Performing: Bad Music by Good Composers

by James M. Potter


It’s the height of the Lieder Festival here in Oxford. A host of stellar performers have graced various venues with nuanced and insightful performances of songs by the principal architect of German artsong, Franz Schubert. The goal is to perform all 600-odd songs set by him, as well as a sampling of his other, less well-known music.

It’s in this latter category that I’ve found myself this week. Christ Church Cathedral Choir’s contribution to this Oxford-wide celebration of Schubert is a liturgical performance of his Mass in C. Presumably some other choir had already nabbed the Mass in G, the only one regularly performed by English choirs, or perhaps we decided to boldly venture into the unknown for the sake of unearthing an under-performed treasure. It’s safe to say we’ve not done that – it’s an awful piece.

Now, this is not to say it’s not worth hearing. The Telegraph described this year’s Lieder Festival as ‘refreshing‘, and there’s nothing more refreshing than coming across a much-heralded composer at his worst. If nothing else, it proves that even those slap-bang in the middle of the canon are capable of atrocities, something that I find helps to humanise them a little. This particular work feels like a rushed student exercise (the composer was 19 when he wrote it) and at times approaches an almost humorous artlessness. There are meandering sequences, overextended linking passages, and modulations so terrifyingly unprepared that I feel the need to conceal a sick-bag in my stall. Following the tradition of the Viennese mass, the Benedictus is a protracted affair – something that in any case only really makes sense as part of the old rite liturgy that permits it to be sung underneath the eucharistic prayer – which in this case offers little more than turgid repetition. Oh, and he forgets a word in the Sanctus.

There could be any number of reasons. Perhaps he was rushing to meet a deadline, or maybe some of the more execrable passages are a deliberate snub to church authorities. And yet, and yet – even here you can see the genesis of some of the techniques that an older Schubert would use to give his songs such poignancy. The idea of the abrupt modulation, here comically mismanaged, will become central to evoking heartbreak in the lieder. Some of the vocal writing is really lovely, especially the solo passages written for Therese Grob, a soprano with whom the young composer fell in love. Here is a young composer feeling his way into things that would become central to his style, and experimenting with those he would later discard. It’s also evidence of a much more ‘public’ Schubert, not surrounded by close friends in a drawing room as we most often picture him, but providing occasional music for church services, with all of the restrictions that implies. It’s a useful corrective to the idea still often associated with Schubert as the archetypal Romantic artist-hero, pouring so much of himself into his work that it would consume him at a young age.

Curiously, this mass was the only one of the six he wrote to be published during his lifetime. It’s good to give it an airing in the festival. And it’s good to be reminded that even the greatest composers are fallible.

If you’re interested, the score is available here.