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Michael Gilbertson, born in Dubuque, Iowa in 1987, holds degrees from Juilliard and Yale; his teachers include John Corigliano, Christopher Rouse, Aaron Jay Kernis, Ezra Laderman, Samuel Adler, Christopher Theofanidis and Jeanine Tesori. Gilbertson is on the faculty of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and has also taught at the Walden School in Pasadena, Educational Center for the Arts at Yale, and Northeast Iowa School of Music. He is Resident Composer with the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players and founder of ChamberFest Dubuque, which brings young classical artists to his hometown for concerts and educational outreach. He has composed for orchestra, chamber groups, film, dance and chorus; his opera, Breaking, was commissioned by the Washington National Opera and premiered at the Kennedy Center in 2013. Michael Gilbertson has been recognized with five Morton Gould Awards from ASCAP, a Charles Ives Scholarship from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a BMI Student Composer Award, selection as Musical America’s New Musician of the Month for March 2016, and was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in Music.
Gilbertson composed Graffiti: Concerto for Orchestra in 2018 on a commission from the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, and wrote of how the city influenced the concept and content of the work: “Living in the Bay Area for the first time this past year, I’ve been struck by the vibrancy of the city’s streets and in particular the graffiti and street art scene. As I approached composing a concerto to feature the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, I purchased a book of photographed graffiti from around the Bay Area and decided to use its images and ideas as a basis for movements of the concerto. In reading statements from graffiti artists, I was struck by the creative drive behind their works — a deep desire for their voices to be heard, seen and known, and an embrace of the transgressive nature of their art. These artists’ drive and their varied, visually dynamic works, inspired this concerto.”
Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893)
Tchaikovsky was far from happy with his teaching duties at the Moscow Conservatory, which left him less time for composing than he wished. One of the positive aspects of the job, however, was that he was able to meet some fine musicians in the course of his work, one of whom was the sonorously named German professor of cello at the school, Wilhelm Carl Friedrich Fitzenhagen. Fitzenhagen, like Tchaikovsky, was rather shy and introverted, and a nice friendship sprang up between them; it was for Fitzenhagen that Tchaikovsky composed his Rococo Variations.
The style of the Rococo Variations may be traced to Tchaikovsky’s reverence for Mozart, whom he called “the greatest of all composers” and even “the Christ of music.” Tchaikovsky’s interest in the Salzburg master extended beyond mere matters of musical technique, however, to other of the sensitive composer’s concerns, especially the sense of social dislocation caused by his homosexuality, as John Warrack noted: “The rococo represented for Tchaikovsky a world of order and balance that seemed hopelessly lost. He is by no means the only Romantic composer to feel an ache for the rejected classicism — it is, indeed, one of the typically contradictory ingredients of Romanticism. But in him the reaction was as usual acutely personal, a dramatization of his sense of being cut off from a once-familiar security and delight. He was often to find in his music occasion for what he frankly regarded as escape from his real situation of unhappiness to which the world had no answer. In these Variations he turned again to the rococo for consolation.” This is a work of deliberate grace, charm and elegance that plumbs no great emotional depths nor reveals any of those melancholy corners of Tchaikovsky’s soul that were to be exposed in the Fourth Symphony, composed only a few months later. “The Variations,” according to Edward Garden, “were from a world of happy make-believe where the frustrations and terrors of the present existence could be forgotten for a time in the contemplation of the past.”
The theme of the Variations, original with Tchaikovsky, is prefaced by a subdued introduction. After a brief, vaguely Oriental interlude for double reeds that looks forward to the nationality dances in The Nutcracker, the cello presents the first of the seven variations. The opening two variations are decorated versions of the theme, each ending with a strain for double reeds. Variation 3 presents a long-breathed cantabile in a new key and tempo. The fourth variation resumes the earlier tempo, and includes some dazzling, airborne scale passages that exploit fully the tone, agility and range of the solo instrument. The next variation allots the cello a trilled accompaniment to the theme, played by the flute; a cadenza closes this section. The penultimate variation slips into a minor mode that both balances the preceding tonalities and creates a good foil to the virtuosic closing variation that immediately follows. When the redoubtable Franz Liszt heard the Rococo Variations at a concert in Wiesbaden in 1879, his comment could not have been more cogent or more apposite: “This,” he pronounced, “is indeed music!”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)
It was during the summer of 1791 that Mozart’s health broke for good. His last five years in Vienna, when he was in his early thirties, were marred by frequent bouts of illness (the year 1790 was one of the least productive of his life because of his poor health), and by his last summer, he was seriously in debt, Constanze’s health had been nearly destroyed by her almost constant pregnancies following their marriage in 1782 (their fourth son — Franz Xaver Wolfgang — was born on July 26th), and Wolfgang was subjecting himself to a series of questionable folk remedies in an attempt to relieve his own suffering. In the spring of 1791, Emanuel Schikaneder, an old Salzburg pal of the composer whose financial ambition was matched only by the disreputability of his character, presented Mozart with a proposition to join him in producing a fantasy opera based on one of the Oriental themes then popular in Vienna. Mozart threw in with Schikaneder, a Freemason brother of his, and began composing The Magic Flute. Mozart had done considerable work on the new opera by July when two additional commissions came his way. The first was an anonymous but lucrative request to compose a Requiem for one Count Walsegg, who (odiously) intended to pass the work off as his own creation. No sooner had the Requiem appeared on his work table (next to the unfinished score for The Magic Flute) than Mozart was presented with yet another commission. Leopold II, the most recent incarnation of the ancient Habsburg line, was to be crowned King of Bohemia in Prague on September 6th, and it had been decreed by a clique of wealthy Bohemian land-owners that Mozart should supply an opera for the occasion. The nearly impoverished composer could hardly refuse such an imperial offer, since it offered some ready cash and also fanned his still-not-abandoned hopes of securing a position at the Viennese court. For his subject, Mozart was given the 50-year-old libretto La Clemenza di Tito by the venerable poet Metastasio, which had earlier been set by at least a dozen composers, not the least of whom was Christoph Willibald von Gluck. Caterino Mazzolà, Court Poet at Dresden, did what he could to modernize the libretto, but a composition in the hoary form of the opera seria did not allow for the peerless dramatic powers that Mozart had so magnificently displayed in Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro, and the project was, in too many significant ways, stillborn.
Though Constanze had delivered her baby only three weeks before, Mozart talked her into making the trip to Prague with him for the premiere of Tito; Franz Süssmayr joined them to cobble the secco recitatives and serve as copyist. The little group left for Prague on August 25th or 26th. Mozart worked furiously in the carriage, and stayed up half the night in their inns along the way to finish the commission. He pressed on with his labor after arriving in Prague, though he felt very poorly and was especially upset because his tightly packed work schedule allowed him no time for parties or visits to old friends. As was his custom, Mozart left the composition of the Overture until last, and the night before the premiere the piece was still unwritten. With a copyist waiting at the door, he sat down at the clavier, pounded away on the instrument throughout the night, and finished the Overture by dawn. He gingerly handed the copyist the full orchestral score in the morning with special instructions not to smear the still-wet ink. Though Tito, written in great haste in an antiquated operatic style that Mozart found uncongenial, had only a modest success at its first hearing, during the three decades after its composer’s death, it became the second most popular of his operas (after Don Giovanni), and was the first of his operas to be performed in London. As soon as his duties in Prague were finished, Mozart returned directly to Vienna, where he completed The Magic Flute and oversaw its production at the end of September. (He also composed the wondrous Clarinet Concerto during that month.) Illness sapped his strength after the premiere of The Magic Flute, and thoughts of the unfinished Requiem plagued him. (Süssmayr completed the work after Mozart’s death.) Exactly three months after his difficult and hasty trip to Prague, Mozart was dead. He was 35.
The plot of the opera concerns Vitellia, proud daughter of the deposed Roman Emperor Vitellius, who loves the new Emperor, Titus (Tito), but is furious that he has chosen Berenice, daughter of the King of Judaea, as his consort instead of her. She tries to persuade her admirer Sextus to join her in an assassination plot on Titus’ life. Sextus, a close friend of the new Emperor, is at first loath to participate in such a monstrous undertaking, but his love for Vitellia proves irresistible, and he agrees to initiate her plan. The murderous adventure goes forward, but proves unsuccessful. Sextus is implicated by a fellow-conspirator, and brought before Titus. Fearful of revealing Vitellia’s guilt, he refuses to answer the Emperor’s question, and instead offers only his heartfelt contrition. Incensed by this apparent arrogance, Titus signs Sextus’ death warrant. To save her lover, Vitellia comes forward to confess that it was she who instigated the assassination attempt, and Titus grants the conspirators clemency in the final scene.
The brief Overture to La Clemenza di Tito opens with a solemn intonation reminiscent of the stately chords prefacing The Magic Flute. The vigorous main subject is followed by a delicate duet melody for the flute and oboe, which serves as the second theme. The development section has many proto-Romantic harmonic shadings coloring its contrapuntal passages. The recapitulation begins not with the main theme, but with the more delicate second theme, which serves as a foil to the surprisingly stormy nature of much of the development. The music proceeds through repetitions of the opening intonation and the main theme before drawing to its abrupt conclusion.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The city of Prague fell in love with Mozart in January 1787. His Figaro met with a resounding success when he conducted it there on January 17th, and so great was the acclaim that was awarded his Symphony in D major (K. 504) when it was heard only two days later that it has since borne the name of the Bohemian capital. He returned to Vienna in early February with a signed contract to provide Prague with a new opera for its next season. The opera was Don Giovanni, and Mozart returned to Prague on October 1st to oversee its production. Again, he triumphed. He was invited to take up residence in Prague, and he must have been tempted to abandon Vienna, where his career seemed stymied and the bill-collectors harassed him incessantly, but, after six weeks away, he returned to the Imperial city for at least two pressing reasons. Personally, his wife, Constanze, was due to deliver their fourth child in December, and she wished to be close to her family for the birth. (A girl, Theresa, was born on December 27th.) Professionally, the venerable Christoph Willibald Gluck was reported near death, and Mozart, who had been lobbying to obtain a position at the Habsburg court such as Gluck held, wanted to be at hand when the job, as seemed imminent, came open.
Mozart arrived back in Vienna on November 15th, one day after Gluck died. Three weeks later, he was named Court Chamber Music Composer by Emperor Joseph II, though he was disappointed with both the salary and the duties. He was to receive only 800 florins a year, less than half the 2,000 florins that Gluck had earned, and rather than requiring him to compose operas, a form in which he had proven his eminence and to which he longed to fully devote himself, the contract specified he would write only dances for the Imperial balls. Still, the income from the court position, the generous amount he had been paid for Don Giovanni and his fees for various free-lance jobs should have been enough to adequately support his family. However, his desire to put up a good front in public with elegant clothes, expensive entertaining and even loans to needy (or conniving) musicians, largely to prove to the world that he could handle his affairs after the death of his father the preceding year, drained his resources.
He pinned his hopes for the amelioration of his financial debacle on the introduction of Don Giovanni to Vienna. This production took place on May 7, 1788, but the piece was received coolly. “The opera is divine, finer perhaps than Figaro,” allowed the Emperor, “but it is not the meat for my Viennese.” Within a month began the pathetic series of dunning letters to his well-to-do fellow Mason Michael Puchberg requesting loans. To his credit, Puchberg responded faithfully, though he was certainly a shrewd enough businessman to realize that repayment was unlikely. Only two weeks after the first letter, Mozart was back asking for more money to settle his overdue rent. “My landlord was so pressing that I was obliged to pay him on the spot (in order to avoid any unpleasantness), which caused me great embarrassment,” he confided to his benefactor. On June 17th, his bill settled, he moved out of his apartment in Vienna to cheaper lodgings in the suburb of Währing. “I have worked more during the ten days that I have lived here than in the two months in my former apartment,” he explained to Puchberg on June 27th. “If dismal thoughts did not so often intrude (which I strive forcibly to dismiss), I should be very well off here, for I live agreeably, comfortably and, above all, cheaply.”
Despite the disappointments inflicted upon him by the fickle tastes of the Viennese, his precarious pecuniary position, and an alarming decline in his health and that of his wife, Mozart was still working miracles in his music. On June 26th, just a week after he had settled in Währing, he finished the E-flat Symphony (K. 543), the first of the incomparable trilogy that he produced within two months during that unsettling summer of 1788. It is unknown how long he had been working on, or even considering, these pieces, since not a single sketch for them is known to exist. The reason that he wrote the E-flat, G minor and C major (“Jupiter”) Symphonies has never come to light. If they were composed on some flight of pure inspiration, with no upcoming performance or publication in prospect, they would be unique in that respect in his entire output. At a time when he was desperate for money, it seems unlikely that he would have spent precious hours on one, much less three, jeux d’esprit. The only mention he made of them was in the catalog of his works, where he noted the completion date of each one. They are referred to nowhere in his correspondence, which had declined sharply in volume after the death of his father a year earlier. One explanation is that they might have been written for a series of concerts he planned originally for June and July, but which was several times postponed for lack of subscribers and eventually cancelled completely. (For the rest of his life, he was unable to muster enough support among the Viennese to present a concert of his own in that city.) A second possibility is that the three symphonies were written on speculation to be published as a set. Haydn had enjoyed excellent success with such a venture in Paris only two years before, and Mozart may have been encouraged to try his luck in a similar venture. A third consideration might have been the trip Mozart was trying to arrange at that time to London, a town where a composer could make more money than on the Continent. Should the tour materialize, he reasoned, these symphonies would make a fine introduction to the British public. None of these three situations came about, however, and the genesis of Mozart’s last three symphonies will probably always remain a mystery.
In refutation of the long-held theory that Mozart never heard his Symphonies Nos. 39, 40 and 41, it now seems likely that he used them for several occasions. In 1789 he undertook a German tour hoping to secure patronage or, perhaps, a permanent post. The program listings for the concerts in Dresden on April 14th and in Leipzig on May 12th mention a “grand new symphony” by Mozart, but do not give specifics. Somewhat more than a year later, on October 15, 1790, he was in Frankfurt to give a concert as part of the festivities surrounding the coronation of Leopold II. He hoped (vainly) to reap some benefit from the assembled nobles by presenting “a grand symphony” and a piano concerto (No. 26 in D, K. 537, “Coronation”). On April 16 and 17, 1791, the Vienna Tonkünstler Society, a charitable organization of professional musicians, played “a new great symphony by Herr Mozart.” For each of these occasions, Mozart would have offered his most impressive, most recent works in the form, and would almost certainly have chosen one or more of the 1788 symphonies. The first documented performance took place in Hamburg in March 1792. “Some admitted they would never have been able to think or imagine they would hear something like this performed so splendidly in Hamburg,” wrote one eyewitness.
“A veritable triumph of euphony” (Otto Jahn); “the most limpid and lyrical music in existence” (Eric Blom); “the most purely joyous utterance in musical literature” (Donald N. Ferguson) — thus have these learned commentators characterized Mozart’s sumptuous E-flat Symphony. The work opens with a large introduction bearing a surprising emotional weight. The remainder of the movement, however, uses its sonata-allegro form as the basis of a lovely extended song rather than as an intense drama. The halcyon mood carries into the second movement, a sonatina in form (sonata-allegro without development section) and a sunbeam in spirit. The Minuet, with its sweet Trio led by the woodwinds, is a vivacious dance of grace, elegance and, at the swift Allegretto tempo indicated, a certain prescient Romantic vigor. The finale combines Haydn’s wit and verve with Mozart’s suavity of style and harmonic felicity.
©2019 Dr. Richard E. Rodda