About this Recording
8.570123 - PERSICHETTI: Divertimento / Masquerade / Parable IX
English  German 

Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987)
Divertimento • Psalm • Chorale Prelude: O God Unseen • Pageant
Masquerade • O Cool is the Valley • Parable IX


During the middle years of last 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. In addition to meeting the highest standards of performance, these ensembles encouraged America's leading composers to contribute repertoire 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 young musicians. 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 the 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, 9 symphonies, 12 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, where he continued to live until his death in 1987. He began to study the piano at the age of five, which gave direction to an insatiable musical interest and a talent that soon proved prodigious. He began to compose almost immediately, and during his adolescence earned money as a church organist. After graduating from Philadelphia's Combs Conservatory, he went on to complete his doctorate at the Philadelphia Conservatory. In 1947 William Schuman invited him to join the Juilliard faculty, and he taught there for the rest of his life. 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 which had appeared during the 20th 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 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 dizzying levels of complexity are manifest at times.

A fondness for wind instruments dates back to Persichetti's early years: his Op. 1, composed at the age of fourteen, is a Serenade for Ten Winds. In an interview, however, 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 is 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'. During the same interview, he recalled 'composing in a log cabin schoolhouse in Eldorado, 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 my Divertimento 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 metre as a framework for lively, playful, syncopated rhythmic by-play. 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 hymn-like section that leads into a jubilant Allegro vivace. After an exhilarating development, the work culminates in a fervent return of the hymn-like material. Persichetti completed Pageant the following year and the spirit of the two works is similar enough that the later piece might almost be regarded as a sequel. In two sections, Pageant opens 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 march-like, 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.

Chorale Prelude: O God Unseen is Persichetti's final piece for band. Written in 1984, it is a solemn expansion of a hymn which originally appeared in the composer's Hymns and Responses for the Church Year.

Persichetti often re-used material originally composed for another purpose. Masquerade for Band, 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. O 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.

Walter Simmons


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