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November 1992 Straight Talk from Vincent Persichetti By Jean Oelrich

Following a lecture at DePaul University on February 14, 1985 Persichetti talked with Jean Oeirich, then on the editorial staff of The Instrumentalist, and the following comments are from that lecture and interview unless otherwise indicated.

On Writing for Bands
   “You have got to really dig up new music for band. Many band conductors are better than orchestral conductors. The orchestra conductors may not want to try new literature; the orchestra already has the bigger literature.”
   “Saxophones are a little complicated to write for, but I would not want to omit them, but you have to make the effort. I thought maybe you could get rid of the alto clarinet, but I just finished a band piece (1985) with a lot of solo alto clarinet work in it.”

On Becoming a Composer
   “When I was eleven, I joined the Junior Federation of Music Clubs Orchestra; I was a pianist. We played Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony, which has no piano part; but I was hired to play the parts that were missing, second oboe, clarinet, whatever. It was invaluable experience. I started on organ at that time (11) and played at big churches when I was 16.”
   “Some composition students today have that kind of experience, but most don’t. A lot of them at 17 suddenly want to become composers. Nobody should try to be a composer, maybe a missionary or a lawyer. Why should you want to be a composer? You have to want to write music, that is all. There is no assurance that you will write wonderful stuff or earn a living.”
   “Never try to be a composer; if you want to write music, that is worth the starving.”
   “I loved playing the double bass when I was young because 1 wanted to get the feel of a stringed instrument. I started to play in the orchestra and I became the first bass player of the All-Philadelphia High School Orchestra. I think it is valuable for a composer to play in an orchestra to understand the balance and count the measures. The rests are hard to play. You start to respect those people and to listen, especially in Brahms. If you come in, you’re a fake.”

On Commissions
   “I don’t accept a commission until I have an inspiration. Why should I try to write something? I don’t need the lunch money; I don’t think of myself as a commercial composer. I wrote my first harpsichord sonata in 1950; about two or three years ago I got some good ideas for a second one. If I hear an idea, I don’t just hear a tune or a harmony; I hear it in a medium.”

On Divertimento
   “My first piece, written when I was 14, was for winds because I knew a lot of people who played wind instruments. In 1949 I was in Kansas for a summer, and they gave me a school orchestra. There also was some chamber music and band music, but I had to scrounge around and found that I was writing something. I don’t always know what it means. It went chump, chump! ba-da-da-da-da bum! bum! The percussion came in and it had a lot of rhythm. After a couple of weeks I realized the strings weren’t coming in. That was my Divertimento for Band (op. 42).”
   “My earliest works were stimulated by the sound of winds. In 1926 my grade-school chamber group — oboe, horn, and bassoon (the Angelucci brothers), plus soprano sax, violin, and piano — performed arrangements of hotel and symphony music. Then, in 1929, came my Op. 1, Serenade for Ten Winds and in 1934 the Pastoral for Woodwind Quintet. I’d been composing in a log cabin school-house in El Dorado, Kansas during the summer of 1949, working with some lovely woodwind figures, accentuated by choirs of aggressive brasses and percussion beating. I soon realized the strings weren’t going to enter, and my Divertimento began taking shape.” (Rudy Shackelford)

Origin of Works
   “A committee decided they wanted a piece with narrator and orchestra based upon Lincoln’s second inaugural. I thought that this is a commission I might want to do and there isn’t much time, but since it’s my government calling me, I won’t say no. I realized I could do something. Ormandy was going to play it with the Philadelphia Orchestra for Nixon’s second inauguration in 1972. About three weeks later the score was delivered and parts were made. The committee called back and said they had changed their minds after seeing the text. They had given me the text, but the country was involved with Cambodia, Vietnam, and the words were about bloodshed…. The press said the government wasn’t treating artists right, and compared it to [censorship in] the Soviet Union, but it wasn’t that; they hadn’t even seen the score. They changed their minds about the text, but the major orchestras played the Lincoln Address anyway.”
   “Hymnals are fertile ground….’The ground he called light’ section is this:

Music Example 1

From this theme the winds play, it grew and grew, and pretty soon the horns came in and the trombones, and it turned out to be my Sixth Symphony.”

Music Example 2

On Fritz Reiner
   “Reiner was not theatrical; he never went in for show like Stokowski. Stokowski got too excited; Reiner underplayed everything, but he had a tremendous technique. If you really studied, Reiner would help you. It was luck to study with one of the great conductors. How good is good?
   “He had a favorite in the orchestra, the percussionist. Once at a rehearsal for a broadcast the kid dropped a cymbal. Reiner got so emotional, he expelled the student from school but then called a break. He ran out around the block and when he caught up with the student in the back street, he brought him back, “I’m going to reinstate you in school.” Reiner was supposed to be a tough guy, but he really wasn’t; he was a softie. He would yell at the flute players in the orchestra if they were being stupid; it irritated him, but he really wanted to help people. I think he didn’t want friends.
   “Reiner didn’t like a lot of the fake conducting. He showed me how you learn, for instance, the scherzo movement of Beethoven’s First Symphony in a fake way. He made a draft of it and taught one of the conducting students from this scherzo draft without telling him what the piece was. ‘See, you can go one in a bar, 1 time, with soft beats here, bigger ones here.’ He had one of us get up and play the piano, but the conducting student didn’t know the score. That is what he called cheating, not really learning. He tried to make a point about conductors who didn’t know the score, counting to 20 and making their cue. He was very conscientious. Reiner wasn’t much of a pianist, but he could play the chords. He would make the students stop at any time and play the chord at that point.”

Dishonest Music
   “Dishonest music is writing things that you don’t really hear, just something you figured out and calculated. Some people get so put off by band, with all the transpositions and so forth, they are frightened …. They sometimes just figure out composing without using their ears, which you can do. It’s as if you would learn a craft at the piano and not know a Beethoven phrase.”
   “Some people force volumes of stuff.   It is dishonest, not really hearing it aurally to straighten it up.”

On Charles Ives
   “I never met Charles Ives, but I sent students to him. He was a funny guy and told one of them, ‘Don’t shake my hands. You can just touch the end of my cane: shake hands this way.’ My student was getting petrified. ‘Why are you coming to see me? Is it because you think I am getting famous now?’
   ‘No, no, it is because of your music’
   ‘What music?’ He was just playing with him.
   ‘I love your harmony,’ my student said. Ives yelled, ‘Get out of here! You keep your hands off my wife!’ His wife’s name was Harmony. Ives called him back and said, ‘Why don’t we settle this? Why don’t you meet her?’ Ives spent the entire day with the student. He just didn’t want some fake from New York coming to interview him, and he didn’t know who the student was.”

On Percy Grainger
   “Grainger was a good friend of Richard Franko Goldman. He would come to the Goldman band concerts, hear my pieces, and get curious about a young guy writing for band. When Grainger was getting ill, he told me, ‘People do that, they get older and they die. It bothers me, so I finally decided I won’t recognize them.’ “

On Marcel Tabuteau
   “When Tabuteau taught at Curtis, he used to take the reeds he didn’t like and toss them out the window of his second floor studio. He and the oboe students would watch with glee to see if anyone was walking below at the time.”

On Walt Whitman
   “Walt Whitman used to come into my grandfather’s restaurant bar in Camden, New Jersey long ago. When I was a little boy, I heard stories about my grandfather and his poet friend, Walt Whitman. I was about three years old, so I always dismissed Walt Whitman as part of my grandfather’s circle. It wasn’t until much later that I realized who he was. I had never read his poetry, though everybody said it was good. One day I was reading Leaves of Crass and thought, maybe this guy has something. I got involved and very excited about it, and wrote the cantata, Celebrations. I like that work a lot. It is funny how someone can be so important, and yet you ignore him; you have no experience of him. For instance, I didn’t know the B Minor Mass of Bach for a long while; I looked at it one day and got to know it, and thought, ‘By God, it is a great work.'”

On Composing
   “I am a very slow writer. I just write all the time. I write sometimes for a six or seven hour stretch.
   “Never try to be a composer; if you really want to write music, that’s different. Then it’s worth the financial risk, it’s worth starving. Early on I had a church job for 18 years. I got so I would improvise and play things like Rite of Spring as an anthem.
   “I learned from playing the piano that I am a composer. I played various famous themes and found relationships between them, pop music and Chopin. Then I realized I had a disease.
   “I have certain composers that I feel close to: certainly Robert Schumann because I like the way he set tenor voices for piano or for orchestra, Honegger, Beethoven because he says more about less rather than saying less about more. If a piece has a lot of wonderful ideas but says nothing about them, that’s fine but I don’t have time in my life for listening to it. There was a wonderful generation of American composers, an exciting time, when Piston and Roy Harris wrote.”

On Composition Style
   “My music varies, it goes from gracious to gritty very often. Sometimes it has a lot of serial in it; other pieces have less of that and are more tonal. It’s a mixture. I may have had something in 1942 that was more avant-garde, more advanced than something I did this year. It is not a change, but just that you happen to hear a piece that is more avant-garde than tonal. Right next to it might be a piece that is more relaxed; my music is always enigmatic. I have never joined a camp.”

To Learn Composition
   From Persichetti’s Twentieth Century Harmony:
   “Construct twelve-note chords for full band that punctuate a rapid solo timpani passage.
   “Write an allegro section for brasses and feature added-note chords of the sharp variety.
   “Write a sarcastically rhythmic passage for string quartet. Feature augmented fourth chords with added notes.
   “Harmonize the following first-trumpet melody in six-part brass harmony (three trumpets and three trombones). Use a predominantly polychordal texture with occasional unison relief.”
   “Although knowledge of materials and technique does not in itself create a personal style, precision in the choice of notes and understanding of harmonic devices are desirable in perfecting a means of expression and in stating a musical idea clearly and consistently.
   “Large tertian chords, no matter how many thirds have been added, form only a small portion of the harmonic palette. The multiple tones of eleventh and thirteenth chords add density but reduce suppleness.
   “Dynamics are an essential element in composition. Harmonic progression is affected by the degree of dynamic nuance in which it is conceived. A dissonant and restless progression set in a pianissimo context is likely to explode into a subito force of violent polychords, while the same progression in a forte context might find harmonic satisfaction in its overbearing tension and remain in the same harmonic sphere. Highly chromatic chords blend with more harmonic ease in soft passages than in loud.”

On Teaching Composition
   “I could teach composition students the way I would write, but I don’t think that is particularly good. Hindemith did too much of that; he made students write the way he did. I would expose them to music. With bands or orchestras if you hear something you like, you should make it your business to know how that composer got that sound. I make students do that; it saves a lot of time. They can study the orchestration and reduce it, look at it. There could be tremendous things in bands or ensembles that don’t hold together to form patterns, but students sit at the keyboard and know they can do this or that. They get ideas and write, but it is hard for them to do it for orchestra and band. How do you get that sound, especially in an orchestra, like the opening of Brahms’ Fourth Symphony? It is not just a chordal guitar part. Brahms gets it a certain way.
   “It is the students’ business to know. You store this information away subconsciously, then have some place to start. No one just writes from nothing. We all have a heritage. Playing in the Michigan band under Revelli taught students better than a book. Listen to records for a certain special sound. You don’t copy the sound, you just find out how.”

Past and Future
   “Works of high caliber are plentiful in the twentieth century. The rich mixture of materials and styles is made up of many ingredients: rhythmic energy, vivid harmonic fabric, melodic color, and fresh linear writing. There are bold statements and delicate embellishments, moments of fancy, and developmental forces that refuse to be bound by a severe formal plan. There are daringly experimental and strongly traditional forces which bring divergent materials together.” (Twentieth Century Harmony)
   “Have you noticed how the standard of band conductors has gone up around the country? It’s amazing. I remember driving behind a school bus trying to get to the middle of Arkansas, and I didn’t see one student come off the bus without an instrument. One music teacher can do that; he can get students who later become much better conductors than his colleagues were 25 years ago. It’s an optimistic time. I think we are getting ready for a rich period at the turn of the century that will combine these things.”
   “Who of us can write as intensely as Beethoven? We can’t do that. The great composers could barely write what they were writing; it’s hard. It is not that we are trying to be better or worse; we just happen to be of our time, making sounds that might influence or lead the way for somebody else.”
   “Music doesn’t get better century after century. It’s just as meaningful today as at some other time, but it is music of the era. If you go back to the time of Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, all these gods were a small percentage. The rest were mediocre. We compare every new work to the cream of the past. I don’t know how we can help it, but if you happen to hear 20 contemporary works that you think have no meaning, don’t be discouraged.”

Ideal Instrumentation
   Vincent Persichetti joined composers Paul Creston, Morton Gould, Vittorio Giannini, and Philip Lang in a 1960 College Band Directors National Association conference on band repertoire and instrumentation. Along with three publishers and three C.B.D.N.A. representatives, they constructed this scoring list for an ideal band that would have any desired instruments available in any quantity they wished. The composers admitted slighting Eb alto clarinets but thought the instrument was essential for a complete clarinet family voicing, along with the Eb soprano clarinet. They considered the Eb contrabass clarinet better than a Bt contrabass because of its excellent upper range. The panelists said that properly balanced saxophones contributed brilliantly to a band; they recommended a balance of one each of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophones, suggesting the addition of the bass saxophone because it has agility and a weighty, warm tone color.
   They wanted to distinguish between trumpets and cornets, deplored the practice of doubling cornet parts, and considered the Eb cornet a good solution for high brass writing. The composers did not like horn sections of more than four players. They recommended using a bass trombone and not doubling trombones, and also thought the BBb tuba the only desirable brass bass, though most bands had too many of them. (Whitwell and Ostling)

C piccolo (One part for piccolo)

6 flute (Two or three parts)

oboe (First and second parts)

1 English horn (Possibly an oboe player doubling)

2 bassoon (First and second parts)

1 Eb clarinet

l8 Bb clarinet (First and second parts)

6 Eb alto clarinet

3 Bb bass clarinet

2 Eb contrabass clarinet

1 Bb soprano saxophone
 (Straight soprano)

1 Eb alto saxophone

1 Bb tenor saxophone

1 Eb baritone saxophone

1 Bb bass saxophone

1 Eb cornet

3 Bb cornet (Two parts, three voices)

3 Bb trumpet (Two parts, three voices)

4 horn (Four parts)

3 trombone  (Two parts, three voices)

1 bass trombone

3 euphonium (One or more voices)

3BBb tuba (One part)

5 percussion
 (Two parts)


73 Total


Lecture and interview, Vincent Persichetti at DePaul University, February 14, 1985.

David Whitwell and Acton Ostling, Jr. The College and University Band. M.E.N.C.

and College Band Directors National Assn., 1977.

Vincent Persichetti. Twentieth Century Harmony, 1961.

William Workinger, “The Band Sound of Vincent Persichetti,” The Instrumentalist (April 1973).

Rudy Shackelford, Perspectives of New Music (1982).

Barry Kopetz, “Psalm for Band,” The Instrumentalist (February 1991).

Joe Mullins, “Three Symphonies for Band by American Composers,” D.M.Ed, diss., 1967.

Persichetti Band Works

Serenade for Ten Wind Instruments, Op. 1, 1929.

Divertimento, Op. 42 (1950) (The Goldman Band)

Psalm, Op. 53 (1952) (Pi Kappa Omicron, University of Louisville, Kentucky)

Pageant, Op. 59 (1953) (American Bandmasters Association)

Symphony, Op. 69 (1956) (Washington University, St. Louis)

Serenade, Op. 85 (1960) (Ithaca High School Band, New York)

Bagatelles, Op. 87 (1961) (Dartmouth College, New Hampshire)

Chorale Prelude: So Pure the Star, Op. 91 (1962) (Duke University, N.C.)

Masquerade, Op. 102 (1966) (Baldwin-Wallace Conservatory, Ohio)

Chorale Prelude: Turn Not Thy Face, Op. 105 (1967) (Ithaca High School Band)

O Cool is the Valley, Op. 118 on poem by James Joyce (1971) (Ohio Music Educators)

Parable for Band, Op. 121 (1973) (Duke University)

A Lincoln Address, Op. 124A (1972)

Donald Morris, assistant professor of music and director of bands at Charleston Southern University in Charleston, South Carolina, gathered material from his doctoral dissertation, “The Life of Vincent Persichetti, with Emphasis on the Works for Band.”

Jean Oelrich interviewed Vincent Persichetti when she was an editor at The Instrumentalist. She is director of public relations at the Ravinia Festival in Illinois.