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?