Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987) was a piano and organ prodigy who was supporting himself with his musical talents by age 11. A longtime 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 later 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.
The Symphony for Band, op. 69, was Persichetti’s sixth, completed in 1956 on a commission from the band at Washington University in St. Louis and their director Clarke Mitze. According to the composer, “The Symphony No. 6 is called a Symphony for Band because, as No. 5 is for strings, No. 6 is for winds, and I did not wish to avoid the word ‘band’.” It is his most performed symphony, and one of the undisputed masterworks of the wind band repertoire. In it, Persichetti makes full use of the color palate of the wind band, only rarely achieving tutti while experimenting with endless combinations of solo instruments and instrumental choirs. His percussion writing is particularly unique, as he utilizes both pitched and unpitched percussion to introduce and develop melodic and rhythmic ideas that are integral to the unfolding of the symphony. Harmonically, he is as daring as ever, particularly in the lengthy outer movements. While his harmonies are based on triads, they are often combined in bi-tonal ways, and beyond: for instance, the very last sound in the symphony is a chord built from six different triads (for the curious, from the bottom up: B-flat major, A major, E major, B major, E-flat minor, and F major, with a G thrown on top in the piccolo for good measure), resulting in a chord that uses all 12 chromatic pitch classes in a nearly 6 octave span.
Formally, the Symphony for Band is a nearly textbook example of Neoclassicism, using versions of forms that would have been familiar to Mozart and Beethoven. It comes in four movements that closely match the classical symphony model:
II. Adagio sostenuto
The first movement is a standard sonata allegro with slow introduction. The primary themes of the movement (and, indeed, the entire symphony) are laid out unambiguously during this Adagio. The second movement is based on one of Persichetti’s own hymns, written as part of his Hymns and Responses for the Church Year, op. 68, titled “Round Me Falls the Night.” It uses a relatively simple extended ABA form, as does the rhythmic third movement. This third movement functions as the minuet of the symphony, evoking a traditional triple meter dance but inserting a more pastoral, duple-meter celebration as a foil. The tension between the two dances makes for fascinating listening. The Vivace is Persichetti at his most playful, including harmonic and rhythmic surprises, a section where the brass makes fun of everyone else, and that immense 12-tone chord at the end. It is a free rondo, returning essentially to a main theme but bringing new and old themes in as well, including a big finish on the major themes introduced in the first movement.
The Symphony for Band does not suffer from a lack of scholarly attention. Michael Chester’s masters thesis is among the most comprehensive studies of the piece. John Christie’s structural analysis is also indispensable. Frederick Fennell has written about it. It has also been discussed at the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra Blog, the Wind Repertory Project, the Wind Band Symphony Archive, and WindBandLit. These are but a few of the many sources available about this piece. You can find out more about Persichetti himself at Theodore Presser, Wikipedia, and his own Society’s website.