VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Grazioso, Grit, and Gold

VINCENT PERSICHETTI: Grazioso, Grit, and Gold. by Andrea Olmstead. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018. 493 pp. Cloth. $110

The third quarter of the 20th century was an enormously fruitful period in American classical music, which saw the appearance of an extraordinary number of masterworks—indeed, some among the finest works produced in this country. Yet many are still largely unknown to the general public—not to mention the members of the music profession in general. Among the most significant composers who contributed to this veritable bounty was Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). Therefore the appearance of this book–the first comprehensive biography of the composer–is an auspicious occasion. (Disclosure: I met the author once in 2007, while researching my own book on the music of William Schuman, Persichetti, and Peter Mennin [Voices of Stone and Steel, also published by Rowman and Littlefield]. I have never corresponded with her, and never discussed this book with her, beyond her recent invitation for me to review it. In fact, its publication took me totally by surprise. I should add that her book cites my own writing on Persichetti quite generously.)

Andrea Olmstead’s chief accomplishments until now have probably been her four books on Roger Sessions. But perhaps her most notable and controversial achievement was her history of the Juilliard School, where she studied, which made no effort to conceal many of the less flattering aspects of the institution and the people who shaped its development. Not surprisingly, that book ruffled a lot of feathers. She has now turned her attention to Vincent Persichetti, who—like Sessions—was a member of the Juilliard faculty for many years. This latest effort reflects an extensive amount of research, providing a good deal of general background information within which to understand and appreciate the context from which Persichetti emerged: his family history, the musical life of Philadelphia, and the many musicians who played significant roles within his life. Some of this background seems to reach beyond the realm of relevance (e.g., the fact that Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell were among the musicians who emerged from south Philadelphia, as did Persichetti). But much of it is relevant as well as interesting. For example, I was quite surprised to learn that Persichetti’s parents were convicted of embezzling many thousands of dollars, for which his mother spent significant time in prison.

Another notable revelation—a suspicion I have held for some time, which is supported by Olmstead’s research—is that despite Persichetti’s reputation for extreme humility and generosity toward others, he was not above re-arranging certain historical facts in what appears to be an attempt at self-mythologizing—something that William Schuman did more flagrantly and shamelessly. Even more remarkable is another long-held contention, confirmed here by a number of observations, that while Persichetti apparently displayed truly prodigious musical gifts at an extremely early age—comparable to the gifts of history’s greatest composers—which led to pieces of remarkable sophistication before he reached the age of 20, he was somewhat late (mid 30s) in developing what was a truly personal, individual compositional identity. It seems almost as if his astounding facility interfered with the development of his own compositional voice. 

Olmstead quotes a number of people close to Persichetti who insisted that his extraordinary artistry as a pianist might readily have led to a major career as a composer-pianist, along the lines of a Rachmaninoff. But his dedication to teaching—which was assiduous, as illustrated by a number of anecdotes—was more a commitment to the future of the art form than a means of augmenting his income. A number of his colleagues seemed to feel that this commitment came at the expense of his potential fame and fortune.

The book’s subtitle comes from Persichetti’s oft-quoted comment that the two primary elements in his music are “grace” and “grit”—sometimes one and not the other, and sometimes degrees of both. The “gold” comes from a remark made to Olmstead by Roger Sessions late in his life: “Mr. Persichetti is pure gold.”

In addition to voluminous biographical information, Olmstead discusses all of Persichetti’s works, delving into structural details likely to be of interest largely to potential performers. Included also are short essays by others, including her husband, the composer and Persichetti-student Larry Bell, which focus on particular works in detail. Hopefully, Olmstead’s book will be a significant contribution to a growing interest in this composer, who is arguably one of the greatest America has produced, but who has received a paucity of serious attention. (The Juilliard School, where he taught for 40 years, many as chairman of the composition department, evidently thought that including his 7-minute Serenade for Tuba Solo on a program with music by other composers was an adequate acknowledgment of his centennial in 2015.)

I have just a few quibbles. One is that the book is rather sloppily edited: Minor errors of dates, spelling, and chronology, along with redundancies, abound. The other is an aspect of Persichetti’s personality that is touched upon but minimally explored: the role in his life played by anthropomorphized animals (culminating in his sole opera, The Sibyl), and imaginary characters in general. Persichetti, who had a strangely dry sense of humor that often left people confused as to what to take seriously and what to dismiss as playfulness, made frequent reference to characters that were figments of his imagination. Some of these were known primarily to immediate family members, but others found their way into his compositional data. For example, there was the imaginary character “Michael Needle,” identified as the commissioner of a number of his works. Other characters lived in his bathroom, in his car, and he could be heard speaking to them when others weren’t around. I am not about to claim that Persichetti was psychotic, but I do believe that if he had lived in the world of, say, retail business instead of the arts, he would have been regarded as “strange,” to say the least. Yet though Olmstead mentions all these matters in passing, she never really addresses the significance of these quirks which, I believe, are connected to important aspects of his compositional personality.