The Mass in E-flat major is Schubert’s final composition in the genre; the 31-year-old composer wrote it in 1828, the year of his death. A contemporary critic said that its sombre atmosphere was befitting of a requiem. Indeed, it is as if a sinner’s fear of judgement gives it a particular emphasis on Christ’s redemptive death on the cross and pleading with God for mercy.
As early on as the Kyrie, the movement’s nearly otherworldly beauty indicates that this will be no ordinary work. And then the listener becomes part of a world drama as the hair-raising Domine Deus segment of the Gloria is followed by the constantly recurring timpani tremolos of the Credo, and then by the Sanctus, shocking with its key changes of related thirds and the tragic-sounding Agnus Dei, which was constructed around a cross motif inherited from the Baroque period. It is only in the pastoral Et incarnatus est, swaying in 12/8 time, and in the Benedictus that the vocal soloists play a significant role. These two sections represent Schubert’s flowing melodiousness, a refreshing contrast and counterbalance to the work’s “sombre” prevailing tone.