I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world. — George Washington
George Washington in 1797, the last year of his presidency.
George Washington in 1797, the last year of his presidency. Wikimedia Commons
Throughout February, hear 16 new works by contemporary composers based on words of American presidents, in newly recorded performances by conductor Judith Clurman and Essential Voices USA. Today, Michael Gilbertson sets the words of George Washington.
The quote, "I had rather be on my farm than be emperor of the world," was said to be George Washington's response to newspaper criticism of his presidency. But it may well have resonated with Washington in other ways. With a debt crisis, a war (on the northwestern frontier) and upheaval in Europe to deal with, plus a growing partisanship within his own administration, probably nothing sounded better to the president than the rolling acres and pastoral views of the Potomac he enjoyed on his Mount Vernon estate.
It's a quote that also hit close to home for composer Michael Gilbertson, who composed "Washington Round" as a part of the Mr. President series.
courtesy of the artist
Michael Gilbertson felt drawn to the quote because of his own family's rural background.
Michael Gilbertson felt drawn to the quote because of his own family's rural background. courtesy of the artist
"I liked it quite selfishly, because I'm from Iowa originally, and both my parents grew up on farms," Gilbertson says. "The quote has this very rural quality to it and I tried to capture that, to some extent, in the music as well. This excerpt, I actually think is quite musical, it's such a simple statement, and so simply worded, it really worked quite well, musically."
There's a lyrical, contemplative feel to Gilbertson's music, in which he uses just three male voices. Judith Clurman, who commissioned the music (and conducted the performance at the top of this page) thinks Washington's words fit the music well.
"I thought it was a sweet text," Clurman says. "Suddenly, as a kid you always thought, 'Washington, the first president, the oath of office in New York, all of these exciting things.' I was talking to the chorus about this, and I said, 'We all should take a field trip to Mount Vernon so you can sing this properly.' Suddenly [Washington] wants to be on his farm. I thought it was exciting to think of him as a normal, American guy. Of course, he wasn't."
Gilbertson agrees. Not a very normal guy, when you think of all that Washington accomplished with a brand-new country.
"We were just so lucky, as a country, to have him in that position at that time," Gilbertson says. "I can't imagine what the country would be like if someone like John Adams or Thomas Jefferson had served as the first president. He was clearly a very reflective and thoughtful person about his own work and about the country. He really didn't have a lot of time, after his presidency, to retire to Mount Vernon — which is, in retrospect, quite unfortunate given the type of person he was."
About The Composer
Michael Gilbertson, a native of Dubuque, Iowa, studied composition with Samuel Adler, John Corigliano and Christopher Rouse at The Juilliard School. His works have been programmed by numerous ensembles including the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra, the Grand Rapids Symphony, the Cedar Rapids Symphony and Aspen Contemporary Ensemble. Michael has received the Morton Gould Award from ASCAP, the Charles Ives Scholarship, and the Palmer-Dixon Prize at The Juilliard School.