrival in Hades at the River Styx. The Furies threaten him in dance and ominous music in which Gluck portrays the intimidating barks and growls of the three-headed dog Cerberus. The Furies passionate "no's" to Orpheus' entreaties gradually subside to his enchanting pleadings.
Orpheus is admitted to the Elysian Fields. The orchestra, previously so turbulent and menacing, now depicts the peace and serenity of the scene. In the French version Gluck added to this ballet what is probably the most exquisite flute melody of all times. The aria by one of the Blessed Spirits (sometimes sung by Euridice) voices their felicity. Dazzled by the beauty of the Elysian Fields, Orpheus sings and plays so persuasively of his longing for reunion with Euridice that the Blessed Spirits bring her forth. Their mutual joy is characterized by the return of the lovely ballet music as the Act closes.