Mass of St. Ägidius, c. 1500
Mass of St. Ägidius, c. 1500

Is it odd? Is it surprising? It appears that priests feature in only 3 of the nearly 700 texts that Franz Schubert set to music. And one of those is a priest in an ancient mystery religion rather than a Catholic. Schubert, this former choir boy in a Cathedral and the court chapel, based in the capital of deeply Catholic Austria, seems to have had little sympathy for the inner life of priests. This is in marked contrast to nuns, whose spiritual torments and temptations inspired so much powerful music.

Atys (D 585), the eunuch devoted to the goddess Cybele, voices similar agonies to some of Schubert’s nuns, but the pious, monstrance-carrying priests in ‘Der Graf von Habsburg’ (D 990) and ‘Kaiser Maximilian auf der Martinswand’ (D 990A) seem to have no angst. They do their duty and offer solace to the dying. If they are the agents of divine grace, they are seemingly a clear channel and they contribute nothing apart from their pure faith and service.

Perhaps it is all a bit too close to the inexplicable mystery of Schubert’s creativity itself. As Mayrhofer wrote in ‘Geheimnis. An F. Schubert’ (D 491) there is no point trying to understand the secret of flowing grace. Just as priests channel the spirit of God when they offer the sacrament, Schubert’s songs simply pour from the Old Man’s urn.

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