The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Choral Director and musicologist Robert Gehrenbeck discusses his new and unheard hybrid version of Mozart’s Requiem that he and the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will unveil in performance next Saturday night and Sunday afternoon. Plus, acclaimed violist Nobuko Imai gives a FREE master class at the UW-Madison Monday night.

April 7, 2013

ALERT: A FREE master class by the acclaimed violist Nobuko Imai (below) — who performs a FREE concert Wednesday night at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall with the UW Pro Arte String Quartet — will be held tomorrow, on Monday night, April 8, at 7 p.m. in Morphy Hall.

Imai Nobuko 018.jpg

By Jacob Stockinger

Ask someone to name the best and most popular Requiems, and inevitably Mozart’s Requiem will be high up on the list, probably at the very top.

But there are many versions and completions of the unfinished masterpiece.

Next weekend is the world premiere of a version that you have never heard.

That gives us all the more reason to pay attention to the carefully edited and original version that the Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) and other groups will perform next Saturday night, April 13, at 7:30 p.m. at Luther Memorial Church, 1021 University Ave., in Madison; and then again on Sunday afternoon, April 14, at 3 p.m. at Young Auditorium, 930 West Main St., in Whitewater.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Nov 17, 2012 Bethel Lutheran

Also on the program are J.S. Bach’s motet “Jesu Meine Freude” and scenes from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” — all of which relate to the Requiem.

Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for students. You can also purchase tickets ahead of time at Orange Tree Imports and Willy Street Co-op East and West. Here is a link for more ticket information:

And here is a link to the Choir’s home site, where you can find reviews and other information about upcoming concerts and biographies of the performers plus photos, recordings and a history of the Wisconsin Chamber Choir:

I asked choir director Robert Gehrenbeck (below), who also teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, where he is the head of choral activities, to discuss how he arrived at his original and never-heard hybrid performance edition of perhaps the famous Requiem ever composed.

Gehrenbeck’s answers to an email Q&A are below.

Robert Gehrenbeck

The Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) is teaming up with others for the upcoming concert. Can you give us details about the other singers and orchestra players?

We are collaborating with my top university choir at the UW-Whitewater, the Chamber Singers, and a professional orchestra. The vocal soloists for the concert include members of both choirs, and I’m proud to say that we have some excellent, professional-quality solo voices in both groups.

The orchestra is made up of members of the Madison Symphony, the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra, and the Milwaukee Ballet Orchestra. Many of these players have extensive training in historical performance practice, such as Leanne League, our concertmaster.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir 1

What makes the Mozart Requiem so perpetually popular for both the performers and the listeners?

The Requiem is one of Mozart’s very best works. Regardless of whether one believes that he knew he was writing his own Requiem — scholars debate this — he obviously poured his heart and soul into this piece.

Mozart’s creative response to the wide-ranging imagery of the Latin Requiem text is amazing. Often a single movement will contain several completely different styles of music, alternately terrifying and consoling, in the space of only a few measures.

The sheer variety of moods, styles, and textures in Mozart’s score is astounding, from the intensity of the famous Dies irae movement to the completely serene world of the Recordare quartet that comes just a few minutes later and which contains some of the most rapturously beautiful music Mozart ever wrote.

Much of the Requiem is indebted to the music of Handel and Bach — for example, the opening subject of Mozart’s Kyrie fugue appears in both Handel’s “Messiah” and J.S. Bach’s “Well-Tempered Clavier.”

So Mozart (below) was channeling the spirit of his Baroque forebears, but he also gave the music his own personal touch, especially in the area of harmony — Mozart’s Kyrie, for example, delves into deeper reaches of chromatic harmony than anything Handel ever wrote. There are numerous instances throughout the Requiem where the harmonic progressions are simply awe-inspiring, especially in the quieter, more introspective moments of the score.

Mozart old 1782

It is an unfinished work. What edition are you using? What are its strong points and why did you choose it over others?

We are using an edition by the German musicologist, Franz Beyer, which preserves the vocal parts completed by Mozart (the bulk of the piece) as well as the movements completed by his student Franz Xaver Süssmayr (Sanctus, Benedictus, and Agnus Dei).

However, Beyer substantially alters Süssmayr’s orchestration throughout the work (including in the three movements written by Süssmayr himself). Mozart finished orchestrating only the first movement, the Introit,  and sketched out salient thematic ideas for the orchestration of the remaining movements.

When deciding which edition to use, I sat down and compared every page of the traditional Süssmayr score to Beyer’s score, and I concluded that Beyer’s orchestration was indeed more “Mozartian” — more creative, nuanced and transparent — than Süssmayr’s.

On the other hand, Beyer does not alter the overall form of the work, as others have done. Although the piece is unfinished in once sense—for example, Mozart definitely intended to write another large fugue at the end of the Lacrymosa and he sketched out the first 16 bars of this, a double fugue on the word “Amen”— in another sense, the Requiem, as completed by Süssmayr, is still a coherent whole.

It’s important to remember that the vast majority of the work in its traditional form is by Mozart. Only the end of the Lacrymosa and the three movements near the end of the work are by Süssmayr, and it’s very likely that he was working from sketches by Mozart when he wrote these.

In particular, I find that the intensely personal music of “Süssmayr’s” Agnus Dei movement is on a par with the inspiration of the rest of the piece. There are several subtle thematic links between the these later movements and the earlier ones, which has led many musicologists and conductors who have studied the work to conclude that there’s a lot of Mozart buried in the Süssmayr portions. (Below is an etching of Sussmayr at Mozart’s death-bed.)

Franz Xaver Sussmayrwith dying at Mozart's deathbed

In two instances, I decided to make my own alterations to Beyer’s version. In the Dies irae, I substituted the woodwind, trumpet and timpani parts completed by Joseph Eybler. another of Mozart’s students, who was actually Mozart’s wife Constanze’s first choice to complete the work.

Eybler was a far better composer than Süssmayr, but Süssmayr’s handwriting resembled Mozart’s more closely —this may be one of the reasons Mozart’s wife Constanze eventually settled on him, because she still needed to pass off the work as if it had been completed by Mozart, in order to collect the remainder of the commissioning fee.

For whatever reason, Eybler gave up before finishing, but I found his orchestration of the Dies irae to be more gripping than either Süssmayr’s or Beyer’s. (Below is Mozart’s autograph score of the Dies irae with Eybler’s additions.)

Mozart Requiem mss Dies Irae K626 Requiem Dies Irae

The other change I made was to rewrite two measures near the end of Süssmayr’s Benedictus, between the conclusion of the Benedictus proper and the reprise of the Hosanna fugue. In Süssmayr’s version, the first Hosanna (at the end of the Sanctus) is in D (along with the Sanctus itself), whereas the second Hosanna — the one that concludes the Benedictus movement — is in B-flat, the key of the Benedictus. But this doesn’t make sense, formally, since the Sanctus and Benedictus form a single unit in the Requiem liturgy.

Intriguingly, Süssmary’s Benedictus features a unison string motive that also appears The Magic Flute, except, in the opera, Mozart uses this motive to modulate to a new key.  Assuming that Süssmayr got this motive from a sketch by Mozart, he simply may not have realized that Mozart meant to use this figure at the end of the Benedictus to modulate back to D-major, allowing for an exact reprise of the Hosanna fugue, rather than a transposed reprise, as Süssmayr composed it.

Putting Mozart’s motive to good use, it was relatively easy to bring the music back to the original key of D, allowing for the exact reprise that Mozart may have actually intended. (My inspiration for this change came from an excellent book on the Requiem by Christoph Wolff (below), “Mozart’s Requiem: Historical and Analytical Studies,” published by the University of California Press in 1994).

Christoph Wolff

So I can confidently say that our particular version of Mozart’s Requiem has never been heard before, anywhere! But the changes are subtle, and audience members will still get to hear a rendition of this great work that is very similar to what they have heard before, just slightly more enlightening, hopefully.

What do you want to say about J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Meine Freude,” and the excerpts from Mozart’s “The Magic Flute., which you will also perform? Why did you choose to couple that Bach and especially that Mozart with the Requiem?

Mozart definitely knew Bach’s motet “Jesu, meine Freude” because he examined a score of it while visiting Leipzig in 1789, and he quotes it in “The Magic Flute,” of all places. Towards the end of Act II of the opera comes the unusual scene with the Two Men in Armor that sounds as if it’s a Bach chorale prelude for organ transported into the operatic realm. In fact, the main motive played by the strings in this scene is by Bach — it’s the bass line of “Gute Nacht, O Wesen,” the ninth movement of “Jesu, meine Freude.” In the opera, this is the scene in which Tamino and Pamina undergo the trials of fire and water before emerging ready to be initiated into the fellowship of the Priests of Isis.

By invoking the spirit of Bach (below) in this scene, Mozart deepens its spiritual meaning and, indeed, the entire opera can be interpreted as a spiritual allegory. So in an important sense, all three works on the WCC’s program — the Bach motet, the scene from “The Magic Flute,” and Mozart’s Requiem—have the character of spiritual journeys, which is why I think there are strong connections between them. Mozart was just finishing “The Magic Flute” when he received the commission to write the Requiem.


What projects are in the future for the Wisconsin Chamber Choir?

On June 1 we will present a concert on the theme of “Benjamin Britten and Friends,” featuring music by Henry Purcell, Percy Grainger, Frank Bridge and Arvo Pärt, along with lots of Britten, whose centennial is being celebrated this year.

We’ll be joined by the Britten Choir of the Madison Youth Choirs organization for that performance, which will be at 7:30 p.m. at St. Stephen’s Lutheran Church in Monona.

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