by Walter Simmons
Vincent Persichetti • Choral Works (Winter Cantata, Mass, Love) New World 80316-2
For the past three decades the name of Vincent Persichetti has come to signify musicianship of a comprehensiveness virtually unmatched among American composers. His influence reaches young pianists nurtured on his Sonatinas and Little Piano Book, school musicians who first experience serious contemporary music through his works for band (among them Pageant, New World Records 80211-2), church choirs who turn to his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year as an inexhaustible resource, young composers who have attended his spell-binding lecture-recitals or who find his classic textbook Twentieth Century Harmony indispensable, and soloists and conductors for whom his sonatas, concertos, and symphonies stand among the masterworks of American music. Persichetti represents an attitude that encourages healthy creative participation at all levels of sophistication and shuns dogmas that revere one school of composition at the expense of others.
Persichetti was born on June 6, 1915, in Philadelphia. At the age of five he was enrolled in the Combs Conservatory, where he learned to play the piano, organ, and double bass. He also studied theory and composition under Russell King Miller, who became his most influential teacher. In his teens Persichetti memorized the scores to be performed at weekly concerts of the Philadelphia Orchestra, and then attended the concerts to compare his inner perceptions against the actual sounds. Before graduating from high school he had performed a good deal on radio, in churches, and in recitals. Composition was an integral part of his musical activity from the start, as was exposure to other arts. Persichetti attended art school during his adolescence, and sculpture continues to be an important creative outlet for him.
On graduating from the Combs Conservatory with a Bachelor of Music degree in 1936, Persichetti became head of its theory and composition departments. He also continued studying—piano with Olga Samaroff, composition with Paul Nordoff at the Philadelphia Conservatory (Master of Music 1941; Doctor of Music 1945), and conducting with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute. From 1932 to 1948 he served as organist and choirmaster at Philadelphia’s Arch Street Presbyterian Church, where he performed organ versions of excerpts from the dozens of complex modern scores he was studying. In 1941 the Philadelphia Conservatory appointed Persichetti to head the theory and composition departments, and in 1947 William Schuman invited him to join the Juilliard faculty as well. He became chairman of the Juilliard composition department in 1963 and of the Literature and Materials department in 1970.
Throughout his active teaching career Persichetti has continued to compose prodigiously, producing a body of works now numbering more than 150, including nine symphonies, four string quartets, twelve piano sonatas, and assorted pieces for almost every instrument and ensemble. Through his vast output—and through his writings and lectures as well—Persichetti has argued eloquently on behalf of an amalgamation of virtually all musical materials and techniques, past and present, into a fluent working vocabulary, or “common practice,” capable of a full spectrum of expression. In Persichetti’s music this has entailed a broad stylistic palette, extending from extreme diatonic simplicity to complex, densely contrapuntal atonality. This range has not evolved according to a chronological sequence, which has bewildered many who have tried to infer a conventional pattern of development from casual exposure to his music. Rather, Persichetti has defined two temperamental elements that have been present in his work from the beginning: a “gracious” or amiable spirit and a “gritty” or abrasive one. These two elements underlie his entire output, to one degree or another, in a variety of stylistic guises, depending on the requirements of the piece itself. The essential Persichetti dictum, stated at both the beginning and the end of his Twentieth Century Harmony, “Any tone can succeed any other tone… depending upon the skill and the soul of the composer,” might be paraphrased to describe his own output: “Any work can succeed any other work….”
Persichetti’s wide range of expression has made it difficult for some listeners to discern a personal profile or unifying character in his music. With greater familiarity, however, a clearly recognizable personality emerges, characterized by a pervasive geniality of spirit in full control of whatever dynamic conflicts may be at work within the music. Following the lineage of Mozart and Mendelssohn, Persichetti seems to exult in the childlike joy of pure musical creativity. He is fond of pandiatonic, quartal, and polytonal harmony, lucid textures, and playful, vital rhythms. Absent are bombast, sentimentality, or Romantic self-involvement, even in works marked by agitation and conflict. Although Persichetti has often worked with large structures, he is inclined toward sparse gestures and epigrammatic forms—indeed, many of his large works are built upon diminutive concepts.
Persichetti’s choral music plays an important role in his output. Hymns and Responses for the Church Year, Op. 68, provide thematic source material on which Persichetti has drawn for many subsequent works. The use of self-quotation—musical inventories, cross-references, and indexes—as a compositional device suggests an archival intellectual bent consistent with the eclecticism so deeply rooted in his nature. This same attitude is reflected in the selection of texts for the Hymns and Responses, from the Bible through Shakespeare and Milton to Louis Untermeyer and Conrad Aiken. Persichetti’s comprehensive world view is probably epitomized in The Creation, Op. 111, for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, which the composer regards as his chef-d’oeuvre. It is more than an hour in duration, and its text has more than fifty sources— mythological, scientific, poetic, and Biblical—ranging from Altai to Zuñi.
Persichetti describes himself as a Judaic-Vedic-Christian, for whom all religious sources are suitable for musical interpretation. Yet when he is composing a work with particular sectarian associations, he totally assumes that spiritual outlook. His Mass, Op. 84, composed in 1960 for the Collegiate Chorale, may be viewed in this light. In many ways it is an orthodox a cappella Mass, its Renaissance heritage reflected in its use of a Gregorian chant as the unifying theme, and in its reliance on imitative counterpoint as its chief developmental technique. The Phrygian implications of the Gregorian theme give the work a generally dark color and the extensive use of quartal harmony produces a coolness of mood. A general tone of detached introspection is maintained until the final Agnus Dei, an ardent plea for peace.
The terse economy of means characteristic of haiku is compatible with Persichetti’s aesthetic. He was moved to compose his Winter Cantata, Op. 97, in 1964 after his daughter gave him a collection of haiku, A Net of Fireflies. (This collection also provided the words for his song cycle A Net of Fireflies, Op. 115.) Winter Cantata is scored for women’s chorus, flute, and marimba, and consists of twelve short movements. Without any overt musical references, the work is Japanese in spirit, largely as a result of its own delicate, highly concentrated gestures. The coolness of the flute and the brittleness of the marimba evoke the winter moods and images of the poems. The main unifying musical motifs are a chord based on the first five steps of the Phrygian mode, which appears at the outset of the work, and a minor-seventh arpeggiation, which increases in importance as the work proceeds. There are also subtle motivic links that connect each movement to the next. Within the overall unity of mood and subject matter there is great contrast and variety in gesture and articulation. The Epilogue, a compositional tour de force characteristic of Persichetti, consists of word groups and associated musical motifs drawn in sequence from all the preceding movements and woven into a coherent poetic and musical entity, an appropriate “index” to the entire work.
Persichetti composed Love, a setting for women’s voices of a portion of the Book of Corinthians, as a surprise for his wife Dorothea in celebration of their thirtieth wedding anniversary on June 3, 1971. On that day he presented her with the score and with a recording that had been prepared for the occasion under the direction of Tamara Brooks, who shares the work’s dedication. An interesting musical feature of this short piece is the use of the tritone—traditionally associated with discord and discontent—as a basic concord or tonic structure.
WALTER SIMMONS is a musicologist and critic who specializes in contemporary music. He is a contributor to The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians and many other publications, director of music projects for Educational Audio Visual, Inc., and a faculty member of the Thomas J.Watson Research Center (IBM)
This recording was originally released on LP as NW 316.
Essay on his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year in R. S Hines, ed.: The Composer’s Point of View: Essays on Twentieth-Century Choral Music by Those Who Wrote It. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1963, P. 41.
Essay on his orchestral works in R S Hines ed The Orchestral Composer’s Point of View: Essays on Twentieth-Century Music by Those Who Wrote It. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1970, P. 166
Twentieth Century Harmony.New York: Norton, 1961.
With F R. Sebreiber.William Schuman.New York: Schirmer 1954.
Evett, Robert. “The Music of Vincent Persichetti,“Juilliard Review, Spring 1955, P. 15
Rubin, D. M. “Vincent Persichetti,” ASCAP in Action, Spring 1980, P. 8.
Schuman, William. “The Complete Musician,” Musical Quarterly, July 1961, P. 379.
Shackelford, R.: “Conversation with Vincent Persichetti,” Perspectives of New Music, January 1983.
Simmons,Walter.“A Persichetti Perspective,” American Record Guide, May 1977 P. 6.
___. Review of Persichetti’s Harmonium and Piano Quintet, Fanfare, Nov.-Dec 1981, P. 217.
___. Review of Russian recording of Persichetti piano music, Fanfare, Jan.-Feb. 1983, P. 226.
___. Review of two Persichetti concertos, Fanfare, Sept.-Oct. 1980, P. 178.
Weisgall, Hugo. Review of Persichetti’s Stabat Mater, Musical Quarterly, July 1964, P. 379.
See also Persichetti brochure (containing complete list of works) published by Theodore Presser Company, Bryn Mawr, PA. 19010.
Bagatelles, Op 87 Masquerade, Op 102 Psalm, Op. 53. Serenade No 11, Op. 85. So Pure the Star, Op. 91. Symphony No 6, Op 69. Ohio State University Concert Band, Persichetti conducting Coronet S-1247.
Bagatelles, Op 87. O Cool Is the Valley, Op 118 Parable IX, Op 121 Serenade No 1, Op 1 So Pure the Star, Op 91 Turn Not Thy Face, Op. 105 University of Kansas Symphonic Band, Foster conducting Golden Crest ATH-5055.
Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 56.Vincent and Dorothea Persichetti, piano CBS ML-4989.
Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 56. Piano Sonata No. 9, Op 58. Sonata for Two Pianos, Op 13. Alexander Bakhchiev and Elena Sorokina, pianos Melodiya C10-16133-4.
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 90. Robert Taub, piano; The Philadelphia Orchestra, Chades Dutoit conducting. Symphony No. 5, Op 61 (for strings), The Philadelphia Orchestra, Riccardo Muti conducting New World 80370-2.
Four Cummings Choruses, Op 98 Parable IX, Op 121. Symphony No 6, Op 69. (excerpts) Te Deum, Op. 93. Chorus, band, and orchestra of Tennessee Tech University; Chancellor, Persichetti, Pegram,Wattenbarger conducting. USC Sound Enterprises KM-1558.
Harmonium, Op. 50. Darleen Kltewer, soprano; Lois McLeod, piano. Piano Quintet, Op 66.New Art String Quartet; Persichetti, piano Arizona State University JMP-102679.
Night Dances. Op 114.The Juilliard Orchestra, James DePreist conducting New World 80396-2.
Pageant, Op 59.The Northwestern University Symphonic Wind Ensemble, Paynter conducting New World 80211-2.
Quartets Nos. 1-4, Op. 7, 24, 81, 122 New Art String Quartet. Arizona State University 1976-ARA.
Serenade No 10, Op. 79. Louise DiTullio, flute; Susan McDonald, harp Klavier KS-560.
Sonata for Cello Solo, Op. 54. David Moore, cello. Opus One 6.
Symphony No 5, Op. 61 (for strings). Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney conducting Louisville LOU-5457.
Symphony No 6, Op. 69 (for band). Eastman Symphonic Wind Ensemble, Frederick Fennell conducting Mercury SRI-75094.
Symphony No 8, Op. 106. Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester conducting. Louisville LS-706.
Symphony No 9, Janiculum, Op. 113. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Eugene Ormandy conducting. RCA LSC-3212.
Winter Cantata (Cantata No.2)
(Text Material from NET OF FIREFLIES, translated by Harold Stewart, reprinted by special permission from the Charles E. Tuttle Co, Inc. of Rutland, Vermont, and Tokyo, Japan.)
1 A Copper Pheasant
A copper pheasant wakes with shrill-edged cry:
The silver crescent cuts the chilly sky.
2 Winter’s First Drizzle
Winter’s first drizzle falls,
The air is raw,
That shivering monkey needs a cape of straw.
3 Winter Seclusion
on the window pane,
The silver fern of frost has grown again
4 The Woodcutter
Within the wintry grove,
my axe-head fell
And bit the bark how
startling was its smell!
5 Gentlest Fall of Snow
Ah! the first,
the gentlest fall of snow:
Enough to make the jonquil leaves bend low.
6 One Umbrella
as snowy dusk draws on,
one umbrella has come,
and passes by;
and now is gone
7 Of Crimson Ice
The rime has frozen overnight
to gems of crimson ice along the buckwheat sterns.
8 The Branch is Black
The branch is black and bare again;
a crow shook down its coverlet of powdered snow.
9 Fallen Leaves
The winter’s fitful gusts, as they expire,
Bring enough fallen leaves to build a fire.
10 So Deep
So deep, the heavy snow since yesterday,
Its drifts remain
Sweep, sweep as you may.
11 The Wind’s Whetstone
Through jagged cedars rips the winter blast,
honed cragged ledges as it passed.
A copper pheasant…
winter’s drizzle falls…
within the wintry grove…
Ah! the first, the gentlest fall of snow…
the rime has frozen…
a crow shook down its coverlet to build a fire …
through jagged cedars…
as it passed.
Gloria in excelsis Deo,
Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis.
Adoramus te. Glorificamus te.
Gratias agimus tibi propter magnam gloriam tuam
Deus Pater omnipotens.
Domine Fili unigenite
Domine Deus,Agnus Dei, Filius Patris.
Qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Qui touts peccata mundi, suscipe deprecationem nostram.
Qui sedes ad dexteram Patris, miserere nobis.
Quoniam tu solos sanctus
Tuo solus Dominus
Tu solus Altissimus, Jesu Christe.
Cum Sancto Spiritu in gloria Dei Patris. Amen.
Credo in unum Deum,
Patrem omnipotentem, factorem coeli et terrae,
visibilium omnium et invisibilium.
Et in unum Dominum jesum Christum Filium Dei
unigenitum et ex.
Patre natum ante omnia saecula, Deum de Deo
lumen de lumine, Deum verum de Deo vero.
Genitum, non factum,
consubsuntialem Patri: per quem omnia facta sunt.
Qui propter nos homines,
et propter nostram salutem descendit de coelis.
Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine:
Et homo factus est.
Crucifixus etiam pro nobis:
sub Pontio Pilato passus, et sepultus est.
Et resurrexit tertia die secundum Scripturas et ascendit, in coelum:
sedet ad dexteram Patris,
venturus est cum gloria judicare vivos et mortuos:
cujus regni non erit finis.
Et in Spiritum Sanctum, Dominum, et vivificantem:
qui ex Patre Filioque procedit
Qui cum Patre et Filis simul adoratur,
qui locutus est per Prophetas.
Et unam, sanctam, catholicam, et apostolicam Ecclesiam.
Confiteor unum baptisma in remissionem peccatorum.
Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum.
Et vitam venturi saeculi.
Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus,
Dominus Deus Sabaoth
Pleni sunt coeli et terra gloria tua.
Hosanna, in excelsis
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini.
Hosanna in excelsis
17 Agnus Dei
qui tollis peccata mundi,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona nobis pacem
love is patient,
love is kind,
love is not boastful;
love is not arrogant or rude.
It does not insist on its own way.
Love is not irritable, resentful;
it does not rejoice at wrong,
but love rejoices in the right.
Love bears all things,
love endures all things.
Love never ends.
(from I Corinthians:18,4-8)