Composer  Vincent  Persichetti

A Conversation with Bruce Duffie


"There have been few more universally admired twentieth-century American composers than Vincent Persichetti. His contributions have enriched the entire musical literature and his influence as performer and teacher is immeasurable."  This is how one tribute begins; it comes from his publisher and is reproduced in its entirety at the end of this interview.  That website also has a full listing of his works and recordings, plus numerous reviews.  There is also a Vincent Persichetti Society which has a webpage that is currently in progress. 

In November of 1986, a mere nine months before his death, I had the good fortune to make an appointment with Vincent Persichetti for a conversation.  For someone accustomed to writing musical notes and phrasing, my questions required him to verbalize his concepts, and he would hesitate and even occasionally apologize for not coming up with concrete answers.  I tried to gently urge him to relax and allow his mind to communicate in any way he chose.  What you are about to read reflects those generous thoughts.  The transcript has been smoothed into a readable form without distorting his ideas or shortchanging either the thinker or the audience. 

We wound up spending nearly an hour together, and I am happy to report that he seemed pleased with what transpired.  Here is that interview . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:  You are both a composer and a teacher, and I'd like to know how you divide your time between those two activities.

Vincent Persichetti:  That is difficult because I never think about my being a teacher; I share music with younger composers and try to discover things with my students.  At the moment I'm at Juilliard with my students two full days a week, then I come back to Philadelphia and the rest of the time it's my writing and also for my music publishers; I advise them about things.

BD:  Is composition something that can really be taught, or must it be learned intuitively by each student?

VP:  I don't think anybody can teach composition, but we can teach music and try to get into the fundamentals of the workings behind important composers from all times.

BD:  In writing or in teaching, where is the balance between inspiration and compositional technique?

VP:  All I know is that I won't write unless I really have an idea.  I do all kinds of pursuing and researching around a subject.  It's basically inspiration to start with, and I wouldn't start without that.  From then on I look into behaviors, natural tendencies of certain materials.

BD:  Are most of the pieces of music that you write on commission, or are some of them just because you want to write them?

VP:  I'd never write on commission, I would say.

BD:  Never?

VP:  Practically not, no.  I'd accept the commissions when they coincided with my ideas of what I want to do.  One exception was with the Louisville Orchestra.  They wanted me to do a symphony, and I refused it.  I called back later and said that I did have ideas for a string symphony and they okayed that.  So while trying to look for some materials for an orchestra piece, I got some ideas for a string piece which I probably wouldn't have otherwise had.  But as a rule, it does not work for me.

BD:  How do you decide if it's going to be a sonata for oboe and piano or a string symphony or an opera?

VP:  Oh!  That comes when I get ideas.  I always get them in a medium.  They're couched in their garb when they come.  I never have heard a tune or something that wasn't set for an oboe or for a viola in my mind.

BD:  So you hear it in finished form in your mind?

VP:  Yes, in a rough finished form.  Talking about students, if they don't learn the literature of the past, they eventually will be tempted to rewrite it.  So I insist that my students actually get into the Mozarts and the Haydns and all the composers of the past so that they won't be tempted to just conform and try to write the Tenth Symphony of Beethoven.  None of us can do that, you know.  My students must connect themselves to a living tradition.  They must learn to shed encumbrances of all educational platitudes; that can be very harmful.  They have to communicate through the part of their beings wherein lie their real talents and gifts!  Students must learn the importance of solitude, and be willing to accept the soothing pain of hard labor!  [Chuckles]

BD:  Is composing at all fun?

VP:  For me it is.  For instance, if I knew you very well, I would rather not be talking to you in words; I would rather talk to you in a piece I write.  All my relationships are more meaningful when it's through my music.

BD:  So you speak to the audiences, then, through the musical thoughts you have.

VP:  Yes, yes.

BD:  Specifically, then, for whom do you write?

VP:  For at least three people.  [Chuckles]  I don't write specifically for just my fellow human beings; I like my fellow human beings; I'm gregarious.  I know that sometimes I'm writing for an organist and I'm thinking about the organist, but it's not that I'm writing music for him so he can play organ, but I'm just talking to him through my piece.  So my organ piece may be really speaking to some grocer.

BD:  When you are writing it, are you conscious at all of the audience that will be listening to your piece?

VP:  I don't think I am.  I don't think so. 

BD:  What do you expect of the public that comes to hear your music?

persichettiVP:  That's a hard question for me to answer.  I would like people to come to hear my music having known some of the music of my colleagues or music of our time, or other music of mine so they can understand my language.  I hope they'll hear what I'm saying.  [Pauses for a moment]  I'm not getting far with this...

BD:  It's difficult for someone who is a communicator in one medium to talk in another medium.

VP:  Yes, yes.  I can talk about how excited I am about the students that I have taught, and their music.

BD:  You've been teaching music now for quite a number of years; how has the teaching of students changed over that time, if at all?

VP:  The standard has gone way up in the last 30 years.

BD:  The technical standard?

VP:  Technical standards, yeah.  We're in a part of the century where we're beginning to amalgamate many of the materials and techniques of the early part of the century, from most of the century.  Composers used to either be writing toward strict serialism of a Webern kind, or some kind of mixture of Bartók and Stravinsky.  At this point, most of the composers have cleared this for ourselves, and we're able to explain it.  In my harmony book, I love to deal with this.  We enable the students to find their own way of speaking with us using their own techniques.  Let me put it this way:  it gets easier now for a composer to write a piece, and if it's a composer who is writing what you might call weak music or bad music, he can more easily do it.  We have much more of the inferior music than we used to have.  However, we have a lot more of the good music, and composers that really have something to say can more easily say what they want to say.  So I find this kind of a rich time!  Hall Overton (1920-1972) happened to die too early, but he had a vivid harmonic imagination and was able to combine elements of jazz with serial elements.  Toshi Ichiyanagi (b. 1933), who is one of the most fanciful composers I know in...Japan, came over here and searched out the inner workings of the kind of music that interested him, certain purpose things from Bartók and Debussy.  He also collected some other things.  Jacob Druckman (1928-1996) delighted in braiding instrumental lines, and he was able to learn from the earlier composers of the century.  The list goes on...  I just find myself in a place where I just am enjoying my colleagues' music.  When they write a good piece, I become enriched, and I think we all possibly become enriched with hearing each others' music.

BD:  Let me ask the 64-dollar question, then.  What constitutes a good piece of music?

VP:  [Thinks for a moment]  It's a work that is saying more about less instead of less about more.  So a good piece would be a work that doesn't spread all over the place.  One meaningful, beautiful thing after another doesn't make a good piece; to me it becomes kind of a newsreel.  A piece that has a limited amount of material and spins out of this and enlarges the content toward what I call the better music of our time really makes a good piece.  Beethoven will write a whole sonata or symphony about just a slight motivic clunk of stuff.  In fact, often his first theme might be about something weak; not that he's writing weak music, but he will be trying to get that first subject to get some health and energy in it, and grow into what we call a second subject or a B subject.  They're not two different subjects; the second subject is the growth from the original opening idea.  Then there'll be a closing subject that will gather up little segments of the first part and the second part that makes a temporary close.  They're the pieces I think are the better ones.  They just deal with less material and say more.  Am I making a point there?

BD:  Yes!  Yes, that's a very interesting point.  You talk about good music and you say there's more good music and more inferior music being written today.  Is there any place at all for inferior music in the concert hall or the opera house?

VP:  Not for me, but I think it's good for a lot of people.  Especially if it's background music, people can get away with it, but in the opera house, I would rather not have the right kind of music for a dramatic show or a dramatic part of an opera if it were inferior music.  There have been so many operas produced through the centuries, but we don't know these operas 'cause they're the ones that don't live.  You have to find the right music for the right dramatic action.  That doesn't mean that it is going to be a good piece of music.  I would rather have the music grow from itself and earn its own right to be there.  The story can't excuse inferior music.  It has to be like La Bohème or Tristan

BD:  Operas often come in cyclical patterns; they will be in fashion, then they'll be out of fashion, and then they'll be back in fashion. 

VP:  Yes.

BD:  Is the public's decision to have something in fashion or out of fashion always right?

VP:  Oh, I don't think so.  No. 

BD:  Then who should be deciding which operas we will see and hear?  Is it the management, is it the singers, is it the critics?

VP:  We need an educated performer and conductor or an opera producer that believes in something that he has found, that he thinks is worthwhile, and then, if they can do that, we'll have something to hold on to.  We're speaking only about opera.  In general, conductors tend to pick out certain works that do a service to the composer, instead of finding music that they like and following through. 

BD:  So they're looking for the wrong things?

VP:  I think so, yes.

BD:  You've written two operas?

VP:  No, no, I've only written one, The Sibyl
[The Sibyl: A Parable of Chicken Little (Parable XX): An Opera in One Act, Op. 135]  That's the story of Chicken Little.  I never thought I was going to write an opera; I just happened to meet a librettist I could work with, and that was myself [chuckles] and I did it.

BD:  The seventh edition of Baker's Biographical Dictionary lists two works:  Parable XX in two acts (1976), and Sibyl (1984).

VP:  Oh, that's a mistake.  I was working on it as a two-act thing, but that all changed.  [Note: Probably because of this interview, Persichetti contacted his publisher and the listing was corrected in the eighth edition of Baker's.]  It's an opera in one act and takes an hour and 15 minutes.  Its subtitle is Parable XX because my Parables are music where I'm avoiding a truth in order to make a point.  Many of my Parables are music about other things that I have written, or personal things that I have become involved with.  In a sense, the Chicken Little story was that, for me.

BD:  Is this a chamber opera or an opera for big forces?

VP:  It's got a large chorus, six soloists and a medium-sized orchestra.

BD:  Would you like to have the Metropolitan do it, or is it something that you would rather have a chamber group produce?

VP:  No, I'd rather have a full opera company do it.  It's a dramatic work; the sky does fall!  I would rather have it done in a regular opera house.  It was done here in Philadelphia in a house of about a thousand; it was okay, but I think it would work in a big place.

BD:  Being about an hour and a quarter, what would you recommend be the other half of the bill?

VP:  That could be one of those short operas
Barber has one an opera that lasts 20 or 30 minutes.  I haven't really thought about it.  I liked it just as it was.  When we did it in Philadelphia, it was just the one opera and that's it.

BD:  Let it stand on its own.

VP:  Let it stand on its own, sure.  I don't know where it's going to be done again, but we'll see.  I haven't heard anything.

BD:  I assume that you want it to be done again and again.

VP:  Yes, I do!  Oh, yes, I'm very happy with it.

BD:  Do you expect your music to last?

VP:  Yes, yes is the answer.  [Both chuckle]  There are certain performing organizations and certain people that have nourished me and bring me a lot of happiness.  As a matter of fact, the Chicago Symphony is one of them.  I just love to be out there I remember your wonderful manager who died recently [John S. Edwards (1912-1984)]; I remember the last time I was there, Ormandy was playing one of his last concerts and he included my Piano Concerto.  I just feel in Chicago that almost everybody there rather liked my work, and that enriches my soul.

BD:  I'm glad we make you feel warm here in Chicago.

VP:  Yes!  And to say nothing of Ferris!  That was a wonderful visit I had with the William Ferris Chorale.  And then things follow through.  From my being in Chicago, there are people who keep in touch with me, and maybe I'll write another piece for somebody else.  St. Louis did my Sixth and Seventh Symphonies; they commissioned them.

BD:  Let us hope there is a lot more coming from your pen.

VP:  Yes.  Mm-hmm.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Do you feel that you are a part of a lineage of composers?

persichettiVP:  I think I am; I kinda stem from Haydn and Schumann and maybe Rossini and Verdi.  In fact, my family on my father's side was from Torricella Peligna [a village in Abruzzo], where Rossini's family came from.  [Note: Persichetti says in an interview in Perspectives of New Music (v. 20, no. 1/2 (Autumn 1981-Summer 1982, p. 104) that it was the Bellini family; neither legend, however, seems correct as Rossini was from Pesaro, in Marche, while Bellini was Sicilian, and lived in Naples.]  I've always felt very close to Robert Schumann and somewhat Haydn.  Haydn interests me because he makes so many promises that he doesn't fulfill!  I'm not criticizing him; I love his music, but in his introductions he'll start out [sings up a minor scale] BOOMP-BOOMP-BOOMP-BOOMP, the giants going up the stairs and shaking their fists and just about to break loose, and he goes [sings a very brisk, happy-sounding melody] da-DEEE, dup ba beedabeeda ba-ba-ba, and starts to dance.  [Both laugh]  So I have found much in that part of Haydn that perhaps he didn't want to get into.  That's always stimulated me.  And Arthur Honegger very much because he upturned a lot of material and really didn't go on with it.  There are wonderful things here and there that stimulate creativity.

BD:  I always like to ask composers about the influence of recordings.  Do you feel that the proliferation of recordings has been a good thing for the public and for the composers?

VP:  Recordings are just a wonderful thing in our time, and it's done a lot for all of us.  I wish they could be not so calculated.  I've done this myself, and I've been in recording sessions where they piece the good parts together, and you wind up with no wrong notes, but the shape is often gone.  And that bothers me.  But there's enough in favor of the wonderful medium that I'm very happy we have it.  Recordings that are taken from concerts are the ones I like best because then you get the spontaneity.  There are some wonderfully defined records that are great, but as a general rule, as composers of new music we need to have the shape of the piece rather than technical perfection.  The worst thing that we can get is wonderful major ensemble or orchestra that will play perfectly, and the conductor doesn't get the shape of the piece.

BD:  So then what you're saying is the point of music is not the technical, but the inspirational.

VP:  Yes!  Of course!  We love to have the right notes, but a piece can die.  I've heard masterworks, such as the Second Symphony by Brahms, played by a community orchestra that is not so good, but all they're working for is the perfection
the right notes and intonationand if they get close to it, they don't have the shape of the piece.  We don't blame Brahms because we know that work, but with a new workone of oursyou're gonna think that's what we wrote, and that's kind of unfair.

BD:  So you need to get more rehearsal and a better hearing out of all the new pieces.

VP:  That's right, and conductors could do this.  I'm speaking about major orchestra because that probably does more for our careers than anything in the public way.  I wish that each conductor would find a piece that he really loves and would then program that piece again the following year and three years later and have a repetition of those works.  We know it has happened with Stravinsky and Bartók, but I'm talking about the more recent composers.  Wouldn't you rather just have three works that you found a conductor liked?  Even if you didn't like the work, the fact that he liked it and kept doing it would be significant.  The string quartets do that more than the conductors do.  We have to have more people to stick their neck out.  [Both chuckle]

BD:  With so much music being written, is there a competition amongst composers to get these works heard?

VP:  I don't think there should be, but I guess there is.  If a composer has a performance and it is a meaningful piece, and it's played again and again, that enriches my life.  I don't think composers can be in competition with each other because we're all unique; we're all different.  I know this comes into the picture sometimes...

BD:  But there's only so much material that the public at large can absorb.

VP:  Yes.

BD:  As you mentioned earlier, we're getting so much music being written
the great and the not-greatso at some point we have to sort it out.  This is what I'm looking for, the sorting-out process.

VP:  Yes.  I think by the end of the century we will have sorted out quite a bit of it.  We have done that in the last 30 years; we know so much more of the 30 years before than we did then.  I'm encouraged by it.

BD:  Are you optimistic about the future of music?

VP:  I am, yes.  We are speaking of our time, and I think a lot of the music that we're hearing now will be here to stay.  If Phil Glass bothers you, or bothers a person because of overmesmerization, he's still contributing something; he's giving composers of the next century a way to include mesmerization within a piece.  You certainly get that in Beethoven and Brahms
just for a touch here and thereand I can't just dismiss any of these composers.  I think many of them are making a sacrifice by specializing in one thing in order to give the next century a better footage, a better means of writing what they wanna write, and what they can write.

BD:  Music today seems to be going in so many divergent ways; is there a mainstream, or is it just that a lot of different paths are being tried?

VP:  I think we're about at the end of that.  We're now beginning to amalgamate all of these different paths and techniques into one way of writing, and are able to speak very clearly what we have to say as of now.  I think we're headed for a rich time in the end of the century, and the next century is gonna begin with a lot of this wonderful music that goes in and out jazz and into mesmeric things, into kind of a serial thing.  There'll be, I think, a meaningful repertoire of our time.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  On the whole, are you basically pleased with the performances you have heard of your music?

VP:  Yes, I would say so.  I've been very lucky with performances.  For instance, Robert Whitney in the early days and the Louisville Orchestra; I was pleased with that because those people played so many different kinds of music that they could understand more easily what I was trying to do, and they gave it rehearsal time.  Also the Juilliard String Quartet; we have so many of these groups around this country that get right to the core of the music.  And certainly the Chicago Symphony; I go back to that.  But I find wonderful performances by wonderful orchestras and bands in the universities around the country.  They may not be the top performers
since they're students, but they have played so much 20th century music that they know how to shape the phrases in a beautiful manneralmost an alarming manner.  [Chuckles]  They'll find something there that you maybe didn't quite even dream of, and make something of it, whereas sometimes the professional orchestras don't always get it as quickly.  You know, the bands have done a lot for getting into contemporary music.  I'm not talking about weak band music, but there's been some strong band music, and these people aren't that proficient at playing; they have to work harder but they do this all through high school and college, and by the time they get to the end of college, they know what our music is about and can sit down and play it with phrase meaning and shape and with some conviction.  So yes, I've gotten a lot of very meaningful performances.  I'm sure I'm skipping so many that I've had, but a lot of it comes from the schools.

BD:  In all of this, you're really talking about music more as a participatory art rather than as something that is viewed from the outside.

VP:  Yes!  That's where it has to come from, I think!

BD:  Are you basically pleased with the recordings that have been made of your music?

VP:  Yes, especially the Four-hand Concerto that my wife and I did, and the Louisville things such as the English Horn Concerto.

BD:  What's the role of the music critic?

VP:  We must remember that the music critic is one person and it's one person's opinion.  He's exaggerated so much in the public's mind; I think he should be sure to be a good student all his life and study as much as he can.  His role is to report on the concert and to report on reactions and what people think of what has just been played; then, if it's a new piece, to look for something meaningful in the piece and say so.  If he cannot find anything meaningful in the piece and he thinks it's a bad work, I would like him to be unhappy about it, not happy or glib.  Some critics have been wonderful about contributing and helping a composer with his work.  It's quite a responsibility.

BD:  Is it too much responsibility for any one individual?

VP:  I think so, but they should do it as well as they can.  I think Virgil Thomson did as well as he could; he was looking for good new music, and he helped us.  [Note: To read my interview with Virgil Thomson, click here.]  There are some young people in New York now that I'm beginning to notice; they're very happy if they like a piece, and they begin to compare something that you wrote with a piece you wrote five years ago.  Very often a critic will discuss a piece that you write as though you had never written a piece before.  Some of us have been writing for 50 years!  [Both chuckle]

BD:  Sure!  So it's the responsibility of the critic to be familiar with so much.

VP:  Yes.  So it's a wonderful challenge and I may be wrong, but I really feel that they are doing a better job these days.  A lot of them are serious musicians.  I don't want to mention names, but there's some very young ones there that interest me very much.

BD:  You feel that each music critic should have some experience either performing or composing, or both?

VP:  I think it would help a lot, sure, because it's not just a reporting job on what happens.  It's nice if they could get into the music.  I just get disturbed, though, whether they're musical or not, when a piece they happen to dislike has gotten an ovation at the concert and they don't mention it.  That does bother me.  But I'm not against critics; I just feel sorry for them; it's a big job.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  Coming back to your opera for just a moment, a couple more questions, if I may.

VP:  Okay.

BD:  If it were being done in Europe, would you want it to be translated into the language of the audience?

VP:  I would like it to be for them.  [Thinks a moment]  Honestly, I would prefer having it done in English because that's how it was written.  But if it had gotten to that point, I don't see why it shouldn't be translated into French or whatever.

BD:  Do you know this new gimmick of having the supertitles in the theater?

VP:  Yes.

BD:  Do you feel that that is an ideal compromise, then?

VP:  I do!  Very much so!  And especially for some operas that are in English and played in America where we can't understand the English!

BD:  They should still be titled?

VP:  I think so, sure.  The newer things, I think, should be.

BD:  Do you feel opera works well on television?

VP:  For me it does, if they just don't stick a camera in one spot.  There are study things made with a camera focused on the stage without moving throughout the thing.  That's okay for study purposes, but if the opera's televised with its own form, I think it can be very wonderful
something in addition to what you see in the opera house.

BD:  It can add yet another dimension?

VP:  I think so.  I think it really can.

BD:  Do you think that concerts work well on television?

VP:  For me they do.  I've been so hungry for music ever since I was five years old!  I can remember the first Edison record I had.  I would just be so grateful for the recordings.  One of the first recordings was some Puccini.  I feel grateful any time I just get a chance to hear a piece under any conditions.

BD:  It sounds as though you are insatiable for music!

VP:  Yes, I am.  That's right.  I'm what you call a music nut, like some wonderful amateurs are.  I think that's part of music.  One of the things that a composer has to be careful about
including myselfwe get so involved with what we're writing, the detail and the craft, that we take a piece to places where we're kind of lost in the detail.  The one thing that we have to have is what an amateur hears in a piecethe general dramatic shape of the piece.  That's the one thing that Beethoven always had.  He could get involved with craft and details.  You can like almost analyze Beethoven by using serial techniquesdiatonic serial techniques!  He always had this shape.  You can listen to a Beethoven symphonyeven if you've never heard it before (and that's hard to conceive of) and not listen carefully, not concentrating too much on it, and you will feel the shape of the piece, the drama of it, the intensity in it. He never goes to the same high note a second time!  He always goes lower and leaves that as the highest note, or then goes higher right before the end.  That's what the great composers have, that dramatic concept of a piece.

BD:  That's the spark of genius.

VP:  I think so, yeah.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:  When you're writing a piece of music, how do you know when it's finished?

VP:  Hindemith said that you should know about the shape of the whole piece, and I agree with him, but not at the start.  We start with a motive, then we're kind of seduced by some harmonic place and we let it go for awhile, not trying to be intelligent about it; just let it go.  At least that's what I do, anyway.  Then later will come some other subsidiary ideas for that kind of piece, and gradually I begin to see a piece.  Then it begins to take shape, and at about that point we have to get in there cold and understand it like Hindemith said.  Sometimes I arrive at that, sometimes I don't
in which case I don't finish the piece.  But if I arrive at that point, then I know how long a piece will be.  I don't mean in minutes, but where it's going to go.  If I finally get to that point where I realize that concept, that flash I had, then I know the piece is done, with the exception of going maybe further into the polishing of ideas.  For instance, there could be a place in the middle where you have an accompanying figure that was just kinda filler and it happened accidentally.  You know what to do, but as you see the whole piece, there's a figure that's not thematically related to something.  I will start changing and putting more carats in the gold there at that point in order to get my final concept of the piece.  But the time comes when I know the piece is done.

scoreBD:  Do you ever go back and tinker with it a little bit, or make revisions?

VP:  I do that all the time before I decide it's done.

BD:  But once you decide that it's done, do you then ever go back and change anything?

VP:  No, no...  excepting a miscalculation of a viola part where I may have to put up an octave, or stuff like that.  The composer has to go back to what he's done and rewrite.  I have, for instance, a three-page song that I've been working on for 20 years.  I'm not gonna give it up, but I haven't found it!  [With an air of self-encouragement]  I have craft; I can write three pages of music for voice and piano.  [Both chuckle]  Every note has to mean something, and this piece is not making it.  The poet is Adele Crapsey.  I'm so mad at her!  [Chuckles.]  I had better luck with Wallace Stevens and e. e. cummings, and my friend Emily which I'm playing with right now.  I am thinking about some kind of a series of death poems...  I shouldn't talk about this because it doesn't mean I'd ever do it.  What I'm really working on now is a solo piano piece and I suddenly discovered a whole kind of ballade-shaped piece.  I'd just rewritten a whole section because it was absolutely wonderful, but it was not about the piece I started.  I went on a detour and it's probably the best part of the piece, but it's not gonna be there.  I have to focus in!

BD:  So you'll take that detour and use it elsewhere?

VP:  Probably; not on purpose, but it will show up, I'm sure.

BD:  So what you're saying is that sometimes the compositional process becomes involuntary for you.

VP:  Yes it does, and I don't fight it; I just let it happen.  But then I don't let that go without getting back to it.  I have to let it sit for a long time, sometimes.  But why should I ever stop writing music for myself in order to explore the possibilities of that particular medium and material?  That's what I have to do!  It takes more time; I mean how many years is worth spending on a piece?  As long as it takes!

BD:  It's time well spent, then.

VP:  Sure, right.  Some people call me a fast composer because I have a big catalog of things.  I'm not; I'm a very slow-working composer.  I can work fast and I've worked fast to do preliminary searching in a piece, but I write very slowly.  I throw this out and throw that out, and then begin to manipulate material and search around, and I get the sound.  It was as though I never had written a piece before!  I struggle with it and can spend 24 hours a day on a piece, sometimes.  So that you can't judge.  I write maybe more music than a lot of people do because I spend more time, not because I'm quicker in writing.  If I'm at Juilliard at the end of the day alone in my studio, I've been in the middle of a piece that I've been thinking about all day and I'll stay right there.  We're supposed to get outta there at 10 o'clock, but the cleaning ladies let me stay, and they check every once in a while to see that I'm all right because the air gets turned off and we don't have any windows!

BD:  When you're working on a piece of music, do you only work on one piece at a time or do you have several projects going at once?

VP:  I'm always in more than one piece; two, three, four.  I've never been between works.  I may be working on a symphonic work and have it in a semi-finished stage.  A lot of that is scoring and detail and adjustments, so I'm free creatively.  Somehow or other I begin to get ideas for some other piece before that piece is over.  So I'll often have three pieces working in different states.  At a time when I'm really hot on a piece, especially in the beginning of it and getting material, I don't work on another piece at that time; but later in that first piece I will find myself getting finishing ideas on another piece or initial ideas on a new piece.  I'm always thinking about some new piece, and these are not because of commissions; I just get into it.  As I said I don't really write on commission.  I just have to write what I wanna write, and I'm delighted when commissions go along side.  It's nice to have your parts paid for.

BD:  What is next on the calendar for you?

VP:  My last piece that I finished was a chorale prelude for organ, and it's called Give Peace, O God [Op. 162].  It was premiered in Ann Arbor at the American Guild of Organists convention [by organist Donald Williams on June 3, 1986].  It began with a hymn that they wanted me to write for the hymn festival.  I wrote this hymn asking God for peace, and then I was asked to write this organ piece which turned out to be a large chorale prelude.  At this point I'm so tired of asking God for peace that I got mad and the piece starts as a terror all over the place!  It's wild.  You begin to hear part of this hymn in there and it takes a long time before it can make any headway.  About three-quarters of the way through, it kind of ruptures in a tremendous collection of notes.  We've often called them clusters but there should be a better name!  It's a disease cluster; it has spaces in it and funny twists and a little bit of warping of the chord!  Finally you can hear the hymn clear up and the piece ends.  I had such a wonderful time with that piece, and I was so sorry I couldn't get to the premiere; I've had little problems with getting around this last summer, and I missed the whole thing.  This disturbing material is getting into some other music I'm writing right now.  One of these pieces I'm working on now is a solo piano piece, but I think I'm working on a second volume of hymns and responses for the church here.  I hate to say this, but I think I'm gonna begin a tenth harpsichord sonata.  I just had my ninth one premiered in New York.

BD:  Why do you hate to say that?

VP:  Because suppose next week or two months from now I meet you in the street and you ask me how my tenth harpsichord sonata is coming; I may not be working on it anymore.  [Laughter]  I'm talking to you as a close friend now, so I'm not being careful.

BD:  I won't hold you to any of it.

VP:  That's wonderful.

BD:  Can we hope for another opera?

VP:  I doubt it; I don't see one in the future.  My opera is just one opera; it's a very special one.  Now I may start one in six months, but at the moment I have no idea for an opera.  That's all I can say.  I've got a long life with all kinds of music, and I've never gotten into opera.  This one was just an exception in my life.

BD:  But a happy exception.

VP:  Yeah, happy.  Oh, yes.  That is the reason I call it a parable; it's about modern music that I have written before, more of a little piano book and certain pieces that have to do with people, but they're animals.  That's what Chicken Little, the whole opera is about, that everybody's a person.  I doubt I'll get to another opera.  I have students writing operas all the time at Juilliard!

BD:  What advice do you have for students who want to write operas?

VP:  To not write them too soon.  The one thing they have to do is have a technique and know how to write a shape, a phrase that's meaningful.  Once they do, then my advice is to never put filler music in; try to make it meaningful all the way through.  That may be bad advice from some people's viewpoint...  I have two people now who are genuinely interested and have the craft and talent.  I encourage them and help them and root for them.  I'm always very happy about it; in fact I've submitted some names of young composers to the Chicago Lyric Opera to be their composer-in-residence.

BD:  I want to thank you for spending the time with me; I have learned a lot, and I want to thank you for being a composer.

VP:  Well, thank you for saying so!

BD:  It's very special when I can chat with a creative mind, especially one that has given us so very, very much.

VP:  I've enjoyed talking to you, and I only wish this could've been in person.  I would like to have known you closer.

There have been few more universally admired twentieth-century American composers than Vincent Persichetti. His contributions have enriched the entire musical literature and his influence as performer and teacher is immeasurable.

Born in Philadelphia in 1915, Persichetti began his musical life at age five, first studying piano, then organ, double bass, tuba, theory and composition. By the age of 11, he was paying for his own musical education and helping to support himself by performing professionally as an accompanist, radio staff pianist, orchestra member and church organist. At 16, he was appointed organist and choir director for the Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, a post he held for nearly 20 years. A virtuoso pianist and organist, he combined extraordinary versatility with an osmotic musical mind, and his earliest published works, written when the composer was 14, exhibit mastery of form, medium and style.

Concurrent with these early activities, Persichetti was a student in the Philadelphia public schools and received a thorough musical education at the Combs College of Music, where he earned a Mus. B. degree in 1935 under Russel King Miller, his principal composition teacher. From the age of 20, he was simultaneously head of the theory and composition departments at the Combs College, a conducting major with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute and piano major with Olga Samaroff at the Philadelphia Conservatory, in addition to studying composition with a number of important American composers. He received a Diploma in Conducting from the Curtis Institute and Mus. M. and Mus. D. degrees from the Philadelphia Conservatory.

In 1941 Persichetti was appointed head of the theory and composition departments at the Philadelphia Conservatory and in the same year married pianist Dorothea Flanagan. A daughter Lauren, was born in 1944 and a son, Garth, in 1946. In 1947 he joined the faculty of the Juilliard School of Music, assuming chairmanship of the Composition Department in 1963. Persichetti was appointed Editorial Director of the music publishing firm of Elkan-Vogel, Inc. in 1952.

Over the years, Vincent Persichetti was accorded many honors by the artistic and academic communities, including Honorary Doctor of Music degrees from Bucknell University, Millikin University, Arizona State University, Combs College, Baldwin-Wallace College, Peabody Conservatory, and honorary membership in numerous musical fraternities. He was the recipient of three Guggenheim Fellowships, two grants from the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities and one from the National Institute of Arts and Letters, of which he was a member. He received the first Kennedy Center Friedheim Award, Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, Pennsylvania Governor’s Award, Columbia Records Chamber Music Award, Juilliard Publication Award, Blue Network Chamber Music Award, Symphony League Award, Philadelphia Art Alliance Medal for Distinguished Achievement, Medal of Honor from the Italian Government, and citations from the American Bandmasters Association and National Catholic Music Educators Association. Among some 100 commissions were those from the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the St. Louis and Louisville Symphony Orchestras, the Koussevitsky Music Foundation, Naumberg Foundation, Collegiate Chorale, Martha Graham Company, Juilliard Musical Foundation, Hopkins Center, American Guild of Organists, Pittsburgh International Contemporary Music Festival, universities and individual performers. He appeared as guest conductor, lecturer and composer at over 200 universities. Wide coverage by the major TV and news media of the premiere of his A Lincoln Address helped to focus worldwide attention on his music.

Persichetti composed for nearly every musical medium. More than 120 of his works are published and many of these are available on commercial recordings. Though he never specifically composed "educational" music as such, many of his smaller pieces are suitable for teaching purposes. His piano music, a complete body of literature in itself, consists of six sonatinas, three volumes of poems, a concerto and a concertino for piano and orchestra, serenades, a four-hand concerto, a two-piano sonata, twelve solo piano sonatas, and various shorter works.

His keyboard virtuosity led him to produce nine organ works, including Sonatina for Organ, Pedals Alone, and the dramatic Shimah B’Koli (Psalm 130), as well as nine sonatas for harpsichord.

Persichetti’s style of orchestral writing reflected his considerable talent and experience as a conductor. Of his symphonies, several, notably the Fourth, Fifth (Symphony for Strings), and Eighth, have made their way into the repertoire of major American symphonic ensembles. The Seventh Symphony was a very personal statement and is a symphonic development of materials from his small choral book Hymns and Responses for the Church Year.   Another large important orchestral work, commissioned for the Philadelphia Orchestra, is Sinfonia: Janiculum, written while Persichetti was in Rome on his second Guggenheim Fellowship. The most famous of his smaller orchestral works, and one firmly established in American symphonic literature, is The Hollow Men for trumpet and string orchestra, a delicate evocation of the T.S. Eliot poem. Three of his last commissions were the English Horn Concerto (New York Philharmonic), Flower Songs: Cantata No. 6 (Michael Korn and the Philadelphia Singers), and Chorale Prelude: Give Peace, O God (Ann Arbor chapter of the American Guild of Organists).

The numerous instrumental compositions include two unique series: one comprises 15 different works each entitled Serenade for such diverse combinations as piano duet, flute and harp, solo tuba, orchestra, band, two recorders, two clarinets and the trio of trombone, viola and cello. The series of 25 pieces, each entitled Parable, occupied Persichetti’s thoughts for some time. He also wrote four string quartets, a piano quintet, solo sonatas for violin and cello, Infanta Marina for viola and piano, Little Recorder Book, and Masques for violin and piano, to name just a few.

Persichetti’s unusual feeling for poetry produced numerous vocal and choral compositions of remarkably high literary and musical quality. His greatest solo vocal work is undoubtedly Harmonium, an impressive cycle of 20 closely interrelated songs to poems by Wallace Stevens.

Though not of the same magnitude as Harmonium, Persichetti’s other vocal compositions exhibit a unique wedding of text and music which sets them apart from most other composers’ efforts in this genre. His choral output ranges from small works such as Proverb for mixed voices, Song of Peace for male chorus and piano, Spring Cantata for women’s voices and piano, through larger works: Mass for mixed chorus a cappella, Winter Cantata for women’s voices, flute and marimba, and Glad and Very for two-part mixed, women’s or men’s voices and piano, and then to large scale sacred and secular works: The Pleiades for chorus, trumpet and string orchestra, Celebrations for chorus and wind ensemble, and what Persichetti considered to be his magnum opus, The Creation, a huge work for solo vocal quartet, chorus and orchestra with texts drawn by the composer from mythological scientific, poetic and Biblical sources. The small but significant choral book Hymns and Responses for the Church Year, has already been influential in breathing a new spirit into twentieth-century hymnody.

More than any other major American composer, Persichetti poured his talents into the literature for wind band. From the Serenade for Ten Wind Instruments, Op. 1 to the Parable for Band, Op. 121, he provided performers and audiences with a body of music of unparalleled excellence. Of his 14 band works, four are of major proportions: Masquerade, Parable, A Lincoln Address and Symphony for Band. Of lesser compositional importance, the Divertimento is nevertheless one of the most widely performed works in the entire repertoire.

In additions to his exhaustive compositional efforts, Persichetti found time to write one of the definitive books on modern compositional techniques, Twentieth Century Harmony: Creative Aspects and Practice (W.W. Norton, 1961) and essays in two books by Robert Hines on twentieth century choral music and twentieth century orchestral music (University of Oklahoma Press, 1963 and 1970). He also co-authored a biography of William Schuman (G. Schirmer, 1954).

To a new, adventurous generation of composers — fortunately, large and musically eloquent — he was a teacher par excellence and a highly lucid theorist. In both capacities his great artistry was ever clear and impressive, providing an example of dynamic leadership for those who encountered his genius.

 ----  Biography from Persichetti's publisher, Theodore Presser Company 

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on November 15, 1986.  Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in 1990, 1995 and 2000.  An audio copy was placed in the Oral History American Music Archive at Yale University.  The transcription was made and posted on this website in 2009.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award-winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.