About this Recording
8.559725 - PERSICHETTI, V.: Violin and Piano Works - Violin Sonata / Masques / Piano Sonatinas (Borup, H. Conner)

Vincent Persichetti (1915–1987)
Works for Violin and Piano


American composer Vincent Persichetti remains something of an enigma; he was a prolific composer who wrote works as diverse as symphonies, cantatas, string quartets, works for concert band, and solo instrumental pieces; yet, his works are not regularly performed in the contemporary concert hall. Sadly, many young musicians are familiar with neither the composer himself nor his creative and vast output. Thus, this Naxos recording marks an important opportunity to hear his music and to highlight his career.

Vincent Ludwig Persichetti was born on 6 June 1915 in Philadelphia. Both of his parents immigrated to the United States as children: his father from Italy and his mother (Martha Buch) from Germany. He showed a keen interest in music at an early age when he would become mesmerised by the family’s player piano. He commenced piano lessons at age five at the Combs Conservatory with Warren Stanger and made his concert début on the radio at the age of six. Persichetti’s unique sense of humour asserted itself during his studies: “Persichetti was auditing Russell King Miller’s college theory class when Miller stated, ‘music writing is 10% inspiration and 90% hard work,’ to which Persichetti responded, ‘that sounded like 90% baloney.’ Persichetti received a Bachelor of Music degree from Combs in 1936 and then began graduate work in the Philadelphia Conservatory of Music (which would later be absorbed into the College of the Performing Arts, one of the three colleges in the present University of the Arts in Philadelphia) and earned a MM in 1941 and a D Mus in 1945.

Concerning his teaching career, Persichetti was appointed as the chair of the theory and composition department of the Philadelphia Conservatory in 1942, and, in 1947, his colleague William Schuman, the president of The Juilliard School, appointed Persichetti to teach there. Persichetti was a superlative teacher and fondly remembered by his students, many of whom became prominent composers. Steve Reich remembers that Persichetti “was a phenomenal teacher because he had enormous musicianship and he could be a complete chameleon. He could listen to you, look at your score, and he became you. He could improvise pieces in your style. He knew what information you needed at this point in your life today. And that’s a great teacher.” After a long career of composing and teaching, Persichetti succumbed to cancer in August of 1987.

The crown jewel of this recording is the Sonata No 1, Op 15 for violin and piano. This composition was never published and remained unknown (it was, in fact, miscatalogued as the Fantasy, Op 15) until its thrilling discovery in the archives of the New York Public Library by Hasse Borup. When first beginning his research, Borup began comparing lists from Persichetti’s publisher and from the New York Public Library of Performing Arts, which holds the musical estate of the composer. He then uncovered a discrepancy in the descriptions of the composer’s inventory. After securing permission from the composer’s daughter, Lauren Persichetti, the NYPL librarians began the arduous task of sorting through the works stored at the library, which resulted in the discovery of this sonata in a storage archive in New Jersey. Next, Borup asked an undergraduate composition student at the University of Utah to transcribe the handwritten document into a music notation software programme in order to create a critical edition. The result is the performance on this recording. The work itself dates from 1941, a formative period in Persichetti’s compositional output, and shows a clear interest in the twelve-tone technique (a compositional process that places the twelve pitches of the Western equal-tempered chromatic scale into a pre-determined order). In discussing this process, Persichetti noted that “I would never begin writing without a dramatic or thematic idea. I often employ a row of twelve or more, or fewer, tones that evolved from a musical utterance. The purpose of serialising after the fact is often one of taking inventory of materials. Sound gestures come first, manipulation techniques later.” Borup is eager to share his once-in-a-lifetime discovery in this recording. Also written in the formative period of the 1940s are the Serenade No 4, Op 28 (1945) and the Sonata for Solo Violin, Op 10 (1940). The former, a work in four movements, was originally called Words Before Spring and was premièred on 22 November 1946 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music. Persichetti explains that the serenades are “suites of ‘love’ pieces, usually of the night: small pieces of a certain lyric, under-the-window quality, that had precedence with Mozart and Brahms.” The latter was premièred on 17 November 1945 at a Conscientious Objector Camp in Waldport, Oregon.

The Masques, Op 99 (1965) were written by a mature composer recognised for his talents. In the same year, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (later to become the American Academy of Arts and Letters), and four years later he would be awarded a second Guggenheim Fellowship. The Masques were commissioned by Louise Behrend for the Preparatory Division of The Juilliard School of Music, and the work premièred there on 18 December 1965. Regarding this lovely set of miniatures, that have both aesthetic and didactic characters, Hasse Borup observes that “the Masques are, in many ways, my favourite pieces on this recording. Each piece is literally a musical ‘masque’ either in the style of a composer (you can hear Bartók, Copland and Stravinsky in some of the movements) or a distinct character. Well-crafted musical Haikus that musicians any age will benefit from knowing.”

Lastly there are the Piano Sonatinas: No 1, Op 38 (1950), No 2, Op 45 (1950), No 3, Op 47 (1950), No 4, Op 63 (1954), No 5, Op 64 (1954), and No 6, Op 65 (1954). Numbers 4–6 are acknowledged as pieces suitable for novice piano students. In an interview with Rudy Shackelford, Persichetti explains that “I have never intentionally composed a ‘teaching’ or ‘educational’ piece, although a kind of didacticism or educational value has, at times, been served. I write within a wide range of technical materials, therefore some works will, by virtue of their basic content, be relatively easy to perform; others will demand astounding virtuosity.” Regarding the sonatinas from a performer’s view, Heather Conner notes that “these are delightful fleeting vignettes encompassing a wide array of emotions. They represent diverse pianistic styles ranging from the spirited toccata to charming plaintive melodies.”

We sincerely hope you enjoy becoming better acquainted with the music of this neglected American composer!

Michael Chikinda

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