by Walter Simmons
Divertimento, Op. 42; Psalm, Op. 53; Pageant, Op. 59; Serenade for Band, Op. 85;Masquerade, Op. 102; O Cool Is the Valley, Op. 118; Parable for Band, Op. 121;Chorale Prelude: 0 God Unseen, Op. 160.
During the middle years of this century, the aggregation of woodwinds, brass, and percussion known as the symphonic band, along with its less densely proportioned relative, the symphonic wind ensemble, began to flourish in the high schools and colleges of the United States. Some of these groups, led by gifted conductors with high aspirations such as Frederick Fennell and William Revelli, attained impressive levels of artistry and technical proficiency, developing international reputations. In addition to demanding the highest standards of performance from their ensembles, these pioneering figures encouraged America’s leading composers to contribute to the development of a repertoire of the highest caliber, tailored specifically to the band medium while shunning its traditional outdoor pops-concert connotations. As the medium mushroomed, so did this repertoire, filling a voracious, receptive, unjaded appetite for new music among the young musicians of the huge post-World War II baby-boom. Some works soon attained the status of classics, enjoying literally thousands of performances.
Pivotal to the development of this repertoire and perhaps its most distinguished exponent was Vincent Persichetti, who contributed 14 works, many of which have become staples of the genre. Persichetti was a central figure in many aspects of American musical life — as a member of the composition faculty at Juilliard School for 40 years, as the author of a widely-used composition text, Twentieth Century Harmony, as a popular guest-lecturer at college campuses around the country, and as composer of more than 160 works, including an opera, nine symphonies, twelve piano sonatas, and numerous other orchestral chamber, choral, and vocal works. But it is through his works for band that his name and his music are most widely known.
Vincent Persichetti was born to an Italian father and a German mother in Philadelphia in 1915, and continued to live there until his death in 1987. He began to study the piano at age five, which gave direction to a musical interest that was already insatiable and a talent that soon proved prodigious. He began to compose almost immediately and, during his adolescence, earned money as a church organist. He credited Russell King Miller, with whom he studied at Philadelphia’s Combs Conservatory, with being his most influential teacher. He joined the Combs faculty immediately after graduating, while earning his doctorate at the Philadelphia Conservatory, where he studied composition with Paul Nordoff and piano with Olga Samaroff. In 1947 William Schuman invited him to join the Juilliard faculty, and he remained there for the rest of his life (commuting by car from Philadelphia to New York). He became chairman of Juilliard’s composition department in 1963, and in 1970, of the literature and materials department.
Persichetti’s career flourished during a period when American composition was deeply divided among rival stylistic factions, each seeking to invalidate the work of its opponents. In the face of this partisan antagonism, Persichetti advocated — through his lectures and writings, as well as through his music — the notion of a broad working vocabulary, or “common practice,” based on a fluent assimilation of all the materials and techniques that had appeared during the twentieth century. His own music exhibits a wide stylistic range, from extreme diatonic simplicity to complex, contrapuntal atonality.
Most of Persichetti’s music for band falls along the simpler end of his compositional spectrum, although the Parable represents the opposite pole. This is utilitarian music, in the sense that it was written with an awareness of imminent performance in a variety of different practical contexts. But there is no compromise in standards of taste or quality of workmanship. Even the simplest pieces, such as Psalm and Pageant, have a youthful sweetness and exuberance that are utterly genuine, and display meticulous attention to formal values. Indeed, these qualities, along with a sense of mischief and a poignant vein of nostalgia represent the essence of Persichetti’s personality and permeate all his music, though manifest at times at dizzying levels of complexity.
A fondness for wind instruments dates back to Persichetti’s early years: his Opus 1, composed at age 14, is a Serenade for Ten Winds. However, in an interview with Rudy Shackelford, he himself acknowledged with characteristic whimsy the misgivings many hold about the band medium and its “rusty trumpets, consumptive flutes, wheezy oboes, disintegrating clarinets fumbling yet amiable baton wavers, and gum-coated park benches. If you couple these conditions with transfigurations and disfigurations of works originally conceived for orchestra, you create a sound experience that’s nearly as excruciating as a sick string quartet playing a dilettante’s arrangement of a 19th-century piano sonata. But when composers think of the band as a huge, supple ensemble of winds and percussion, the obnoxious fat drains off and creative ideas flourish.”
Originally, Persichetti did not set out to write for band. During the interview quoted above, he recalled “composing in a log cabin schoolhouse 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 myDivertimento began to take shape.” Completed the following year, the work exemplifies Persichetti’s propensity for pieces comprising tiny epigrammatic movements. The opening “Prologue” displays one of the composer’s most distinctive trademarks: the use of rapid duple meter as a framework for lively, playful, syncopated rhythmic byplay. This feature can be heard throughout the works on this disc. “Song” is reflective in tone, with melody and accompanimental material all based on an undulating figure. “Dance” is gentle and childlike. “Burlesque” features the tubas with a mocking melody in Lydian mode against raucous offbeats, framing a taunting central section. In “Soliloquy,” a cornet solo creates a mood of haunting nostalgia. “March” returns to the rousing spirit of the opening movement.
Psalm was composed in 1952 and highlights the warm sonorities of the band in chorale treatment. A solemn opening is followed by a hymnlike section that leads into a jubilantallegro vivace. After an exhilarating development, the work culminates in a fervent return of the hymnlike material.
Persichetti completed Pageant the following year and the spirit of the two works is similar enough that the later work might almost be regarded as a sequel. In two sections, Pageantopens with a three-note horn motif upon which the entire work is based. The first section is again in chorale style, while the second is vigorous and marchlike, suggesting a parade. Several thematic ideas, all based on the opening horn motif, are subjected to a development whose thoroughness is belied by the music’s exuberant, extroverted character.
Serenade for Band, composed in 1960, is the eleventh of Persichetti’s fifteen serenades for various combinations. Like Divertimento, each serenade consists of several tiny movements. Here, a triadic motif unifies the movements and each except the concluding “Capriccio” is pervaded by a sense of nostalgia.
Persichetti often re-used material originally composed for another purpose. Masquerade, dating from 1965, is a set of ten ingenious variations on a theme created from musical examples written for the textbook Twentieth Century Harmony. The language is somewhat more dissonant and angular here than in the preceding works, although the expressive content reflects many of the composer’s familiar characteristics.
0 Cool Is the Valley was composed in 1971, inspired by a poem of James Joyce. A calm, pastoral mood is maintained throughout.
Parable for Band, a work of very different character, appeared the following year. It is Persichetti’s most complex band composition and the ninth in his series of 25 parables, which he described somewhat enigmatically as “non-programmatic musical essays about a single germinal idea. They convey a meaning indirectly by the use of comparisons or analogies.” Using an expanded vocabulary of gestures and textures, as well as more linear material, the work unfolds in a manner that is dramatic, coherent, and thoroughly abstract.
Chorale Prelude: 0 God Unseen is Persichetti’s final piece for band. Written in 1984, it is a solemn expansion of a hymn originally appeared in the composer’s Hymns and Responses for the Church Year.