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Persichetti: Portrait of a Teacher

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This is a reprint of Juilliard faculty member Michael White's reminiscence about Vincent Persichetti for the May 1993 issue of The Journal.

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When Vincent Persichetti passed away, seven years ago this summer, an incredible forty year teaching career at Juilliard was brought to its conclusion. His loyalty to the school was legendary, and everybody recalls his encyclopedic knowledge of sonatas, quartets, symphonies, operas—seemingly everything written between Monteverdi’s Orfeo and Berg’s Lulu!

Fifteen years after her graduation, one former student remembered a class when Vincent was explaining the concept of hemiola. In the course of convincing the students to “use their ears,” he kept running back and forth to the piano. (She emphasized the word “running” with the same look of amazement on her face that she must have worn in 1975.) “I wrote down all the works he played: a Brahms Intermezzo, a Courante of Bach, a movement from La Mer, a Scarlatti sonata, and another short work of Brahms. My god, he didn’t just play a few bars here and there, he did a while section – talking, singing, and bouncing over to the blackboard all the while!” She paused a moment, thinking back to that afternoon. “All the students in that class looked at their neighbors, mouths open, thinking, “does this guy know the entire repertoire by heart?”

This type of class was not uncommon, and it was never in the service of “Watch me perform, class.” Everything he spoke about or played had one purpose: to help the students make essential aural connections to what would otherwise be just intellectual concepts. Anybody could look up the definition of hemiola in the Harvard Dictionary – but, would they really understand? “You can look at music, talk about music, and read about music until the Second Coming,” he’d say, “but if you don’t have it in your ears, you’ll never get it.” And “getting it” is exactly what all those generations of students were doing in his classes. (They were so popular that a former Juilliard Registrar remembered that more than a few students tried to lie, bribe, or cheat their way into Persichetti’s always-closed sections.)

My favorite type of class always began with an innocent question like, “What was the most exciting event in the history of music?” Imagine twenty-five students thinking madly, scanning their memories for the most dramatic moment they had ever read or heard about. Everybody blurted out their favorites: the scandal-plagued first performance of The Rite of Spring; the afternoon that Mozart gave an impromptu recital on J.S. Bach’s organ in Leipzig; the precise moment that Robert Schumann spied the beautiful Clara Wieck at her father’s piano – “No, no, and no!” Vincent would say, “although that last one was pretty good. But it can’t compare to the discovery of the dominant 7th chord. Think about it!” Of course, he wanted you to remember how Bach, or Chopin, or Debussy used that “little dominant 7th” to create miracles of harmonic movement.

Two days later he returned for the follow-up, and it was memorable. He asked a student to name six pitches, and then, rushing over to the piano, started improvising wildly, forgetting for the moment that he was still standing up. In the next ten minutes, using only the given six pitches for the right hand melodies he created in rapid succession a “Verdi” aria, a “Bach” fugue, and a “Chopin” mazurka. Then, before the class could catch its collective breath, he tacked on a “Lassus” motet and a “Gershwin” song, complete with improvised lyrics. Now the lesson began:

V.P.: (Presto staccatissimo) “So, you guys, what made the Chopin sound like Chopin?”

Student: “All those dominant 7ths?”
V.P.: “But the Verdi used 7th chords too!”

Student: “But, you always…. knew…. uh…. what…. where they were going in the Verdi.”

V.P.: (Agitato) “Oh, Mr. Sawyer! Good ears! Good ears! (This was the ultimate compliment, therefore general applause for Mr. Sawyer.) And in the Chopin?”

Student: “I had absolutely no idea where those chords were going!” (smiles, laughter)

V.P.: (Presto impossibile) “Me either!” (more smiles) But Chopin did! I’ll bet you all $5,000 (checking his wallet) well, five bucks anyway, that Chopin knew where those chords were going, (proving it again at the piano) but Ayako, tell me, what was the percentage of 7th chords in the Gershwin?”

Ayako: “One hundred percent, sir. Every single chord!”

V.P.:Sir? And in the Lassus?” (going back to the piano, this time completely mangling the “motet,” for or five wrong notes per bar, meanwhile doing an awful imitation of a 16th century castrato singing the text in non-existent Latin…. now he scurries around the classroom, pointing at one student here, another student there, singing in one long melisma, “Aaaand Laaassuuus?”

Entire class: (screaming with laughter) “None! None!”

V.P.: (huge smile) “What took so long? Where are those ears? (grabbing and shaking his own).

Student: “Mr. Persichetti, did you really improvise that Bach fugue?”

V.P.: “Robert, anyone in this room could have done the same thing.”

Entire class: “Oh, sure!”

V.P.: “Hey, remember what Bach said? ‘Music is a craft, and anybody who applies himself can’ ….”

Robert: “But Bach was Bach!”

V.P.: (creeping up on the unsuspecting Robert – Andante e poi molto accelerando – Presto) “And you, Robert Bielecki, are you! And next Thursday we are going to be analyzing your fugue in class.”

Robert: “Oh my god.” (Entire class turns to look with pity on Mr. Bielecki.)

Perhaps the casual visitor to that class would have sworn that Persichetti was just “showing off” with all that improvisation-through-the-ages routine. But that was not the case. Vincent knew that the “shtick” was a fine way to get the students excited – and once you had them on the edge of their seats, well, you could teach them Newtonian physics, or cabinet making, or the importance of a “little dominant 7tb chord.”

He was a living definition of the word “teacher.” He shared his knowledge with his students, yes, but first he let them understand what they were going to learn. Ten years later, they will have forgotten the brilliant improvisations, but the stylistic points of the lesson will have become part of their musical understanding. Vincent believed in the “time-bomb effect” when it came to teaching and learning. He knew that if you piqued students’ curiosities and senses of wonder, (as opposed to filling their heads with facts), students would be encouraged to seek knowledge on their own. This would not happen immediately, the pressures of Conservatory life being what they are, but he knew that it would happen eventually. His humility would not allow him to recall praise received, but generations of teaching assistants could testify to the comments of former students, such as, “Thank you, Mr. Persichetti, for helping me to understand,” or “Thank you for teaching me how to listen,” or, simply, “Thank you.”

A magazine interviewer once asked him the old question, “What was the happiest time of your life?” The speed and content of the answer surprised the reporter: “Playing some of the great four-hand stuff with Dorothea.” Considering his long, extremely successful career as a composer, performer, teacher, and editor, the admission that playing four-hand sonatas with his wife brought the greatest happiness might have surprised anybody who did not know Vincent very well. But he was always surprising you, this perfect reincarnation of The Compleat Baroque Musician.

His ideas of what should be accomplished in the artistic life were as unconventional as his religious views. “I’m a good Catholic,” he’d say, “but then I’m also a good Jew, and a decent Buddhist, too.” The most interesting thing about the confession was that he meant every word. Just being a good Christian, for example, was as limiting as just being …. a good pianist! He wanted it all, he did it all, and with great relish he excelled in each area. If there is such a concept as “the successful life,” then Vincent had found it, and lived it.

The final proof was that he was also a good, kind man who continually helped each new generation of students, giving any kind of push that he could to the careers of young, talented students. No “thank-you’s” were needed or expected, they only embarrassed him. Far from the image of the self-absorbed celebrity, he had a difficult time taking himself seriously, and some of his best jokes were at his own expense. He always remembered his introduction to Juilliard, soon after the end of World War II. William Schuman had just been appointed President of the school, and then wired Vincent in Philadelphia, offering him a position on the Theory and Composition faculty, along with a salary of “approximately $3000” (according to Vincent). At first, Vincent thought that was the sum paid per course. It wasn’t. Honored by the appointment, but having recently married his Dorothea, and hoping to raise a family, he wired back: “Feel that salary should be raised. Have just earned Doctor of Musical Arts degree.” Vincent recalled that the return wire read simply: “Will not hold that against you. See you in September. Bill.”

The last time I saw Vincent, he had just come back to his beautiful 18th century farmhouse outside of Philadelphia after a long bout of chemotherapy. Larry Smith (now Dean of the Hartt School of Music) and I stood there, frozen, as Dorothea helped him into the room. One look at that sweet face and you knew there wasn’t much time left. I can’t remember anything about our halting, stilted conversation that afternoon except the very end of it. As we shook hands and he started up the stairs to his bedroom, he turned, looking at both of us for a moment, and said only, “I don’t know what’s next.” Later, as we made our way down the front lawn, Larry and I couldn’t look at each other. We both remembered thinking, “It doesn’t matter, Vincent. It doesn’t matter what’s next. You’ve given all of us so much already.” 

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