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with Rochester Symphony Chorale

In this concert Maestro Lantz leaves us with his selections for the most beautiful music of all time. Mozart’s 3-1/2 minutes of music reflecting the curative beauty of the countryside was written during the last summer of his life; Maestro Lantz ranks it as the most gorgeous piece of music Mozart ever wrote. The Academic Festival Overture by Brahms - the maestro’s pick for favorite composer - reigns supreme among overtures. We’ll close with the feel of the waves pounding the shore in Finland with Maestro’s favorite Sibelius symphony.



Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin


Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin    

Richard Wagner (1813-1883)

Lohengrin was Wagner’s sixth opera, but the fourth that he would cite in a list of his works. (The first two were juvenilia he wanted to forget.) As in Tannhäuser, which he had just completed, for Lohengrin he created his own libretto (“little book” in Italian, meaning the text for an opera) based on a German legend. Usually, to understand an orchestral overture or prelude to an opera, it is necessary to know the story that will follow. Not so with Lohengrin. In Lohengrin, Wagner chose to do something different not only from tradition but from his own practice. Instead of creating a lengthy overture out of materials from the opera, a practice he had followed in all his previous operas, he decided merely to set the mood. But he did much more: by crafting a vision of the Holy Grail in his prelude, he defined the ethos from which his heroic knight emerged.

Knight Lohengrin had been tapped by his father, the knight Parsifal (spelled Percival when he sits at King Arthur’s Round Table) to be guardian of the Holy Grail. Parsifal had inherited responsibility for the Grail after saving it from the clutches of the evil Klingsor. (Just how he did it, Wagner would tell in his final opera nearly four decades later.) Lohengrin tells of the events that befall the Knight of the Grail when he temporarily departs from his guardianship to help a princess in distress. What Wagner seeks to evoke in the prelude is the world of purity and light in which Lohengrin has been preserving the vessel from which Jesus and his disciples drank at the Last Supper. Wagner described the scene in his typically romantic rhetoric:

Out of the clear blue ether of the sky there seems to condense a wonderful, yet at first hardly perceptible vision; and out of this there gradually emerges, ever more and more clearly, an angel host bearing in its midst the sacred Grail. As it approaches earth, it pours out exquisite odors, like streams of gold, ravishing the sense of the beholder. The glory of the vision grows and grows until it seems as if the rapture must be shattered and dispersed by the very vehemence of its own expansion. The vision draws nearer, and the climax is reached when at last the Grail is revealed in all its glorious reality, radiating fiery beams and shaking the soul with emotion. The beholder sinks on his knees in adoring self-annihilation. The Grail pours out its light on him like a benediction and consecrates him to its service; then the flames gradually die away, and the angel host soars up again to the ethereal heights in tender joy, having made pure once more the hearts of men.

Wagner achieves his aura of heavenly purity with chords of high violins divided into eight parts, four of them solo on especially high sounds called “harmonics.” They play a leitmotif associated throughout the opera with the Grail. It is the single theme of the ten-minute prelude. Its only development is the gradual augmentation of the orchestra to create the climactic appearance of the Grail, which then fades into the mists of the original high harmonics.

It hardly needs noting that all this ultra-romanticism in concept and sound is entirely new. Never had an introduction to an opera (which Wagner, it must be noted, calls “prelude,” not “overture”) been based on such a tiny musical germ. Never had violins been wielded in such a risky, delicate fashion. Never had so little in musical terms been made into so much. And never had anyone had the colossal nerve to attempt to represent the most divine of sacred vessels in music. (Again, it hardly needs saying that no one has attempted it since.)

~Jere Lantz



Mozart Ave verum corpus

Ave verum corpus, K. 618

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)


Hail, true Body, born of the Virgin Mary,
Truly suffered, sacrificed on the cross for humankind,
From whose pierced side flowed blood and water,
Be for us, as we approach death, a foretaste (of what lies beyond).

Mozart had a very busy final year. It opened with a performance of his final piano concerto (K. 595 in B-flat) and included the creation of his clarinet concerto, his operas La Clemenza di Tito (The Clemency of Titus, premiered in August in Prague) and Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute, premiered in September in Vienna), plus his uncompleted Requiem. He became ill in October and was confined to bed by November 20, passing at five minutes before one in the morning on December 5.

It has never been resolved what he died from. Some medical experts opt for a streptococcal infection, others for uremia stemming from chronic kidney disease. (Regardless of popular theater and film productions, he was not poisoned or murdered.)

It can be argued that no other composer created so much great music in his final year. And, for me, the most moving of all that music is a brief, simple choral work he composed for a friend during a visit to the country in June.

Mozart’s exuberant wife Constanza loved to travel to Baden, a spa resort near Vienna, where she had recently replaced Josef Haydn’s nag of a wife Maria Anna as the grand dame of the summer season. Mozart enjoyed the break from the city, partly by visiting his friend Anton Stoll, who was choir director for the local church. In June 1791, Mozart dropped by the church and, while catching up on each other’s lives, asked Stoll what he was planning to have his choir sing at the upcoming feast of Corpus Christi. When Stoll said he didn’t know, Mozart asked if he would like to have a new piece. Of course, Stoll was delighted.

So Mozart sat down with some manuscript paper he had been using to compose Die Zauberflöte and wrote a new piece for chorus and strings. Its mere 46 bars are not at all elaborate or complex—easy for Stoll’s country choir and strings to learn in the six days left before the feast service. Though Mozart at this point had no idea that he would be dead in less than six months, his music, prompted by the mournful prayer of the text, is permeated with a mature resignation.

Musically, the impact of the message is amplified by chromatic harmonic settings of the poignant text (“from whose pierced side flow water and blood”). But what cannot be explained is how Mozart managed to evoke so much magical beauty in so few notes. The four-sheet manuscript, central to the collection of the Austrian National Library in Vienna, holds just the music and the date: June 17, 1791.

We can but wonder how Mozart’s momentary inspiration became perhaps the three most beautiful minutes of music ever conceived.

~Jere Lantz


Handel Zadok, the Priest

Coronation Anthem “Zadok, the Priest”

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759)

Behind Handel’s triumphant quartet of coronation anthems lies perhaps the most astonishing tale of musical diplomacy we know.

In his twenties, Handel visited Italy and came back to Germany wanting to carve a career composing opera in the Italian style. He decided that the place ripest for an introduction to opera was Europe’s fastest growing economic metropolis, London. He took a calculating look at a map, decided that Hanover was the royal German court closest to England, and secured a position as court composer to the Elector (local regent) of Hanover. In 1711 he asked for and was granted leave to visit England for several months, returning in 1712 just long enough to secure another leave—again to London. This time he stayed for good. Imagine his discomfort when England’s Queen Anne died childless in 1714, and her heir was declared to be none other than George, the Elector of Hanover.

Legend has it that Handel ingratiated himself with his old boss, now England’s King George I, by hiring a bargeful of musicians and rowing up to the king’s own barge on the Thames while his players all piped Handel’s newly composed Water Music. Legend, sorry to say, has it wrong. It was, in fact, the king who hired Handel to entertain him during his July 1717 barging party. Apparently, they had already reconciled, with George, hereditary king but still an alien with no command of English, delighted to find a familiar face he could at least speak to.

Ten years later came a pivotal year for both Handel and the House of Hanover. In 1727 Handel became a British subject, his name changing forever from Georg Friedrich Händel to George Frideric Handel. His grant of citizenship was signed, of course, by the one man in England at least as German as he. Within weeks George I was dead. Though the son had despised the father, the new king, George II, immediately tapped his father’s favorite composer to create four coronation anthems for his and Queen Caroline’s official ascension on October 11 at Westminster Abbey.

Each anthem was based on a biblical text traditional to the occasion and assigned to a specific moment in the ceremony. In the event, some of the appointed music (not Handel’s) was accidentally omitted, leaving the musical program in disarray. Nonetheless, the Coronation Anthems were a smashing success with their extrovert grandeur confidently proclaiming the occasion.

Zadok is at once the grandest and briefest of the anthems. Anticipating the actual moment the crown is conferred and using the text of the coronation of Solomon in I Kings 1, it begins with one of the most dramatic and extended orchestral crescendos in music. Knowing the value of simplicity, Handel moves through a stately, though conventional, chord progression in which the only perceptible movement is a full landscape of arpeggios rising repeatedly in the violins. The effect of restraining his forces so assiduously is to build such anticipatory suspense in the listener that when the chorus, trumpets and kettledrums finally peal forth at full volume, we can be confident that heaven has truly blessed this ceremony and its result.

As in Messiah, Handel pulls out his full set of musical brushes to paint his text in technicolor. At the words “And all the people rejoiced,” the tempo quickens, and the rhythm becomes exultantly jagged. “God save the King” brings stentorian gravity; “Amen,” a profusion of gladsome notes; “Alleluia,” declamatory pillars of sound.

That Handel was able to evoke the grandeur and glory of the ultimate royal ceremony to a degree no other composer has approached comes as no surprise to those of us who know and love his work. That George II expected no less from his father’s court composer is a tribute to the king’s musical acuity and Handel’s diplomacy. The British nation has been no less perceptive: every coronation since 1727 has included Zadok, the Priest.

~Jere Lantz


Brahms Academic Festival Overture

Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80   

Johannes Brahms (1833-1896)

Today we think of Brahms as a romantic whose music pours out with glorious sound, powerful drama and heartfelt emotion. Yet in his day, many musicians and critics felt him to be anything but romantic. Mahler called him “a mannikin with a somewhat narrow heart.” Hugo Wolf said, “a relic from primeval ages.” Tchaikovsky was the most acerbic: “a giftless bastard! It annoys me that this self-inflated mediocrity is hailed as a genius…Brahms is chaotic and absolutely empty dried-up stuff.” (How fortunate that, though they shared a birthday, they never met.)

But these opinions were drowned by the deluge of admirers for whom Brahms was champion of all things beautiful and true in music. He enjoyed the role, being not at all shy in his criticism of the “music of the future” espoused by followers of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner. Brahms, more than an unabashed romantic, was clearly a student of his greatest predecessors: of Bach’s counterpoint, of Beethoven’s structure, of Schumann’s cross-rhythms. His music is serious, absolute—with no hint of a program or story behind it. It is romantic in sound but clings studiously to traditional forms. Thus, it came as no surprise that, in 1879, he was presented with a doctorate by the University of Breslau (today Wroclaw, Poland).

Unable to attend the ceremony, he sent a card of appreciation but not the customary commemorative work for the occasion. (Brahms was never a master of societal graces.) His friend Bernhard Scholz, conductor of the orchestra in Breslau, wrote that he needed to offer something more substantial—a real musical work. So he did. And he traveled to Breslau to conduct its premiere two years later in 1881.

If the dons of that august institution expected a serious musical thesis, they were in for a surprise: Brahms’ overture follows traditional sonata form but is peppered with student songs of the time, most of them cobbled from the local rathskellers, where students (in a tradition as time-honored as doctoral ceremonies) raised steins and voices in loud expression of hopes and fears.

Brahms opens with his own music—more puckish than stately—saving the first student song for a trio of majestic trumpets: Wir hätten gebauet ein staatliches Haus (“We have built a stately house”). After a grander statement of Brahms’ opening, two more student songs appear: first the lushly lyrical Der Landesvater (“The Father of the Land”) in the strings, then the impishly comical freshman’s initiation song Was kommt dort von der Höh? (“What comes there from on high?”) on that most comical of instruments, the bassoon.

At this point, one expects that Brahms has used all the popular tunes he can fit in, for, in classic sonata form, he develops and recapitulates his themes and seems headed for a close. But he cannot resist a final jibe, moving directly from a raucous, brassy rendition of the freshman’s song to a grand coda: the universal university hymn Gaudeamus Igitur (“Let us enjoy our youth”)—some six centuries old in Brahms’ day yet still familiar in ours.

~Jere Lantz



Sibelius Symphony No. 2

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 43 

Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) 

Finland’s musical giant Jean Sibelius is harder to summarize than most of his contemporaries outside the principal cultural capitals of Europe. Like most, he was trained in the German tradition (in Berlin and Vienna) and returned home to write nationalistic works based on folk legends and a powerful love for his country. Like many, his fame had a rocket’s rise and a meteor’s fall. (In 1940, Virgil Thomson, composer and redoubtable critic, called the Second Symphony “vulgar, self-indulgent and provincial beyond description.”) Yet Sibelius’ star is on the rise again, as his music is more frequently played and better understood.

True, he could be as cloying as Norwegian Edvard Grieg, especially in his folk-based tone poems and suites. But his seven symphonies were purely musical and truly profound. “My symphonies,” he asserted, “are music conceived and worked out in terms of music with no literary basis…the germ and fertilization of my symphonies have been solely musical.” The form of his symphonies varies, but it never leans on or shatters tradition. He uses as much conventional form as he needs to support his highly individual style of succinct themes and concise developments.

Sibelius has often been condemned for being conservative, for not following the modernistic trends that were the historical hallmark of music a century ago. While it is true that his harmonic, rhythmic and orchestrational language remains romantic, Sibelius had an approach to form and texture entirely his own, unprecedented and unimitated.

A case in point: the opening movement (one is tempted to say “essay,” for each Sibelius movement seems to strive to make a point) of his Second Symphony begins and ends softly. Its pace is moderate and its opening germ of three reiterated notes provides the basis for most of the movement. (The staccato oboe theme heard soon afterward is really just a counterpoint to this initial germ.) The other principal idea is a sweeping single line on violins that feels so free, so soaring that it belies its composer’s assertion that his symphonies are pure music. Doesn’t this sense of liberation have at least something to do with Finland’s oppression under the Russian yoke?

Such a sense of an individual asserting his freedom pervades the second movement. Here Sibelius seems determined to appear unfettered, even undisciplined. In fact, the movement is tightly structured of gestures that imply an absence of control: mysterious, deep pizzicati, lugubrious bassoons, allegro sections bristling with fistfuls of rising notes, weighty, long-winded brass fanfares cut off at climax. At first hearing, it is difficult to decipher. One longs for a story that will make sense of it all. With its roughhewn gestures and sense of sprawl, it seems more “Finnish” than anything else in the symphony. But is it a drama of Finland or of Sibelius’ own soul? There can be no answer. Part of the mystery of any Sibelius symphony is its ability to depict a nation or an individual despite its composer’s assertion that it depicts nothing extramusical.

Innovation within tradition is epitomized in the third movement. Beethoven’s symphonic scheme here posits a scherzo; Sibelius complies, but with the fastest scherzo ever conceived (Vivacissimo—most lively—he asserts). Its velocity is too reckless to be balanced by a contrasting scherzo section at the same reckless pace. Sibelius instead goes to the opposite extreme, calling upon the expressive oboe to intone a theme of utmost nostalgia, a theme that reminds us of the opening of the symphony with its reiteration of a single note. When, after another spate of reckless vivacissimo, the oboe returns with its nostalgia, the entire orchestra is inspired to pour forth one of the great symphonic crescendos, rising, rising, ever rising to Sibelius’ most majestic finale.

What a finale! Its opening gesture of three rising notes repeated a step down, derived once again from the opening sounds of the symphony, is one of the noblest themes ever envisaged. Its accompaniment in trombones and its answering trumpet fanfare constitute one of music’s most effective uses of symphonic brass. But its most striking and innovative feature is two huge ostinato sections in which a pattern of rising and falling eighth notes is repeated precisely again and again (in one instance, more than seventy times) while tension builds above.

Such mounting tension portends a powerful and profound coda. Sibelius does not disappoint. He takes the three rising notes of his finale’s main theme and raises them to a fourth higher note, a simple gesture that yields fulfillment enough for any music lover’s soul. As if he knows he has achieved an epiphany, he closes his symphony, like a hymn, with a warm Amen.

~Jere Lantz


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