Vincent Who?

One of the first composers I became excited about when I first began paying attention to this whole world of contemporary composition was Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). A friend of mine studying piano showed me a copy of the score of Persichetti’s Little Piano Book and I was immediately captivated: Here was music with some of the weird harmonies I couldn’t get out of my head since first encountering The Rite of Spring and Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto, both of which I had picked up cheap on used LPs at flea markets not long before. But this was also music that I could look at and play through without too much agony. I slowly accumulated as much of his solo piano music as I could find in various music shops—the poems for piano, the sonatinas, and the sonatas, though most of the latter of which I never felt comfortable playing through at all, many are fiendishly difficult.

As I became more and more of a record collector, it soon became apparent to me that my Persichetti infatuation was not shared by folks who produced records. I found an LP with his ninth symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy which was pretty interesting, but that meant there were at least eight others. Where were they? And the piano music? I particularly wanted to hear those sonatas which my limited manual dexterity prevented me from being able to play for myself. Nothing.

Persichetti died more than twenty years ago, and my musical passions went many other places since then. But in the last couple of years I’ve been noticing, quite out of the blue, the seeds of a Persichetti renaissance through many different recording projects on as many labels—a 2 CD-set of symphonies conducted by David Alan Miller for Albany, the complete string quartets performed by the Lydian Quartet on Centaur, a wind band disc with David Amos and the winds of the London Symphony on Naxos, and now, at long last, the complete sonatas recorded by Geoffrey Burleson on New World.

Finally getting to hear all of these pieces after a wait of nearly a quarter century is like re-establishing contact with an old acquaintance you deeply admired but only partially knew. And many lessons to be learnt from both the pieces I attempted to play and the ones I was always too afraid to go near; some are obvious, some less so. E.g. the third sonata has much more internal momentum when it’s played at the right speed. There are gestures in the first sonata that anticipate both Barber and Carter’s monumental piano sonatas from the late ’40s. Persichetti wrote his in 1939 and followed it with 11 more.

But all this has made me ponder: Why has it taken so long for most of this music to show up on CD? In an email correspondence I’ve begun with Burleson after hearing his recordings of the sonatas, he admitted that he was mystified when he realized that his cycle was the first one anyone ever attempted on a recording. And there are plenty of other important compositions of his that have yet to be recorded commercially. Yet Persichetti certainly had big time credentials: he taught at Juilliard and Curtis—there’s even a plaque about him in Philadelphia outside the school—and his 20th-century harmony textbook was required reading for generations of music students. He composed a vast body of music in virtually every medium and many of his works seem tailor-made for performances by conservatory students.

But beyond Persichetti’s own music, which contains many other gems awaiting recording premieres, the whole issue of the neglect of his music raises even bigger questions about how music becomes part of history and how it gets disseminated to audiences. What causes a composer’s music to come back into fashion after years of inactivity? What kind of thing can be done to make the listening audience more aware of the music of a lesser-known composer after his or her death? What other mid-century American composers are sorely in need of a revival?

23 thoughts on “Vincent Who?

  1. rtanaka

    Carlos Chavez has been neglected for a while, but looks like he’s also making a comeback. Lou Harrison has said that in the long run, Chavez may even prove himself to be more important than Stravinsky. Regardless if you might agree with him or not, he’s definitely worth a listen.

    Has him being Mexican have something to do with his relative obscurity? Maybe. Or it could be that since Stravinsky was very good at marketing himself, he simply managed to retain his visibility in the classical music world a bit more. I’ve found that there are a lot of artists out there who don’t have much interest in promoting themselves…they’re often brilliant at what they do, but they seem pretty content with being in a relatively obscure position. This often works against ambitious career aspirations, however.

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  2. Miss Mussel

    I know Persichetti through his Parable for Solo Horn. There is a theme in the second line or so that is taken from one of his symphonies…No. 7 if memory serves, but I was never able to find a recording when I was learning it at university.

    Regarding your question of how a composer becomes popular after years of neglect, I would say the same way they always have: via advocates. Bach had Mendelssohn, Salieri has Bartoli, and most conductors have their own pet composers that they champion whenever possible.

    Nothing lends legitimacy to something more than a personal recommendation from someone who is highly respected…or at least in the papers a lot.

    If you’ll permit a little bit of silliness, imagine how sales would take of if Paris Hilton et al were do be seen carting around the latest Persichetti sonatas?

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  3. Garth Trinkl

    What causes a composer’s music to come back into fashion after years of inactivity? What kind of thing can be done to make the listening audience more aware of the music of a lesser-known composer after his or her death? What other mid-century American composers are sorely in need of a revival? (fjo)

    I know that this isn’t directly answering your questions, but I have recommended Mr Persichetti’s ‘Creation’ oratorio to the director of one of the Washington, D.C. area’s excellent symphonic choruses.

    Do you know whether the Pew Charitable Trusts is [are] involved in the revival of worthy, but largely unknown, works of American classical choral music?

    (‘Creation’ was premiered by the Juilliard Chorus and Orchestra in the Spring of 1970 under the direction of the composer. I don’t why Roger Sessions was luckier in having his academic commission ‘When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” [composed in memory of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy] recorded while the comparable Persichetti oratorio was not subsequently recorded. I believe that CRI/New World Records may have dropped the cultural leadership ball ca. 1970.)

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  4. david toub

    I have no definitive clue why the music of some composers might come back, while other composers’ musics languish. In many cases, however, I suspect it takes one or more individuals who work to get an album out by a specific neglected composer. A recent example would be the Julius Eastman album on New World 2-3 years ago that was championed by Mary Jane Leach in particular, along with Kyle Gann and a few others.

    Now we just need people to take up the cause of John Becker, Luigi Dallapicolla, Harry Freedman (I know just one work by this great Canadian composer, his orchestral work Images, and it’s amazing), and many others. The sad thing is that the list of neglected composers just increases every year, as most new music composers will ultimately not be able to cut through the background noise.

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  5. WSimmons

    Persichetti
    Very glad to see you draw some attention to Vincent Persichetti. I share your bewilderment at his current neglect. And yet … Yes, there is now that wonderful Burleson recording of the complete piano sonatas. And I understand that another set of all twelve is in the works at Naxos. Plus, I am currently writing a book–part of my series Twentieth-Century Traditionalists–that will focus on Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin. So let’s hope that Persichetti’s time has arrived.

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  6. Kyle Gann

    Persichetti was a solid musician, but I think he’s one of those composers hindered in the public mind by having written too many hundreds of pieces from which very few stand out as exceptional. Darius Milhaud deserves to be played a lot more too, but beyond Creation du Monde and Le Bouef sur le Toit, how do you go through all those dozens of string quartets and little symphonies to decide which ones are really top-shelf? Also, within Persichetti’s works the craftsmanship is consistent and impressive, but the ideas are not very high-profile, nor the themes memorably contrasted. I’ve heard several Persichetti symphonies multiple times, but no one movement sticks in my memory. There is a liability, I think, in having craftsmanship as the be-all and end-all of your aesthetic: what you have to say gets outshined by the elegance with which you say it, and ultimately most listeners are more interested in whether you have anything profound to say. As I once wrote of Persichetti,

    “He is not, musically, as individual as Copland or Roy Harris, as inventive as Ives or Cowell, as Romantic as Barber or Hanson, as ruggedly dissonant as William Schuman or Peter Mennin. But there he sits, in the middle of the American repertoire, with a prolific ouevre of pieces as likable as he was personally – music unlikely to inspire awe but nearly guaranteed to elicit delight. Like Mozart, he was a musician’s musician.”

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  7. david toub

    re: persichetti
    I agree, Kyle, that nothing of his works really stands out, at least to me. I knew his harmony book really well, and certainly never heard anything less than complimentary about Persichetti. However, I don’t think it’s a matter of volume but rather individuality and communication. Feldman wrote a lot of music, yet the great majority stands out. Milhaud, whom I love, also wrote a lot of music, but aside from Le Bouef, La Creation du Monde, Le Homme et son Desir and a few others, his music has become obscure. I suspect that like Persichetti, Milhaud wrote very competent music, but as much as it hurts me to say this, not all of it was particularly inspired. Granted, no one is going to always write music that is amazing; some things will tend to be lesser pieces. But in Persichetti’s case, like several other composers, he just didn’t write anything that grabbed my interest.

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  8. pgblu

    Persichetti has always been a mainstay of the wind symphony/band/orchestra repertoire, and I think that this unfortunately stigmatizes him no less than it does Ingolf Dahl or any of the others — unfairly, needless to say. Anyway, thanks for bringing him up, and I too have learned from, not to mention used in class, his 20th-C harmony textbook. It’s very sensitively written, though clearly ‘of its time’ — but the best part is the little lists of examples from literature which he compiles for each scale, harmony, interval constellation, or technique (indicating composer, title, page number, and publisher). And some of those names, in turn, are obscurer than a split pea in a potater soup.

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  9. philmusic

    I performed a solo work for bass by Persichetti a while back it was solid but it didn’t seem to pack the punch that George Perle’s Monody for bass did.

    “..What other mid-century American composers are sorely in need of a revival?..”

    How about reviving Isadore Freed?
    Oh yes he is a relation.

    What about Marion Bauer or Arthur Schnabel’s compositions? I’ve never heard them.

    Phil Fried

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  10. WSimmons

    Persichetti
    I think that there is some truth in what the foregoing contributors have said about Persichetti and his current reputation. For example, I do think that prejudices against band music, the genre in which he was most popular, stigmatized him to some extent among those looking to be dismissive. However, some points call for additional comment: First of all, I think that there is a general misconception that Persichetti wrote more music than he actually did. With 166 opus numbers, he was nowhere near as prolific as Milhaud (or others). Of course, this misperception makes his output seem more daunting, hence less susceptible to systematic evaluation. I vehemently disagree that none of his works was especially outstanding or individual, although those that were may not hit one over the head instantly–he did not compose in order to achieve meretricious popularity. But I would say that the Symphonies Nos. 4, 5, and 6, the Concerto for Piano, Four Hands, the Piano Sonatas Nos. 9 and 10, and the Serenade No. 10 are just a few of the works that are utterly unmistakeable as coming from the pen of Persichetti, and are among the finest American works of their time. But because his music drew upon a much broader musical vocabulary than that of most of his peers, his individuality is not as obvious.

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  11. Chris Becker

    Frank – Maybe you or someone on staff could write a column once a month describing the life and work of a composer who may not but should be better known in this community? Even though I am a composer working well outside of the world of wind ensemble or orchestral writing I still find the history of composers of all kinds of music fascinating.

    Since it’s Black History Month.I’ve been hoping for a little more writing about African American composers here and on other blogs. Unfortunately, race and gender does play into who gets their historical props and who doesn’t. But that is changing in this century…A few links below might be of some interest…

    http://williamgrantstill.com/wgsbiography/

    http://www.columbia.edu/cu/lweb/news/libraries/2008/2008-02-05.freeman.html

    http://www.leonarda.com/composers-LE/comp339.html

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  12. Kyle Gann

    Point taken, Walter. I think what creates the impression of quantity (and you do refer to his “prodigious musical output” in Grove, one of the first phrases one sees when researching Persichetti) is that there are so many harpsichord sonatas, so many sonatinas and serenades, so many Parables, that it creates a quasi-Baroque impression of interchangeable genre pieces, a Vivaldi-esque gebrauchsmusik. Nothing wrong with that, but it turned out not to be very shrewd self-promotion in the era of Quartet for the End of Time, Appalachian Spring, Gruppen, Rothko Chapel – an era in which one-of-a-kind musical monuments grabbed the attention. The neoclassicists in general suffered from this, reputation-wise, and I’m glad you’re writing about them. (I have a soft spot for Quincy Porter, myself. Great harpsichord concerto.)

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  13. Garth Trinkl

    Nothing wrong with that, but it turned out not to be very shrewd self-promotion in the era of Quartet for the End of Time, Appalachian Spring, Gruppen, Rothko Chapel … (kg)

    Yeah, what was Vincent Persichetti doing — at a time when Claude Lévi-Strauss, Mircea Eliade, Jacob Bronowski, and the world-wide intelligentsia were exploring structuralism, mythic consciousness, and the history and philosophy of science (and Luciano Berio was writing his ‘Sinfonia’ [answered by Persichetti’s ‘Sinfonia: Janiculum’]) — writing his “The Creation” oratorio for the Juilliard School for solo vocal quartet, chorus and orchestra with texts drawn by the composer from mythological, scientific, poetic, and Biblical sources?

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  14. lawrence

    I was pleasantly surprised to see VPs Hollow Men turn up on two programs recently. I made my conducting debut with that piece, several years before I met the composer.

    My lessons with Persichetti (I studied with him 1981-1985) had little discussion of craftsmanship (I wish there had been more) – the focus was more on the excitement of musical possibilities, the potentials of any given idea. I wish I had trusted him more – I was at a point in my life when I just thought of him as a pleasant old fellow who was kindly enough to let me to do whatever I wanted to do – I know now I could have learned a lot that I didn’t end up learning until years later — and probably some stuff I haven’t learned yet.

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  15. hieshbre

    Persichetti
    Echoing what Pgblu has already said, Persichetti is one of THE mainstays of the wind ensemble literature. Not only that, but his solo literature (from the Parables to others) is programmed a lot more than people think…I myself have performed “The Hollow Men” a number of times in the past year. But like others have already said, most new music American composers have had a conductor who championed their work, bringing them into the spotlight, and as far as I can recall, VP never had one. That could be the reason for the lack of programming of his orchestral works. As to the piano works, I have only heard his Piano Sonata once. If you are looking for recordings of them – there are some great recordings with the Eastman Wind Ensemble and a relatively recent recording of his Parable for Trumpet. I wouldn’t trust me though, I’m new to posting here.

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  16. William Osborne

    The idea that Persichetti’s music seems pale in an era with works like Quartet for the End of Time, Appalachian Spring, Gruppen, is true and an important observation. What strikes me is how he lived and worked in New York during the height of the Up- and Downtown aesthetic encampments, both of which marginalized him, and how he still managed to maintain such a kind, generous, and humanistic spirit. Somehow I feel a slight satisfaction that his music remains standing, while so much of the work from those aesthetic groups has fallen away. It seems that a modest practicality can create more valuable music than the conformity required by rarified aesthetic cronyism. Perhaps that is the most important lesson that Vincent gave us.

    My wife, Abbie Conant, did the New York premiere of his Parable for Trombone in 1978 or 79. (I can’t quite remember the year.) She was also deeply struck by his kindness and warmth. Perhaps due to his humanist spirit, he created useful and needed music, so it will be around for a while.

    William Osborne
    http://www.osborne-conant.org

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  17. lawrence

    many ways
    Just remembered my favorite Persichetti quote, when he was told of a new composing trend: “Well, there are many ways to write bad music,” meaning that discovering a new technique in and of itself guaranteed nothing — what mattered was how good the music was.

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  18. WSimmons

    Just some additional comments on the latest responses: First of all, Persichetti did indeed have a conductor-advocate, and that was Eugene Ormandy, who premiered his Third, Fourth, and Ninth Symphonies, as well as other orchestral works, and continued to perform them for the rest of his life.
    However, I think it is important not to view Persichetti as a special case, as if he were somehow marginalized while his peers–other symphonic traditionalists–were getting all the attention. The fact is that there is a whole group of composers in addition to Persichetti who have been equally neglected–When was the last time you heard a live performance of a Peter Mennin symphony? Or one by Paul Creston, or Vittorio Giannini, or Walter Piston–or even William Schuman? Persichetti was unique in many ways; but so were all these other composers, each in his own way. From my perspective, these composers–then “elder statesmen”–were swept under the rug during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, while more “sensational” music–such as that cited by the other correspondents–was garnering most of the attention. By the time the tides of fashion turned, and a new generation of musicians was springing up, Persichetti, Mennin, et al. were just names, who had composed symphonies and concertos and sonatas that were just anonymous entries in work-lists, so their music was presumed to be stylistically anonymous as well. But this is just not true, but rather another instance of the human tendency, when confronted by an enormity of unfamiliar material, to resort to “no one talks about this stuff, so it can’t be any good.” Hopefully, the many fine, new recordings that have been appearing (and my book series on traditionalist composers) will awaken a new generation of listeners and musicians to this area of the repertoire.

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  19. David Rakowski

    My experience with Persichetti’s Little Piano Book was a little like Frank’s. Growing up in a remote dairy farming region in Vermont, my only opportunities to encounter music outside the very ordinary was in All-State and All-New England bands, as a trombonist — where I got to play in pieces more challenging — both conceptually and technically — than I could hear at school. The pieces that we played in those bands included Peter Mennin’s Canzona, Paul Whear’s Stonehenge Symphony, Morton Gould’s Jericho Rhapsody, and Persichetti’s Divertimento for Band. Those pieces had acrid harmonies that perked up my ears right around the time I started wanting to compose, and I shonuff wanted to figure out how to get them.

    A friend lent me the Little Piano Book of Persichetti, and I was for the first time able to get those funny little chords under my fingers without much effort, see what kinds of chords and polychords had the kind of acrid sound that interested me — not to mention, learn a lot about compositional craft with simple materials. A great deal of my first compositional efforts imitated those little piano pieces, as well as the Divertimento, and, later, the Symphony for Band (which I seem to recall is No. 6). As a kid, I didn’t need new listening paradigms or Big Statements — what I needed was some decent chops, and something I liked a lot to imitate. Persichetti — then Hindemith — then both — fit the bill for me in those days.

    If you put me on the spot, I’m pretty sure I could sing back a lot of the Divertimento (and the Mennin Canzona) at you.

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  20. sean2u

    I agree that Persichetti is overlooked. There’s a fine disc on First Edition that contains some stunningly virtuosic stuff. If anyone knows his music at all, it’s his extensive output for wind ensemble, many of which are performed regularly. I agree with Kyle that his best music, like Milhaud’s, gets lost in his massive list of opus numbers.

    Regarding the reputation of Chavez, I actually think the composer is experiencing a bit of a renaissance as witnessed by the Cambria recordings of his music, two or three of which received Grammy nominations in the past few years. That’s something odd to be sure. It’s shameful that the NY Phil first performed his Sinfonia India, perhaps the best known Mexican piece of classical music, in 2007.

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  21. Kyle Gann

    Walter, I think the point of view you express is in the process of becoming more widely accepted. Certainly the idea that mid-century 12-tone composers became overrated to the detriment of more “conservative” composers is becoming commonplace, and has been given especially eloquent treatment in Alex Ross’s new book. Sibelius and Britten are being rehabilitated, and I think the American neoclassics will soon be riding their coattails. Seattle conductor Gerard Schwarz (whatever his other problems) has done tremendous service for Hanson, Schuman, Diamond, and Piston, though orchestras in general are slow to champion anything beyond the standard repertoire, and help is more likely to come from musicology (you first of all) before performance catches up. For what it’s worth, I think the American neoclassics have suffered less, in general, than European neoclassic composers like Boris Blacher, Wolfgang Fortner, and Dietrich Erdmann, who seem to have been practically obliterated. For me personally, William Schuman was a tremendous hero, his music part of my DNA. I was privileged to have interviewed him by phone and met him afterward, and I really couldn’t get by without his 3rd, 6th, 7th, and 8th symphonies. If you publish a book on Schuman, I will snap it up in a heartbeat. Few good American composers get the attention they deserve from the classical music world, but musicologically the pendulum is swinging in your direction.

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  22. philmusic

    “..Certainly the idea that mid-century 12-tone composers became overrated to the detriment of more “conservative” composers is becoming commonplace, and has been given especially eloquent treatment in Alex Ross’s new book. ..”

    I suppose that then, as now, everyone wants to be on the winning team. How many composers serial, or otherwise, jump ship when the times get tough? Our own opinions aside, I think the good music will remain no matter what the style.

    Phil Fried

    Reply

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