Remembering Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987)

Like Mozart, composer Vincent Persichetti began early. (“My parents kept me from serious music study until age five.”) Similarly, he turned to creative activity spontaneously and naturally, with a childlike sense of innocent joy and wonder that’ he retained throughout his life, regardless of the sophistication or complexity of the technical devices he utilized.

He imbued even his simplest music with this total sincerity. Though easy enough to be played by elementary students, his little piano pieces, for example, were not “teaching pieces,” devoid of artistic value. While expressing the childlike side of his personality, they represent an essential distillation of his mature, fully developed musical language. It is through these piano pieces that many first encountered Persichetti’s music. For others it was through playing one of his pieces in a junior high or high school band. Indeed, it is probably through his works for this medium that his name is most widely known. Several of his fourteen compositions for band have become classics, performed regularly throughout the world. The composer himself described how he never actually decided to write for band: he simply began writing some woodwind figures; a few brass chords entered, punctuated by percussion. But “the strings just never came in.” The result was his first piece for band, called Divertimento. Back when I was in junior high school, playing that Divertimento was my first exposure to Vincent Persichetti.

Those who discover Persichetti’s music tip more “adult” contexts are likely to encounter one of his more complex or (to use his own word) “gritty” compositions – works that may take several hearings to penetrate. From such pieces – and from his many years as a teacher of composition – Persichetti’s music developed a reputation for being somewhat “cold” and “academic.” But among those of us who first knew the “friendly” pieces, his music never sounds cold, because its grace and good humor always come through – even in the “grittiest” works.

Most composers and teachers tend to settle upon one way of writing music, rejecting others as unworthy, and insisting, implicitly or explicitly, that their students follow suit. But Persichetti saw validity in the dozens of different styles and approaches that developed during the course of this century, arguing in his  writing and teaching that the composer’s responsibility was to master these techniques and integrate them all into a comprehensive, versatile contemporary musical language. Often invited to speak at colleges throughout the country, he would present a type of lecturerecital uniquely his own. 

I can remember attending one of these while I was in college. He began by describing the many stylistic resources available to the contemporary composer, effortlessly illustrating each through a brief excerpt at the piano. Finally, he invited the audience to offer a few notes that he might use as a theme. He then proceeded to improvise an entire piano sonata based on that theme, integrating into it all the various techniques he had just described. What made this demonstration so astounding was: 1) the improvised piece was no simple trifle, but a complex, fully developed work; 2) despite all the different techniques incorporated, it sounded like “pure Persichetti”; and 3) it was a terrific piece! 

Yet alongside all this sophisticated technical showmanship, the childlike aspect was ever present. I remember visiting him for an interview at his home in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Park. He and his wife were discussing in calm, adult voices, the recent visit of friends they referred to by name. How surprised I was to learn that the friends they were discussing wire a family of local raccoons! Perhaps that is why I was not surprised to learn, during the 1970s, that the subject of an opera he was writing – his first was the fable of Chicken Little. And when this opera, called The Sibyl, was finally premiered in 1985, there they all were, up on the stage: Chicken Little, Turkey Lurkey, Henny Penny, and friends. 

The Sibyl was No. 20 in a series of 25 compositions Persichetti called Parables. Most of the others were short pieces for unconventional media, such as solo tuba, or carillon, or two trumpets, or solo piccolo. Many were based on themes from others of his pieces – The Sibyl was based on themes from his Little Piano Book. In fact, there is so much subtle cross-referencing in his music, sometimes revealed by little code words printed as clues in tiny letters on the score, that the pieces almost seem like little creatures themselves, living within a busy fantasy-world, with minds and relationships of their own. And presiding over this fantasy-world for his own amusement is Vincent Persichetti, ventriloquist and stage director, enacting his own remarkable vision of life. 

No wonder that writing music didn’t seem like grown-up work to Persichetti. As he told interviewer Rudy Shackelford in 1970:

I’ve not yet decided what Ill do with my life. Perhaps I will concertize as a pianist, but, on the other hand, shouldn’t I bring audiences some of those neglected orchestral pieces? Then again I’d love to have a larger herb farm, if it weren’t for my keen interest in sailing. I know Id like the life of the Maine lobster fisherman, but my sculpting would keep me on solid ground. I’m too busy with composing to consider what my life’s work will be. I suppose, though, at some point I should decide to work for a living.