Vincent Persichetti was a piano and organ prodigy who was supporting himself with his musical talents by age 11. A lifelong Philadelphia resident, he took full advantage of that city’s music institutions. At age 20, he was simultaneously the head of the music department at Combs College, a conducting major with Fritz Reiner at the Curtis Institute, and a piano and composition student at the Philadelphia Conservatory. His distinctly original compositions began to be recognized internationally before he was 30. His skyrocketing reputation led to his appointment at the Juilliard School, where he became the chair of the composition department at age 47. He died in 1987, leaving behind a unique body of work in almost every musical medium, including a number of masterpieces for the wind band.
Several different program notes on Psalm construct a full picture of the piece and its place in the repertoire. The US Air Force Band gives us some basic facts about the piece:
Psalm for Band was comissioned by the Alpha Chapter of Pi Kappa Omicron Nation Band Fraternity at the University of Louisville, and was premiered in 1952 by the University of Lousiville Concert Band with the composer conducting. In the title, Persichetti refers to a poem of worship that was, in ancient times, sung or accompanied by harp. Using a single musical idea as a foundation for the entire piece, Persicheti explores different facets of the psaml–worship, reflection and celebration.
A CD review by Steve Schwartz on classical.net gives further description and context:
Persichetti is a major player in contributing to the modern repertoire for wind band, as opposed to the occasional dabbler, with several large works, including at least one symphony, for this ensemble. The Psalm appeared a year after Mennin’s Canzona. Why Persichetti called it a “psalm” I have no idea. It certainly doesn’t use the conventional idioms of religious music, and it doesn’t call to mind any particular psalm. The solemn opening Persichetti calls a “chorale,” but it’s definitely a chorale filtered through Stravinsky. Persichetti lays out the work in three large sections, each in a noticeably faster tempo, culminating in a brilliant, electrifying allegro molto, which at the very end recapitulates themes from throughout the work. It clocks in at a hefty 8 minutes, but it also takes you on a thrill ride. Like a really good roller coaster, it makes you want to ride again as soon as it’s over.
According the Oklahoma City University Program Note Resource for Band Directors, the composer himself had something to say about the piece:
The composer supplied the following note on the score: “Psalm for Band is a piece constructed from a single germinating harmonic idea. There are three distinct sections — a sustained chordal mood, a forward-moving chorale, followed by a Paean culmination of the materials. Extensive use is made of separate choirs of instruments supported by thematic rhythms in the tenor and bass drums.”
Onto a performance, featuring The President’s Own United States Marine Band: