PERSICHETTI: Selected Piano Music


Vincent Persichetti was one of the most widely respected American musicians of his generation. A prolific composer, brilliant educator and lecturer, and prodigious pianist, he composed more than 150 works in virtually all genres and for virtually all performing media, while serving for 40 years on the faculty of the Juilliard School, many of them as chairman of the composition department.

During his lifetime Persichetti influenced the musical lives of thousands of people from all walks of life, and his name came to signify a comprehensive musicianship virtually unparalleled among American composers. Countless young pianists were nurtured on his easier pieces, while many other young instrumental students first experienced serious contemporary music through his works for band; church choirs turned to his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year as an inexhaustible resource, while many young composers have found his classic textbook Twentieth Century Harmony to be an indispensable tool; among professional soloists and conductors his sonatas, concertos, and symphonies stand among the masterworks of American music. Throughout his life Persichetti encouraged healthy, creative participation in music at all levels of proficiency, while shunning dogmas that advocated one compositional approach at the expense of others. He immersed himself in all aspects of music with an infectious, childlike enthusiasm devoid of pomposity.

Persichetti’s music illustrates what he saw as the future of music: a broad working vocabulary, or “common practice,” based on a fluent integration of the myriad materials and techniques that appeared during the twentieth century. In a sense, Persichetti’s vocabulary of gestures and figures and the somewhat detached way they unfold and interact form a kind of private language, from which he created his own personal expressive world. Seen in this way, the music begins to appear as a personal metaphor, with cross-references and elaborations of ideas from other pieces winking slyly at the listener, conveying enigmatic allusions that call for a particularly intuitive level of apprehension. All this is carried out with a light touch, free of solemnity or pretension, yet far from trivial. The music at times suggests an imaginary world, peopled by a large cast of cartoon-like characters, created by an eccentric master-puppeteer who amuses himself by portraying his own metaphysical vision through the interactions of his puppets. This characterization is illustrated throughout the pieces on this recording.

Unlike that of many of his contemporaries, Persichetti did not turn to the symphony for his most important statements, although he did produce the requisite nine. But he was more inclined toward sparse gestures and epigrammatic forms—indeed, many of his large works are elaborate integrations of diminutive elements. Most representative are his works for piano—some 35 pieces, including twelve sonatas, six sonatinas, a concertino, and a concerto, plus works for two pianos, and piano, four hands as well. The music spans the years 1929 to 1986, and includes pieces for pianists at all levels, from the beginning student to the advanced professional. Perhaps no composer since Scriabin has produced a body of piano music that offers such breadth of meaning, such fluency of articulation, and such richness of invention—not to mention such comprehensive and imaginative use of the instrument’s resources. Indeed, Persichetti’s piano music embodies in microcosm the all-encompassing range of his expression and comprises the most penetrating lens through which to view his formidable output.

Persichetti’s creativity was often stimulated by poetry. During the late 1930s and early 40s Persichetti composed a series of what he called Poems for Piano—a collection of sixteen character pieces, each inspired by a single line, laden with imagery, taken from modern poetry—American, for the most part. Though composed when he was still in his twenties, before his mature language had fully crystallized, these brief sketches embrace a boundless array of moods, states of mind, and approaches to piano figuration, achieved with remarkable subtlety and economy of means. Their styles range from atonality—even atonal pseudo-jazz—to the immediacy of a popular song, yet with virtually no redundancy of either meaning or technique. Especially striking are two in particular: No. 10 (“Dust in sunlight and memory in corners,” T.S. Eliot) and No. 15 (“And hung like those top jewels of the night,” Léonie Adams). This latter is one of the composer’s most straightforwardly beautiful melodies.

Persichetti’s six sonatinas were written during the early 1950s, when the composer was concentrating most intensively on music for the piano. The first three sonatinas were composed in 1950, and are rather like miniature versions of the sonatas he was writing at the time. The latter three were composed in immediate succession in 1954, and are easier both to appreciate and to play.

The Sonatina No. 1 comprises three tiny movements. It is largely simple in texture, although its language is acerbic, with relatively dissonant and often polytonal harmony, fragmentary gestures and sonorities, and attenuated tonality. Sonatina No. 2 is perhaps the most fully developed and cohesive of the group. It is a single movement, beginning with a slow, stately canon unafraid of dissonant harmonic friction, followed by a brilliant developmental scamper, with motifs of its own darting in and out of the transparent contrapuntal texture. Eventually, elements of both sections are combined, leading to an exuberant finish in C Major. Sonatina No. 3 comprises two movements—the first, gently rolling, with subtle modal shifts; and the second, rhythmically playful and affirmative in character.

The Sonatinas Nos. 4 through 6 are among the many pieces that Persichetti tailored to the abilities of beginning pianists. An essential aspect of Persichetti’s compositional personality was his connection to the inner world of the child. He devoted many of his compositional efforts to capturing this world, often in pieces that are relatively easy to play and hence, manageable by young musicians. These pieces are integral to and aesthetically consistent with the rest of his creative work, revealing musical and psychological sophistication despite their economy of means. The limitation imposed on technical difficulty was just one more constraint of the kind within which his creativity thrived. These pieces are neither dull exercises nor the sort of trivial “children’s music” produced for commercial purposes by the music education industry; they were created with the same attention to expressive and formal details that the composer devoted to larger, more complex works. Drawing upon polychords and polytonality, modality, dissonant counterpoint, irregular and unusual meters, and even absence of meter, he captured the whimsy, impishness, tenderness, innocence, and silliness of the young personality, as well as its access to a free, non-linear imagination, with an eloquent precision and delicate beauty that is the province only of an artist whose “inner child” has not been sacrificed to the jadedness of maturity. The fact that many of these pieces provided the thematic material for Persichetti’s sole opera The Sibyl—one of his two most ambitious works—suggests the importance he placed on them.

In 1960, Persichetti’s wife Dorothea, a brilliant pianist and the explicit source of inspiration for his entire output. wrote a doctoral dissertation on Persichetti’s music, discussing all his works composed up to that time. Regarding Persichetti’s “teaching pieces,” Dorothea noted that “the composer vehemently denies that he ever wrote such a thing, maintaining that he writes music, all of which can be taught, but some to students younger than others. The idiom of the large and the small pieces is often the same, and some of the little pieces which seem most simple technically have unexpected subtle and musically sophisticated spots, realized in quarter notes in a five-finger position…. [T]he little works are distillations of a musical expression that has undergone clarification to the point of great simplicity…. He does not write ‘down’ to attain simplicity. Some of his music is large, and some small; some difficult, and some easy…. If [the latter] are successful, it is so because they are music, not because they are pedagogy.

Over the course of his career Persichetti composed a series of what he entitled “serenades.” There are a total of fifteen serenades for a variety of instrumental media. Nos. 2 and 7 are for piano solo. The Serenade No. 2, composed when he was 14, was one of the pieces composed “behind the back” of his primary composition teacher Russell King Miller, and contributed to his eventual expulsion from Miller’s theory classes. Its three movements last barely two minutes, and are entitled “Tune,” “Strum,” and “Pluck.” Despite their brevity, relative ease of execution, and conceptual levity, these terse, mischievous pieces are quite sophisticated, with acerbic secundal dissonances, sparse gestures, rhythmic irregularities, and long stretches of atonality—all general characteristics of his work. Serenade No. 7 was composed in 1952. Its six tiny pieces are more accessible than those in Serenade No. 2, and are much easier to play.

Among the sizable number of Persichetti’s piano pieces suitable for upper-elementary and intermediate-level piano students, perhaps the best known is the Little Piano Book, Op. 60, composed in 1953. This group of fourteen easy pieces of uncommon charm and beauty has become a classic of its kind. The composer described it as “a collection of simple pieces written for, or about, friends and relatives and acquaintances. One is a self-portrait. This is my music reduced to its essence; nevertheless these pieces do contain elements found in my larger, more complex works.” Dorothea felt that “they may be some of the composer’s best music.” Other such works are the slightly more difficult Variations for an Album, and Parades, the easiest to play of all Persichetti’s piano pieces.

Notes by Walter Simmons
Author, Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin 
(Rowman and Littlefield, 2011), from which these notes were adapted.