for Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra

Franz Schubert’s Mass No. 6 in E flat has been a controversial work since its first performance in 1829. It fulfilled part of a commission from the Society for the Cultivation of Church Music for Holy Trinity Church in Vienna, the same church where Ludwig van Beethoven’s funeral had taken place in 1827. Schubert died soon after completing the Mass and never heard it performed.

There are several features of this Mass which have generated criticism and admiration. The length and grand scale of the work breaks with earlier Viennese tastes for short works and compact liturgies (partly due to tastes of the new Austrian emperor). The large orchestra is impressive but noticeably lacking a pair of flutes, and the timpani play a commanding role (including many solos) rather than merely assisting at cadences. Even though Vienna was enamoured with operatic arias, Schubert created this work as a showcase for the chorus, brass, and winds. He features a vocal quartet and trio to lighten the texture or engage in dialogue with the full chorus but offers not a single solo aria.

This was Schubert’s last mass but the first to omit the organ from the orchestra, parting from the old custom of continuo accompaniment. The chromatic fugues and stunning modulations within this Mass foreshadow the rich harmonic system of the mature Romantic style to come. Schubert eschews 18th-century polyphony in favour of continuous homophonic choral text declamation, and he uses new extremes of loud and soft dynamics in a vast formal architecture perhaps inspired by Beethoven.

The sacred text itself is one of the most contentious points. Schubert removed several lines from the Gloria and Credo while repeating other lines (as he did in all of his concert masses). This is quite bold considering the piece was to be used for Roman Catholic worship. Some conductors created arrangements and versions of this Mass with the complete text, creating further arguments of musical intention and quality. Eventually (1897) Schubert’s masses were specifically barred from being used as liturgical music due to the text omissions.


The Mass begins with the swelling dynamics and long phrases Schubert uses to paint the brief text of the ‘Kyrie’. The middle section (‘Christe eleison’) seems contrasted because of the change in dynamic and register, but the movement is highly unified by melodic material. A soft, unison ‘eleison’ acts as a retransition to the repeated ‘Kyrie’ until a deceptive cadence leads to a Viennese-style coda.

Kyrie eleison.
Christe eleison.
Kyrie eleison.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.


The Gloria opens with unaccompanied chorus and brilliant string arpeggio. Once again Schubert derives a continuously varied musical landscape from a limited thematic palette. The exact repetitions morph with the contrasting textures in the first section as we hear chorus versus orchestra, men versus women, and winds contra strings contra brass, all building to a climax that deceptively ends pianissimo. The ensuing ‘Domine Deus’, in triple metre and minor mode, is a dark and heavy affair, but Schubert balances the weight with gentle ‘miserere’ choral refrains, and not surprisingly this musical material returns in the final movement on the same pleading text.

The opening Gloria theme then reappears, creating additional motion into the final ‘Cum sancto Spiritu… Amen’. Schubert honours a long-standing tradition in setting this text as a fugue, but Schubert’s ‘Cum sancto’ fugue rivals Beethoven’s Missa solemnis and anything else written up to then. This fugue is as long as the rest of the Gloria and far more harmonically dense than anything in the Mass so far.

Gloria in excelsis Deo,
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Laudamus te, benedicimus te,
Adoramus te, glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi
propter magnam gloriam tuam.
Domine Deus, Rex coelestis,
Deus Pater omnipotens.
Domine Fili unigenite, Jesu Christe.
Domine Deus, Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, 
Miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solus Sanctus, tu solus Dominus,
Tu solus Altissimus,
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris, 

Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace to men of good will.
We praise you, we bless you,
We adore you, we glorify you.
We give you thanks
for your great glory.
Lord God, King of Heaven,
God the Father Almighty.
Lord, only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ.
Lord God, Lamb of God, Son of the Father.
You who take away the sin of the world
Have mercy on us.
For you alone are holy, you alone are Lord,
You alone are the Most High,
With the Holy Spirit in the glory of God the Father,


The third movement begins quietly, and Schubert reveals his study of Beethoven by starting the Credo with timpani solo. The chorus answers a cappella followed by a gentle echo in the winds – even today a startling triptych of contrasts. This scheme is repeated while proceeding through the sacred text, adding tension with brief imitative sections. A climax is reached by change of register (as in the Kyrie) at ‘Qui propter nos homines’ but we sweetly resolve downward with one of the few instances
of word painting (‘descendit’). 

One of Schubert’s most beautiful melodies follows for ‘Et incarnatus est’, a trio of two tenors and soprano accompanied by the orchestra. The chorus contrasts the vocal trio with densely modulating chords on ‘Crucifixus’, and drifts away in melancholy with the words ‘passus et sepultus est’ (suffered and was buried). Timpani announce a return to a close recall of the opening material, but this time the contrapuntal nature of the imitative entrances is underlined and built in sequence until another grand fugue starts at ‘Et vitam venturi… Amen’. 

This fugue is even longer than the closing of the Gloria and exhibits every type of contrapuntal technique known. There are twenty sectional episodes where Schubert mixes entrance intervals and durations. He even counterpoints ‘Amen’ over ‘Et vitam’ as well as allowing the orchestra its own homophonic statements between fugato episodes.

Soprano and Tenor soloists and Chorus
Credo in unum Deum,
factorem coeli et terrae,
visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
Credo in unum Dominum Jesum Christum,
Filium Dei unigenitum,
Et ex patre natum ante omnia saecula,
Deum de Deo, lumen de lumine,
Deum verum de Deo vero,
per quem omnia facta sunt.

Qui propter nos homines et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis.
Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto,
ex Maria Virgine; et homo factus est.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis sub Pontio Pilato,
passus et sepultus est.

I believe in one God,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible..
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only-begotten Son of God,
Born of his Father before all worlds.
God from God, light from light,
True God from true God,
through whom all things were made.

Who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven.
And was incarnate by the Holy Spirit
of the Virgin Mary; and was made man.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. 

Et resurrexit tertia die secundum Scripturas.
Et ascendit in coelum, sedet ad dexteram Patris.
Et iterum venturus est cum gloria,
judicare vivos et mortuos:
cujus regni non erit finis.
Credo in Spiritum Sanctum
Dominum, et vivificantem,
qui ex Patre Filioque procedit,
Qui cum Patre et Filio simul adoratur,
et conglorificatur, qui locutus
est per Prophetas.
Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum mortuorum [sic]
Et vitam venturi saeculi. Amen.

And He rose again on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures;
And ascended into heaven,
and sits at the right hand of the Father;
And He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead:
His kingdom will have no end.
And I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord and giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son;
Who with the Father and the Son is worshipped and glorified,
who spoke through the prophets.
I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins of the dead [sic]
And the life of the world to come.


For the Sanctus Schubert returns to the dramatic swelling of the Kyrie. The adagio tempo is ended by a sprightly ‘Osanna in excelsis’, a fugue almost baroque in its learned concision. Romantic chromaticism appears just prior to the conclusion, along with the Viennese cadential material used in the previous movements.

Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth.
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Osanna in excelsis Deo.

Holy, holy, holy Lord God of Hosts.
Heaven and earth are full of your glory,
Hosannah to God in the highest.


The Benedictus is reminiscent of Mozart, Haydn, and Viennese composers generally in that the solo quartet presents all of the text. The orchestration is superbly interesting without ever overstepping the vocalists. The chorus eventually joins with a stalwart theme to contrast the lyricism of the first theme. The quartet and chorus trade and develop each other’s material as the first theme is passed through the various lines of the orchestra and quartet. Just as the Benedictus seems about to end the ‘Osanna’ fugue returns to round out the two movements.

Soloists and Chorus
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Osanna in excelsis Deo.

Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.
Hosannah to God in the highest.

Agnus Dei

The final movement begins as a dark, double fugue of contrition. The first subject, a single plodding syllable per bar, is taken from the C sharp minor fugue of J.S. Bach’s Well-tempered Clavier volume II (Schubert also used this subject in his tragic song of the same year, Der Doppelgänger). The basses begin but after two bars the tenors offer Schubert’s counter-subject, a theme so rhythmically interesting that it energises the first subject. The main subject is also directly related to the ‘Domine Deus’ theme of the Gloria movement, further evidence of Schubert’s long-range planning. This growing complexity gives way to a simple unison and homophonic ‘Miserere’ (another musical echo from the Gloria) and these textures alternate until the ‘Dona nobis pacem’ text is reached, whereupon the triple metre and minor modality ‘Agnus’ gives way to duple flowing and relative major. A vocal quartet joins the strings and the soprano leaps an octave for the highest pitches of the entire work. A four-way conversation develops (chorus, quartet, strings, winds) in an operatic groundswell until the original Agnus Dei fugue returns a third time. But this dark mood lasts only a little while before the sweet tranquillity of ‘Dona nobis pacem’ brings the Mass to a close. 

Soloists and Chorus
Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi: dona nobis pacem.

Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy on us.
Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, grant us peace.


© Richard Gard (

Composer:  Schubert Wiki Link: Title of Musical Work:  Mass No. 6 in E flat, Major (D950)

London Concert Choir concerts featuring this musical work:

Franz Schubert
(19 October 2017)