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Short Phrases, Tonal Scope

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Schubert composed his Gesänge zur Feier des heiligen Opfers der Messe, D 872, better known in English as his “German Mass,” in late summer or fall 1827, at the behest of the poet, Johann Philipp Neumann, who paid him 100 florins to create a work for congregational singing as an adjunct to the spoken Latin Mass in Catholic liturgy. Schubert wrote it for SATB chorus with accompaniment of a wind orchestra. The fourth movement, an Offertory just one page long, offers a neat microcosm of elementary tonality very like the “familiar style” of Protestant hymns later in the century. The text of the first stanza translates thus:

O Lord, you gave me life and being,
And the heavenly light of your teaching.
What can I, mere dust, give you in return?
Yet I cannot thank you more.                       

The slow tempo, in C major, outlines two-bar phrases. The half cadence in C that ends the first phrase already indicates a strong modulation to G major, confirmed in the second phrase. The third phrase seems like a starting-over in C major, repeating the first phrase with only a slight harmonic difference, preparing the half cadence at m. 6. The fourth phrase (upbeat to m. 7) is a surprise: a new harmony, the subdominant (IV) — in the downward tonal direction (counterclockwise though the circle of fifths), an opposite pole, so to speak, to the upward dominant (clockwise this time) — and the subdominant is reinforced by its own dominant (the seventh, B flat). A fifth phrase, echoing the last line of text, restores a tonal balance, from the subdominant at one pole to the dominant at the other, and back to the central tonic to end the hymn. The V-I authentic cadence (PAC) is preceded by ii, a D minor chord, itself preceded by a diminished seventh chord, with a C sharp on the sharp side and a B flat below the tonic C. The instruments alone then echo this cadencing formula, ii-V-I, with a V-I appoggiatura in the final bar.

(Instrumental parts are omitted except in the last two bars.)

This brief, simple hymn amounts to eleven bars of serene and noble melodic and harmonic richness. Note especially: the rhythmic consistency; the subtle melodic differences, bars 1 and 5 contrasted with 7 and 9; the plan of unassertive dynamics, gradually becoming quieter; the melodic appearance of the tonic degree at the lowest point of the melody.

I have often wondered whether Samuel Augustus Ward (1848-1903), founder of the Orpheus Club of Newark, New Jersey, was aware of this short piece of Schubert’s when he composed a well-harmonized hymn, Materna (“O mother dear, Jerusalem, / When shall I come to thee?”), in 1882, much better known today with Katherine Lee Bates’s text, “America, the beautiful” (1893). Many have argued that “America, the beautiful” would be a better American National Anthem than the melodically strained and textually garbled “Star-spangled Banner.”

Mark DeVoto, musicologist and composer, is an expert on the music of Alban Berg, Debussy, and other early 20th-century composers. A graduate of Harvard College (1961) and Princeton (Ph.D., 1967), he has published on many music subjects, and edited the revised fourth (1978) and fifth (1987) editions of Harmony by his teacher Walter Piston.

 

 

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