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Rediscovered Gems of Vincent Persichetti

Andrew Mast | February 2009

     Vincent Persichetti left band directors a rich legacy of music when he died in 1987. Of the 169 pieces he assigned an opus number, 15 are for band or wind ensemble and a 16th work, Celebrations, Op. 103, is for chorus and wind ensemble. Since the middle of the 20th century, Persichetti’s numerous commissions and close associations with band conductors, such as Richard Franko Goldman in the early 1950s, closely identified him with bands. Eschewing titles and categories his entire life, he would no more consider himself a band composer than a choral, orchestral, or piano composer, even though he wrote as many works for each of these genres as he did for band.
     Persichetti’s well-known quote about his music being both “graceful and gritty” captures the charm and difficulties of his compositions. Because these works are neither traditionally tonal nor strictly atonal, his music is often described as being difficult to understand. Persichetti composed with elements of Romantic tonality and acerbic atonality, but his lack of loyalty to either style contributed to the underexposure of his music. In the heated debates of the mid-20th century, it was difficult for a composer of Persi­chetti’s stature to find support when atonal and serial composers held residencies in many universities and completely disavowed tonal music. A group of similar minded composers, including William Schuman, Peter Mennin, and Roy Harris, also suffered from the same lack of appreciation.
Although no composer is consistently excellent throughout an entire lifetime, some of Persichetti’s  less-popular works have been unfairly ignored and given short shrift in study and performance. This is unfortunate because some of the most difficult passages in his music have engaging elements to decipher for conductors and students alike. These works come from the entire breadth of Persichetti’s output, from his Serenade #10, Op. 1, to Chorale Prelude: O God Unseen, Op. 164, composed just three years before he died.
     Many of Persichetti’s more popular works, such as the Divertimento, Pageant, and Symphony #6, are from the composer’s early output. How-ever, his more significant works came from a growing mastery of his more mature style, and they deserve more frequent performance.

Serenade #1 for 10 Wind Instruments, Op. 1
    Persichetti wrote Serenade #1 at age 14 and felt confident enough about it to assign the music an opus number. He had composed a number of earlier works but thought these relied too heavily on the music of other composers. For the premiere Persichetti played seven of the work’s ten parts on a tracker organ, while three others were played on violin, oboe, and tuba. Out of this modest premiere emerged a charming chamber work for the combined ensemble of a double quintet of brass and woodwind instruments.
     Its five movements, which lasted about ten minutes, had moderately difficult technical problems and only a few sections of exposed or difficult lines. Directors who select even a few of the movements for performance will find they give high school and college musicians a satisfactory, enjoyable playing experience.

Psalm, Op. 53/Pageant, Op. 59 (1952, 1953)
     The popularity of Pageant has eclipsed the equally meritorious Psalm, even though these works were written close to­gether and have many similar characteristics. Pageant, along with the Divertimento, Op. 42, is easily the most popular and frequently performed work of Persichetti’s, particularly among high school bands. Many horn players have been intimidated by the difficult opening of this work; it  leads to a beautiful clarinet choir melody and a section Persichetti termed the “expansion of motive” in his notes. After 72 measures of chorale, the writing breaks out into raucous and rowdy music that is rhythmically driving and exciting.
     Psalm similarly opens with a chorale initiated in the clarinets that continues for 82 measures. The fast section has a few more gradations in tempo and a bit more technical difficulty, particularly for woodwinds. Psalm is a slightly longer and more difficult work than Pageant with an equal amount of musical reward.

Serenade #11, Op. 85 (1960)
     Another undeservedly underperformed work,  Serenade #11 is in some ways like the Diverti­mento, composed ten years earlier and the Bag­atelles, Op. 87, published in 1961. Coming from the rich legacy of commissions initiated by Frank Battisti at Ithaca (New York) High School, the Serenade consists of five descriptive movements – “Pastoral,” “Humor­eske,” “Noc­turne,” “Intermezzo,” and “Capriccio.” While it has short, exposed solos for flute, clarinet, trumpet, and horn, Persichetti scored the bulk of the colors for the larger ensemble. As with most of his music at this difficulty level, the percussion writing is organic and important but not particularly difficult or requiring a large number of players. This is a charming, delightful work.

Bagatelles, Op. 87 (1961)
     Written shortly after the Serenade, Persichetti’s four movements of the Bag­atelles are similar in form and scope but more difficult. The New Harvard Dictionary of Music’s description of a bagatelle – “a short unpretentious piece, often for piano and often presented in sets with contrasting memos and moods” – fits this work perfectly.
     The movements have the tempo indications of Vivace, Allegretto, Andante Sostenuto, and Al­legro con Spirito. An evolving orchestrational characteristic of Persichetti’s band scoring at the time is evident in this piece. He writes with prominent solos and much exposed scoring that features distinct colors and textures.

The Chorale Preludes
     Persichetti composed five pieces with the words chorale prelude in the title, three of which are for band: Chorale Prelude: So Pure the Star; Chorale Prelude: Turn Not Thy Face; Chorale Prelude: O God Unseen. A fourth band work, O Cool is The Valley, does not use the chorale prelude label even though it has many characteristics similar to the pieces that do. Many other larger works, including the Symphony #6, have movements or portions derived from either the Persichetti’s Hymns and Responses for the Church Year or other similar sources.
     These works can be among the most problematic of the composer’s to rehearse and perform; Persi­chetti even referred to them as “gritty grace.” While the chorale melodies are elegantly lyrical, when Persichetti combines them with his harmonic and rhythmic treatments, the result is a much different effect than those of Bach or the Romantic composers. During rehearsals as with other chor­ales, it helps to isolate the melody. Be sure to guide students through the nontraditional harmonies, particularly the added tone chords; this will help the younger, less-experienced band members. Also, each of these works has a story and text based on a wide range of literary sources that show Persi­chetti’s love of poetry rather than a specific religious belief.

Chorale Prelude: So Pure The Star, Op. 91 (1962)
     Persichetti’s first chorale prelude, So Pure The Star, was inspired by Hymn #7 in his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year (anonymous author):

    Motionless share of thought at last
    Our evening prayer unfold
    Motionless depths of love impart
    So pure the star we hold
    Sorry and grief shall be revealed
    Conceiving mounting dreams
    Lift every soul against the dark
    Celestial fortune gleams

     The scoring is one of the most unusual aspects of this piece. There are just two half-beat occurrences of tutti scoring in the entire work (on the downbeats of measures 43 and 53), and there are frequent one- and two-measure exchanges between instrument groupings. Although the groupings are often homogenous, Persichetti produces fascinating colors by mixed groupings of instruments, such as those found in the first measure: a combination of piccolo, cornet, horn, euphonium, and timpani. The ranges are modest for most high school groups, with first cornet going up to a high B; and the only
unusual instrumentation is the need for a competent piccolo player.

Chorale Prelude: Turn Not Thy Face, Op. 105 (1966)
     Written just a few years after So Pure The Star, this work is distinguished by a beautiful flute solo that opens the work, accompanied by subtle percussion. The clarinet section enters at measure ten in the chalemeau register, establishing a dark and mysterious mood in the music. Another distinguishing feature is that the piece is in cut time, which makes it essential to keep the phrasing moving forward at all times. The hymnlike voicings  produce vertical sonorities that will give ensembles a chance to work on tuning and playing dissonant and added chord tones with resonance.
     This work was written for Frank Battistti and the Ithaca High School Band. It was Persichetti’s reaction to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, an event that interrupted that band’s performance in Yankee Stadium during a trip. Although not technically difficult, a good performance will require attention to phrasing, color, and identifying and emphasizing the melodic line.

O Cool is The Valley, Op. 118 (1971)
     Although not labeled a chorale prelude, O Cool is The Valley has many of the same characteristics of Persichetti’s chorale preludes as well as an extra-musical reference to a poem by James Joyce. The work has more contrast in meter and tempo than the other chorale preludes. The outer sections are in 4/4 with the inner material in 6/8, and the only two metronome markings are 80 and 88. The construction is logical and symmetrical, but Persichetti would have objected to finding any correlation between the structure and Joyce’s verse. Even though the composer frequently used poetry and text as inspiration for his instrument works, he believed that program music was inherently weak. Persichetti used text purely for inspiration.
     O Cool is very similar to So Pure The Star in that tutti scoring is almost nonexistent. As with much of Persichetti’s writing, the clarinet choir is an important timbre, and there is a fair amount of independence between each part. The music is less difficult than a typical grade four composition, but performing it well requires careful listening.

Chorale Prelude: O God Unseen, Op. 160 (1984)
     The last work Persichetti wrote for band, O God Unseen, has the most intricate ensemble entrances and rhythms of any of the chorale preludes. Much of the difficulty in performing the work comes from frequent rhythmic and harmonic displacements throughout the music. Stability and predictability seem to be studiously avoided, with entrances and motivic material frequently happening off the down­beats.
     Harmonic stability is also elusive, with every chord progression seeming to be only the next in a series of deceptive cadences through to the end where the last notes are concert F, C, and E in the clarinets. Perhaps the angst showed an aging composer (he was almost 70 at the time) or perhaps just the evolution of his composing style. Whatever the cause, the result is an incredibly powerful work.

Rehearsal Suggestions
     Whether playing one of Persichetti’s better-known works or an overlooked piece, certain strategies will help in navigating his music:
     Authenticity. Approach the piece on its own terms. Do not try to make O Cool is The Valley fit into an Irish-Tune-from-County-Derry mold. While both are slow, lush works, their musical materials are quite different from each other.
     Harmonic Language. Persichetti’s unusual harmonic language can make his music seem more difficult and less rewarding than it is. Embracing the dissonant, gritty textures of his unconventional chord tones and bitonality can help turn his works into something that is quite beautiful, even for young ears.
     Scoring. Persichetti’s scores and parts often have  large amounts of blank space. I find it refreshing to play music with thin textures, even though these pieces can sometimes be a hard sell to less-experienced players who equate good music with technically difficult parts. It is important to convey the importance of each part, no matter how simple.
     Music for Other Media. Persichetti’s primary instrument was piano, so he composed many wonderful pieces for the piano at a variety of difficulty levels. Even some experience playing these works can provide remarkable insight into the interpretation of his music. Musicians who have minimal piano skill would enjoy his Little Piano Book, which Dorothea Persichetti, the composer’s wife, says includes a distillation of the rest of his music. Advanced pianists will enjoy any of his various Sonatas and Poems, and all of the music is widely available. When playing any of the pieces derived from the Hymns and Responses for the Church Year, it is useful to obtain a copy of this booklet.
     Vincent Persichetti left a wonderful legacy of music to directors through a variety of works for concert band and wind ensemble. I hope these suggestions and comments will remind everyone of the valuable pieces in our repertoire that at the very least deserve more recognition and more performances than they currently receive.