The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: The Wisconsin Chamber Choir unveils Robert Gehrenbeck’s own version of Mozart’s Requiem in a impressive concert that showed the links between Bach and Mozart.

April 15, 2013
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By Jacob Stockinger

Here is a special posting, a review written by frequent guest critic and writer for this blog, John W. Barker. Barker (below) is an emeritus professor of Medieval history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He also is a well-known classical music critic who writes for Isthmus and the American Record Guide, and who hosts an early music show every other Sunday morning on WORT 88.9 FM. He serves on the Board of Advisors for the Madison Early Music Festival and frequently gives pre-concert lectures in Madison.


By John W. Barker

Conductor and director Robert Gehrenbeck’s annual April concerts with his Wisconsin Chamber Choir (below) have come to be important events on our musical scene, and his latest one, held at Luther Memorial Church on Saturday night, set new standards of enterprise.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir Nov 17, 2012 Bethel Lutheran

The essential point of the program was to observe the impact of music by Johann Sebastian Bach on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s creativity, as illustrated in works composed in the final months of the latter’s foreshortened life.

After a prologue of Mozart’s late motet, “Ave verum corpus,” we were given Bach’s glorious motet, “Jesu, meine Freude” to represent music that Mozart discovered among the works by the Leipzig master.

The first half ended with a march and the trial-by-fire scene from Act II of The Magic Flute.  Then, after the intermission, came the pièce de résistance, Mozart’s great Requiem.

For the program’s first half, Gehrenbeck (below) limited himself to his own group, the Madison-based Wisconsin Chamber Choir, which is 48 members strong.

Robert Gehrenbeck

Scholars and musicians argue over how to treat this particular chorale-motet masterpiece — whether all of its 11 sections should be for full choir, or whether it should be done with a single singer per part, or whether some of its sections might be reserved for a consort of soloists.

While Gehrenbeck chose to give one section to a very tiny mini-chorus of eight singers, he opted otherwise for full five-part chorus throughout. Though the work comes to us as an a cappella piece, it is thought that instrument doublings were used by Bach (below).


Gehrenbeck avoided that approach, but he added a basso seguente, a doubling of the bass line by cello and organ, that was really not necessary musically, though it probably helped the singers on pitch.

Given the church’s acoustics, different parts of the very large sold-out audience received a varied choral sound, somewhat blended at the rear but still quite clear where I sat, up front, and given a beautiful glow in a careful but very satisfying performance

The March of the Priests and then the “Armed Men” scene, both from Mozart’s last opera, are full of spiritual and Masonic meaning. Here Gehrenbeck drew not only on some young solo singers, but also a small orchestra of 22 seasoned local players.  While some parallels with Bach might be traced in these excerpts, the real influence for such material, not properly recognized, was Gluck (below).  (Mozart never used trombones in his operas, save when he was drawing inspiration from Gluck’s techniques for solemn and ceremonial music.)

Christoph Willibald von Gluck

For the second half, devoted to the Requiem, Gehrenbeck added to the scene the 31 members of the Chamber Singers (below) of his home base, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. He did, at least at one point, pare things down to his smaller local group, but otherwise he took the opportunity to create a very full and ample choral sound.

UW- Whitewater Chamber Singers BW

To be sure, his tempos were judiciously cautious, designed so as not to push the pulses or strain the total bulk, but there was fine discipline throughout.

The conductor produced some subtle nuances along the way.  I particularly appreciated his clever pattern of decrescendo-to-crescendo on the repetitions of the words “quam olim Abrahae” in the Offertory.

Instead of having a single vocal quartet, Gehrenbeck used constantly changing groups of singers drawn mainly from the choir ranks.  This gave rotating opportunities to lots of singers, some of them really good–I want to hear more of contralto Sarah Leuwerke–though at the price of constant parading of bodies on and off of the scene.

This performance had some very special qualities, however. An acknowledged and beloved masterpiece, Mozart’s Requiem nevertheless has textual problems that keep generation after generation of musicologists and editors in business. (Below is a manuscript of the Dies Irae from Mozart’s Requiem with annotations by Joseph Eybler).

Mozart Requiem mss Dies Irae K626 Requiem Dies Irae

Mozart died before he could complete this last score, as is well known. His widow, desperate to have it finished to win the needed fee, first tried to have one Mozart student, Joseph Eybler, complete the work, but he soon pulled out, and her second choice was a lesser student, Franz Xaver Süssmayer, who carried out the task. (Below is an etching of Sussmayer at Mozart’s death bed.)

Franz Xaver Sussmayrwith dying at Mozart's deathbed

Süssmayer’s version of the score long stood as its “standard” performing version, but in recent decades editors have been seeking ways to overcome its weaknesses and get closer to what Mozart himself would have done.

Thus, Franz Beyer has cleaned up the orchestration, and has added notes to the end of the “Hosanna” refrains to the Sanctus and Benedictus which bring Süssmayer’s abrupt conclusions more into line with Mozartean style.  Other editors have gone much further into rewriting what are understood to be just Süssmayer’s own contributions.

Robert Gehrenbeck (below, conducting) has now entered these lists on his own merits.  He has basically used the Beyer edition, but replaced the wind and timpani parts in the Dies irae with those that Eybler had originally proposed. Gehrenbeck has also interpolated a short passage in the Benedictus to allow for an appropriate change of key.

Robert Gehrenbeck conducting

In all these respects, Gehrenbeck’s educated guesses are as good as anybody else’s. In this uniquely personal collation, he has created a fully plausible text for a fully convincing performance.

Wisconsin Chamber Choir 1

What a refreshing, thought-provoking, and inspiring concert!  Remember, Madisonians, how lucky we are.


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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