The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music Q&A: Choral director Robert Gehrenbeck talks about how composer Ralph Vaughan Williams sparked TWO renaissances or revivals of British music. You can hear the results when the Wisconsin Chamber Choir performs works by Vaughan Williams and his followers this Saturday night. Part 1 of 2.

May 29, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

This Saturday night, the Wisconsin Chamber Choir will wrap up its current season with a special concert of “Ralph Vaughan Williams and Friends.”

Wisconsin Chamber Choir 1

The concert is at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 31, in the acoustically resonant Grace Episcopal Church, West Washington Avenue at Carroll Street on the Capitol Square, downtown Madison.

Grace Episcopal harpsichord

The soloists include violinist Leanne League and organist Mark Brampton Smith.

Admission is $15, $10 for students.

One of the best loved choral composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams was renowned not only for his compositions, but also for his friendship and advocacy on behalf of countless other musicians.

The concert features some of Vaughan Williams’ best-known works including, “Serenade to Music,” Mass in G Minor, and the powerful anthem, “Lord, Thou Hast Been Our Refuge.”

Vaughan Williams shared a passion for collecting folksongs with his close friend Gustav Holst, whose heartfelt setting of “I Love My Love” will be heard alongside several of Vaughan Williams’ own folksong arrangements.

Works by Herbert Howells and Vaughan Williams’ students Imogen Holst and Elizabeth Maconchy will demonstrate Vaughan Williams’ influence on succeeding generations.

Finally, selections from the motets and anthems of Thomas Tallis exemplify Vaughan Williams’ debt to his English predecessors, notably Tallis’ “Third Mode Psalm Tune,” the inspiration for Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis.” (You can hear that “Fantasia” performed in a popular YouTube video at the bottom.)

Joining the WCC in this performance are violinist Leanne League, associate concertmaster of both the Madison Symphony and the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra; and organist Mark Brampton Smith.

Advance tickets are available for $15 from, via Brown Paper Tickets, or at Willy Street Coop (East and West locations) and Orange Tree Imports. Student tickets are $10.

Founded in 1998, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir has established a reputation for excellence in the performance of oratorios by Johann Sebastian Bach, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Franz Joseph Haydn; of a cappella masterworks from various centuries; and of world-premieres. Dr. Robert Gehrenbeck, who teaches and directs choral activities at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, is the Wisconsin Chamber Choir’s Artistic Director.

Gehrenbeck recently agreed to an email Q&A about the upcoming concert:

Robert Gehrenbeck new headshot 2013 USE

Why did you choose to do a program based on the influence of Ralph Vaughan Williams (below)? How and why was he so influential?

First and foremost, the music of Ralph Vaughan Williams (below) music is extremely rewarding to perform — it’s thrilling for players, singers and audiences alike. He seemed to have a special knack for writing for voices, and he composed an enormous amount of vocal music, from folksong settings, hymn tunes, and solo songs to large-scale operas, oratorios and choral symphonies.

Ralph Vaughan Williamsjpg

He was the leading figure in the “English Renaissance” of the early 20th century, a movement that began with Sir Edward Elgar and which extended beyond Vaughan Williams to those he influenced, including Gustav Holst, Herbert Howells, and Gerald Finzi (below).

Gerald Finzi 1

Even Benjamin Britten (below top) and Michael Tippet (below bottom), although they consciously distanced themselves from the style of Vaughan Williams, followed his pioneering embrace of earlier English composers as models, looking back to the luminaries of Tudor and Stuart periods for inspiration just as he did.

Benjamin Britten


It is as if the musical genius of Thomas Tallis (below top), William Byrd, and Henry Purcell (below bottom) was reawakened after a long slumber in the works of Vaughan Williams and his successors.

Thomas Tallis


How would you describe the individual musical style and historical importance of Ralph Vaughan Williams, especially given the modernist age?

The issue of Vaughan Williams’ relationship to musical modernism is an interesting one. It’s worth noting that Vaughan Williams, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arnold Schoenberg, and Charles Ives were all born within two years of one another, between 1872 and 1874.

Although their music is vastly different, they all responded to a similar crisis facing composers after the heyday of the Romantic era -– namely, the challenge of writing music that would be original and distinctive while taking into account the fact that most concertgoers still embraced the Romantics.

One might call this the central dilemma of musical modernism: the need to break with the past while also acknowledging it.

Vaughan Williams’ response to this dilemma, while different from Schoenberg’s or Ives’, was nevertheless highly original and unique.

Comparing Vaughan Williams’ development to Schoenberg’s is instructive. Schoenberg (below) famously broke with tonality — an approach that Vaughan Williams vehemently rejected — but Schoenberg saw himself carrying on the tradition of Bach, Mozart, and Brahms, and he wrote in many of the same forms and used similar techniques as his German forebears. For Schoenberg, simply ignoring the music of late Romantics such as Brahms and Wagner was not an option; in the eyes of his German-speaking public, he was their competitor as much as their heir. Schoenberg thus felt compelled to transcend the highly chromatic musical language of Wagner by rejecting its central feature — tonality — while preserving its chromaticism and emotionalism.

Arnold Schoenberg

By virtue of geography, Vaughan Williams (as well as Rachmaninoff and Ives) did not feel so shackled to the legacy of German Romanticism. For composers on the periphery, as it were, rejecting the dominant German tradition and embracing native influences were virtues in the eyes of their compatriots, especially given the rise of nationalism throughout Europe during this period.

Thus, Vaughan Williams developed a kind of modernism that was infused with elements of his own English heritage. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Vaughan Williams’ music owes very little to Wagner, but he does carry on the symphonic tradition of Ludwig van Beethoven (Vaughan Williams wrote nine symphonies too!); he was a great admirer (and conductor) of Johann Sebastian Bach (below top); and he was strongly influenced by Johannes Brahms (below bottom).



Crucially, Vaughan Williams’ abiding interest in English folksong, in Tudor polyphony, and in writing music that would speak to the common people resulted in a style that was uniquely his — more conservative than other composers’, perhaps, but no less original because of that fact.

Three of the main characteristics of Vaughan Williams’ mature style are the primacy of melody; the retention and enrichment of triadic harmony; and his interest in creating large-scale forms and dramatic tension through non-traditional means. I’ll attempt to illustrate these traits in my answer to the following question.

Tomorrow: Favorite works by Ralph Vaughn Williams; his influence on his contemporaries and his students; and plans by the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra for the next season.



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Classical music: The Pro Arte Quartet in Belgium –- Day 4, Part 2. The quartet performs in the town of Dolhain-Limbourg.

May 29, 2014

By Jacob Stockinger

Editor’s note: The Well-Tempered Ear has asked people on tour with the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte Quartet (below, in a photo by Rick Langer) to file whatever dispatches. updates and photos are possible — from iPads, computers, cameras and smart phones — so that they can to keep the fans back here at home current with what is happening on the concert stage and off.

By now it has become apparent that the Pro Arte Quartet’s tour of Belgium is as big an event to the Belgians and to local residents there as it is to Madisonians, Wisconsinites and alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Pro Arte Quartet new 2 Rick Langer

Just before taking a day’s rest, Sarah Schaffer, who manages the University of Wisconsin-Madison Pro Arte String Quartet, sent this text and this photo essay. They cover the trip from Brussels to Dolhain Limbourg, the hometown of founding violinist Alphonse Onnou, and the official greetings and events that awaited the quartet. (Current members are violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia; violist Sally Chisholm; and cellist Parry Karp.)

Today’s Part 2 covers the concert at Dolhain-Limbourg.

Here are links to Day 1:

To Day 2:

To Day 3:

And to Day 4, Part 1:

Schaffer’s latest installment once again shows the hard work of undertaking such a concert tour, which involves a lot more than playing and performing music. In this case, it also involves being cultural ambassadors.

Sarah Schaffer mug

After such an already full day, there is still the evening concert!

By evening the Kursaal (below) has warmed up and is now much more welcoming.

PAQ essay 5 Le Kursaal exterior Sarah Schaffer

We learn, as we wait through the sound check/rehearsal that the local television crew is on hand! They hope to interview a quartet member, but are so busy down the street at the Onnou house that they barely make it in time to film the concert.

PAQ essay 6 chekcing our stage at Le Kursaal David, Sally Parry Sarah Schaffer

Anne van Malderen opens the evening with a touching tribute to Onnou, and them outlines the concert program because there are, surprisingly, no printed versions on hand this evening:

Franz Joseph Haydn: Quartet in D Major, Op. 20, N. 4

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Adagio & Fugue, K. 546

Alexander Glazunov: Five Novelettes


Igor Stravinsky: Elegy for Solo Viola

Cesar Franck: Quartet

It’s hard to imagine a program more strongly evocative of the original Quatuor Pro Arte (below, in 1928)!

Pro Arte Quartet in 1928 Onnou far left

Haydn represents their recorded legacy. Mozart is included because, well, it’s Mozart. The Glazunov was one of original violinist Alphonse Onnou’s favorite pieces, here in Onnou’s hometown, in the Kursaal, which he likely performed in himself.

Mozart old 1782

The Stravinsky Elegy for Solo Viola (below, Sally Chisholm playing the Stravinsky Elegy at the Wisconsin Union Theater in 2012) was commissioned by founding violist Germaine Prevost as a memorial to Onnou, who died in Madison just months after the quartet was stranded there, before ever playing a first concert with the newly artists-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Sally Chisholm solo

And of course the tour-de-force quartet by Cesar Franck (below) is by one of Belgium’s most celebrated composers.

Cesar Franck photo

It’s very touching, this entire program, this small town.

And such an audience — rapt, attentive, knowledgeable, appreciative with the applause long and sustained, much whistling, many “bravos!” shouted out. An incredibly warm reception.

Those of us who have been with David and Suzanne and Sally and Parry this whole long day, coming after the past few days so full and dramatic, can hardly believe the intensity and concentration they’ve brought to this performance.

Once again, we hear a ravishing performance by this amazing quartet. (below, playing the same Haydn String Quartet at the concert on March 2, 2012.)

Pro Arte Quartet in Haydn at Mernier

Sunday is Election Day in Belgium -– and will bring a well-deserved day off for everyone.

Then on Monday, we go to the Conservatoire Royale, where the Quatuor Pro Arte originated — just students who, like music students everywhere, formed a pick-up group.

Sometimes they last a semester or two, sometimes they make a real go of it during and beyond school, and in one extraordinary case they made it to . . . 100! (Below is the Pro Arte Quartet in 1940.)

Pro Arte Quartet 1940 Brosa-Halleux-Prevost-Evans 1940


Pro Arte Quartet violist Sally Chisholm (below) writes of her latest adventure that occurred when there group arrived back in Brussels. It has no pictures but, trust me, it is well worth the read:

Sally Chisholm

“Last night a few steps from our hotel, in the center of the square, or rather Place, is the area normally occupied by touring jazz/rock groups during the multi-week jazz festival here in Brussels.

It was 8:30 p.m., and I was strolling for the last time of the day.

Mozart. “Eine Kleine Nacht Musik.” (The familiar opening movement is at the bottom in a popular YouTube video that has over 8 million hits.)

Hmm … and there they were: 3 young musicians, 2 violinists and a cellist, playing beautifully in front of a rapt audience of locals and tourists from many countries.

The open violin case was filling up with euros as listeners quickly tiptoed up to lay in their offering, then tiptoe away all smiles.

One violinist saw me, and the “fiddlers rose” (that red discoloration that comes from years of gripping the instrument) on my neck, immediately elbowing her partner.

When they finished, and started packing up, I went over to congratulate them.  

You play?

Yes, I said. Alto.

(That’s French for the viola.)

Are you students here?

Yes, at the Conservatoire.

Oh, I will be there tomorrow!

Pro Arte, Pro Arte! Yes, we are coming to hear you!

So I will see my new friends again tomorrow.

Mozart is very alive here in Brussels, with beautifully trained young musicians representing him well to an enthusiastic and grateful audience.






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