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. 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 (with its view of life as an ascent towards divine perfection), his involvement with theological questions, broadly construed, 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 (d105) composed in 1814 for the centenary of the Lichtental church, shows an adolescent composer fully conversant with the Viennese church tradition. From the brilliant use of brass in the Gloria to the kinetic fugue (albeit one over-reliant on sequences) of the ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’, Schubert writes with an assurance rivalled at this age only by Mozart. In maintaining a single tempo in both the Credo and the Sanctus, Schubert departs confidently from tradition. Not unlike Mozart before him, Schubert felt no obligation to present the mass text in its entirety. He habitually omits the Credo text: ‘[Credo] in unam sanctam catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam’, which might suggest a lack of sympathy for the institutional church. But on other occasions Schubert omitted liturgical text in an unpredictable fashion, a practice that suggests a more relaxed, empirical approach congruent with the practices of several contemporaries. Schubert's Second Mass, in G (d167), was composed less than a year later; scored for only strings and organ, it is also his shortest and most intimate mass. If the dates on the autograph are reliable, he started and completed it in six days. Although its textures are on the whole more homophonic than those in the F major Mass, movements such as the Gloria of the G major Mass brim over with visceral rhythms, wide-ranging chord dispositions and a harmonic momentum that extends beyond mere sequence. By contrast, the Mass in B? (d324) is less personal, operating within a narrower expressive range. The last of Schubert's masses in the Missa brevis tradition, in C major (d452), invokes most strongly the examples of Haydn and Mozart, although with a wider harmonic spectrum. During this same period Schubert composed an ambitious German setting of the Stabat mater (based on the paraphrase by Klopstock) and several of his six settings of the Tantum ergo.
Following this burst of activity, Schubert then withdrew from large-scale sacred projects for several years. The most remarkable fact about the Mass in A? (d678), whose intended performance destination is unknown, is that Schubert finished it. 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 (although nothing suggests that Schubert was aware of Beethoven's project). Comparisons are inevitable, and it makes sense to acknowledge at the outset that the scale of Beethoven's is epic, monumental and symphonic, while Schubert's mass is more human and intimate in tone (although his orchestra includes trombones), intrinsically spontaneous and harmonically more far-reaching, nowhere more so than in the visionary Sanctus. It is still possible to imagine Schubert's mass receiving a performance in a Viennese church, while Beethoven's demands the concert hall (where, in fact, it received its first, albeit partial, performance). Schubert's mastery of string figuration in the faster sections of the Gloria and Credo and the delicious use of pizzicato in the Benedictus provide an irresistible forward momentum. The opposition of female and male voices in the ‘Hosanna’ and the hushed opening of the Credo represent colours largely foreign to Beethoven's palette. The confident sweep of the Handelian ‘Cum Sancto Spiritu’ fugue that concludes the Gloria testifies to the lofty contrapuntal ambitions of a composer who, in the very last month of his life, sought out the instruction of Simon Sechter.
Lazarus (d689), begun in February 1820 without any apparent external stimulus, fits neatly into Schubert's experimental period, for its highly original blending of elements of cantata, oratorio and staged drama (Schubert's score includes stage directions). Although breaking off in the second of three planned acts (representing the death, burial and resurrection of the New Testament character), the highly flexible vocal delivery looks forward to the technique of Wagner's music dramas.
Elsewhere Schubert responded to the implorings of friends and associates. The eight chordal hymns plus epilogue of the Deutsche Messe (d872) fulfilled J.P. Neumann's (the librettist of Schubert's unfinished opera Sacontala) desire for liturgical music that could appeal to the broadest segment of the congregation. Schubert's setting of Psalm xlii (d953) in Hebrew was very probably commissioned by cantor Salomon Sulzer, whose rendition of Schubert's Der Wanderer had greatly impressed the composer. The synagogue in the Seitenstettengasse was only two years old, and Schubert's contribution doubtless strengthened the hand of the man responsible for diffusing historic anti-semitism in Vienna.
As with most of Schubert's mature sacred works, the Mass in E? (d950) seems to have been a response to inner need rather than external imperative. While building upon the foundation of the A? Mass, it integrates with remarkable success the symphonic organization of Beethoven with Schubert's seemingly limitless melodic and harmonic invention. Although more compact than that in the Gloria of d678, the concluding Gloria and Credo fugues, with their sharply chiselled subjects, suggest a composer who had studied Beethoven's Missa solemnis. The frequent changes in mood and tempo throughout are unified by closely spaced points of imitation (extended to impressive lengths in the ‘Hosanna’). Original orchestral touches include the thematic role played by the timpani in the Credo. The ‘Et incarnatus est’, based on a long, arching, waltzlike melody, echoes the corresponding section of Haydn's Heiligmesse in being composed as a round, with each voice (two tenors and soprano) taking the melody in turn. The flowing but harmonically rich four-part solo writing of the Benedictus looks forward to Verdi's Requiem. The awesome modulations of the Sanctus and the anguished chromaticism of the Agnus Dei, based on an adaptation of the C? minor fugue subject from the first book of Bach's Das wohltemperirte Clavier, still retain their shock value today. In the E? Mass Schubert had reached his full stride as a composer of large-scale sacred works. The same assurance can be heard in the skilful blending of solo and choral writing in the Tantum ergo (d962) and in the rhapsodic oboe solo that drives the offertory Intende voci (d963), both composed a month before the composer's death.