Verdi, whose music was a symbol of the Italian unification movement, served the spring of 1861 as a representative to the first National Parliament. When his friend and political mentor, Camillo Cavour, died in June, Verdi’s interest in government waned, and he was again open to composing. At just that time, he received an offer from the Russian Imperial Opera in St. Petersburg to provide them with a new work. It had been three years since he had last written for the stage (A Masked Ball), and he was eager to return to composition. Certainly the proposed contract was lucrative enough to entice him, and it was made even more attractive because he was just then undertaking extensive costly additions and renovations to his beloved villa at Sant’Agata. He agreed to the Russian request, and suggested Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas as a subject, but that proposal was rejected by the St. Petersburg administration since it depicted a royal house in a negative light. Instead, Verdi turned to Don Alvaro, a Spanish play of 1835 by Don Angel de Saavedra, Duke of Rivas. Though its plot was an improbable sequence of events, Verdi was attracted to its strong, contrasting emotions, his most important criterion for a libretto. He sketched the scenario, sent it to his faithful poet Francesco Piave to be versified, and set to work on the music. When Verdi left for Russia in November, the opera was complete except for the orchestration. However, illness felled one of the principal singers, and the premiere was postponed until the following year. When La Forza del Destino was first given, in November 1862, it met with a mixed response. The music was generally acclaimed, but the libretto, with three violent deaths in the last scene, drew less praise. For the 1869 production at La Scala, Milan, Verdi made extensive revisions to the work, and it was at that time that the original, short prelude was expanded to the full Overture that is today among his best-known instrumental works.
On October 24, 1772, Mozart and Papa Leopold left Salzburg for Milan, at that time under Austrian domination, to oversee the production of Wolfgang’s opera Lucio Silla. They arrived on November 4th. Mozart completed the opera before the end of the month and began rehearsals on December 12th, though preparations were hampered by frequent cast changes and difficulties with facilities. The problems continued right through the premiere on December 26th, which began three hours after the appointed time and ended six hours later. Despite the mixed quality of its first production, Lucio Silla proved popular with the Milanese audiences (many of whom were Austrian, or at least would-be Austrian, and in tune with Mozart’s expressive northern musical language), and the new piece was repeated no fewer than 26 times during the Carnival season.
Composers since the age of the Renaissance have incorporated popular songs and styles into works of elevated purpose: students of music history will recall the profusion of Masses erected upon the 15th-century French ditty L’Homme armé (“The Armed Man”); Bach wove two popular melodies of the day (Long Have I Been Away from Thee and Cabbage and Turnips) into the contrapuntal complexities of the Goldberg Variations; Chopin’s peerless piano creations are rooted in the dance patterns and melodic gestures of his native Poland; jazz and the blues have served as a wellspring for American composers ever since Copland returned from France in 1924. For all of their creative hybridization, however, these earlier attempts at stylistic interpenetration recognized distinct boundaries among the various types of music — the Rhapsody in Blue is clearly intended for the concert hall and not the jazz club. However, as this new millennium begins the conventional distinctions among musical idioms have blurred. The world is now so suffused with music — rock, pop, rap, punk, folk, metal, jazz, new age, soul, and even the venerable forms of symphony, opera and ballet — that the old melting pot has become a veritable cauldron of trans-stylistic musical immersion. Many of today’s young composers and performers are not only inevitably exposed to this invigorating universe of musics, but can move comfortably and creatively from one to another, drawing from them a cross-fertilized inspiration that defies traditional categorization. Michael Torke is among the lead guides along this musical pathway into the new century.
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
The origin of Debussy’s Nocturnes is cloudy. It is possible that he may have conceived the three movements of the work, and perhaps made some sketches, as early as 1892, when he was considering a tour to the United States proposed by one Prince Poniatowski. He informed the Prince that a piece called “‘Trois Scènes au Crépuscule’ (‘Three Scenes at Twilight’), [was] almost finished, that is to say that the orchestration is entirely laid out and it is simply a question of writing out the score.” This work, if it ever came into existence, seems to have completely disappeared, though it is rumored that a fragment has been locked away in private hands for years. The inspiration for this music was a set of ten poems (published in 1890) by Henri de Régnier, a symbolist poet and close associate of Mallarmé. (It was Régnier who approached Mallarmé with Debussy’s request to base a work on his Prélude à l’apres-midi d’un faune.) Régnier’s verses, collectively titled Poèmes anciens et romanesques, are, according to Edward Lockspeiser’s study of Debussy, “the product of an imaginary theatre of the mind in which action is sacrificed to poetic associations.” The images evoked are dream-like and ritualistic and were well suited to Debussy’s ideal of a music “made up of colors and rhythms ... [rather than] something that can be poured into a tight and traditional form.” Debussy’s “Scenes at Twilight” have apparently faded into darkness, though they were the earliest evidence of the thoughts that eventually became the Nocturnes.
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.
Mass in C major, Op. 86 (1807)
Prince Nicolaus Esterházy, scion of one of the highest-ranking families in the Habsburg Empire, assuaged his unquenchable desire for music by supporting one of the leading European musical establishments of the late 18th century. The next Prince, however, Anton, Nicolaus’ son, did not inherit his family’s musical tastes along with his title upon his father’s death in 1790, and he dismissed all the household musicians except for a brass band for military functions. Joseph Haydn, who had supervised the music at the Esterházy palaces for almost three decades, was granted a generous pension, and he soon dashed off to London for the first of two triumphant residencies. When he returned to Austria in 1795 from his second London venture, Haydn learned that the leadership of the Esterházy family had changed yet again, having passed to Nicolaus II during his absence, and that the new Prince had revived the musical organization which had so magnificently adorned the family’s functions in earlier years. As his contribution to the renewed court musical life, Haydn was asked to write a new Mass each year for the mid-September celebration at the Bergkirche in Eisenstadt of the name-day of Nicolaus’ wife, Princess Marie Hermenegild. (Well-born Catholic children at that time were given the name of a saint being commemorated on the day of their birth. Mozart’s baptismal names, for example, begin with Johann Chrysostom because he was born on January 27th, the feast of St. John Chrysostom. Hermenegild was an obscure 6th-century saint.) Haydn composed six Masses for the Princess’ birthdays between 1796 and 1802; they are among his most magnificent creations. Johann Nepomuk Hummel was engaged as the Esterházy music director in 1804, and he wrote the Masses for the next three years. In 1807, the commission for the annual Mass went to Ludwig van Beethoven, who had maintained a respectful if somewhat cool relationship with Haydn after studying with him briefly upon settling in Vienna in 1792.