Latin mass: A rare musical and devotional experience | Sunday Observer

Latin mass: A rare musical and devotional experience

Schubert’s Mass in G major D 167 is one of the most popular of the three short Masses he composed. He started composing this Mass on March 2,1815 and within a few days, by March 7, he had completed it. However, it was first scored for string orchestra and organ continuo and was not published till 1846, well after his death. A later discovery of the score shows a few changes as well as an expansion of the orchestra to include woodwinds, brass and timpani and we learn that these changes were made by Schubert’s brother Ferdinand.

Schubert was only 18 years when he composed this Mass. Nevertheless, we can hear that “…Characteristically for Schubert, he is more interested in an overall devotional mood…” Altogether Schubert composed six Masses – the first in 1814 and the last in 1828, before his death. He was a prolific composer and within his brief life of thirty years, he composed in all possible genres of music – orchestral, chamber, songs, theatre music, piano, opera and masses, to mention a few. In song, Schubert “… is pre-eminent because his rich vein of melody and his expressive harmony reached the heart of the text in a way that music before him had not known.” (The New Grove ed. Stanley Sadie) In 1815 when he composed this Mass in G major he also composed 145 songs as well as larger works.

Two choral groups will participate in bringing alive this beautiful ‘devotional’ Mass in its original Latin text. The ‘Proper’ or the specific text for the day will be sung by the Sri Lanka Pueri Cantores, comprising many school choirs directed by Francis D Almeida. The ‘Ordinary’ (by no means ordinary!) or the sections of the mass that are normally recited by the congregation on a regular basis, will be sung by the Chorus Sacrum comprising a host of professional choirs directed by the English conductor, Prof Gregory Rose. A group of three talented soloists – Dinushka Jayawickreme Soprano, Nishantha Warnakulasuriya Tenor and Laknath Seneviratne Bass will also participate in this performance. The Chamber Music Society of Colombo directed by Lakshman Joseph De Saram will accompany the entire work.

The Chorus Sacrum will sing five of the six major sections of the ‘Ordinary’ of the Mass. The Gloria is not sung during the periods of Lent and Advent.

Kyrie – Appropriately the soft pleading for mercy begins with the choir expressing the sentiments of the people. Schubert gives the Christe eleison to the Soprano solo at first and is later taken up by the choir, concluding with the Kyrie eleison (Lord have mercy). The texture is classically harmonious.

Credo – This affirmation of faith begins quietly and Schubert intersperses the Soprano and Alto voices and the Tenor and Bass voices in octaves stating “One Lord” and “Jesus Christ” respectively. This paired sharing of the text in dialogue fashion goes on in the other sections till the forceful affirmation of the full choir in ‘Deum de Deo’ (God from God) is heard. The Bass and Tenor voices sing the ‘Et incarnatus est’ at the octave at first and is taken up afterwards by the full choir. ‘Crucifixus’ enters at forte in B minor with the full choir while the orchestra accompanies in staccato articulation. The fortissimo climax comes logically in ‘Et resurrexit’ (And rose from the dead) in triumphant affirmation with major tonality right to the end. The final statements of belief in the Holy Spirit etc. is treated like a recapitulation of the quiet beginning of the Credo, ending with the conventional Plagal and Perfect cadences of four Amens. Schubert displays here the close, sensitive linking of text to the structure, tonality and the dynamics.

Sanctus – This section recalls Jesus’ entry to Jerusalem amidst shouts of “Sanctus” (Holy) in fortissimo. The ‘Hosannas’ are treated canonically – first stated by the sopranos, next by the tenors, then by the basses and lastly by the altos. All voices finally merge in rich choral harmony aptly supported by the orchestra.

Benedictus – Schubert embodies the further clamour of the public by giving this section to the vocal trio at first, soprano, tenor and bass showing a contrast of texture. This is followed by the recapitulatory clamour of the public in the choral canonic ‘Hosannas’ in fortissimo harmony. Here, Schubert cleverly unifies the structure of the ‘Sanctus’ with the ‘Benedictus’.

Agnus Dei – This final section of the ‘Ordinary’ of the Mass focuses on the reference to Jesus as the sacrificial Lamb of God from whom we ask mercy and peace. Schubert suitably scores it Lento giving the first plea to the soprano solo in muted tones. The choir too answers “have mercy on us” in pianissimo tones. The orchestra also makes the pleas in rising sequential motifs. The answering phrase has “fp” and moves in downward sequential motifs which make it quite dramatic. Soprano solo with full choir and Bass solo with full choir alternate in two such statements while the third and final statement of the soprano solo ‘Agnus Dei’ is answered by the full choir in reverential soft harmony at ‘Dona nobis pacem’. (Grant us peace.) This third statement for the soprano solo starts with high A and descends to a low G at the word ‘pacem’. Though this is dramatically very effective, it is at the same time quite technically difficult for the soloist. This same scoring is given to the bass soloist. This final section has very effective use of pungent chromatic harmony.

I just wonder why Schubert did not write any aria for the Alto solo. Perhaps, he could not find a good alto soloist at the time he composed this Mass.

This Mass will be held today, (18) at 6 pm. at St. Lucia’s Cathedral, Kotahena.