Piece of the Week: O Cool is the Valley by Vincent Persichetti

O Cool is the Valley

Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987) was an important American composer and educator, remembered for his approachable modernist style as well as his famous students, who included both Philip Glass and Peter Schickele (aka P.D.Q. Bach). Persichetti was himself something of a prodigy: his first concert of original pieces came in his teens, and by his twenties he was already teaching music theory and composition classes while still a student at Philadelphia Conservatory.

“O Cool is the Valley” (Op. 118) exemplifies the warm blend of traditional tonal harmony and expanded compositional techniques for which the Persichetti was known. Inspired by James Joyce’s poem of the same name, this piece is calm and meditative and provides an excellent introduction to 20th century modernism to students and audiences alike. 2015 will mark the 100th anniversary of Persichetti’s birth, and no doubt many groups will be programming this wonderful American composer into their concerts during the upcoming academic year.

Audio Sample

Audio provided by Naxos Digital Services Ltd. from the album, “PERSICHETTI: Divertimento/Masquerade/Parable IX.”

Composition Notes

“O Cool is the Valley” parallels the mood of the James Joyce poem. It is a colorful but quiet piece requiring meaningful melodic playing and sensitive phrasing. The opening motive generates the pastoral musical textures of two contrasting themes.

This piece was commissioned by the Ohio Music Education Association and first performed by the Bowling Green State University Band, the composer conducting, in Columbus, Ohio on February 5, 1972.

O Cool is the Valley, by James Joyce

O cool is the valley now

And there, love, will we go

For many a choir is singing now

Where Love did sometimes go.

And hear you not the thrushes calling,

Calling us away?

O cool and pleasant is the valley

And there, love, will we stay.

-from the book Chamber Music, originally published in Dublin, Ireland by Elkin Mathews, 1907.

Composer Biography

American composer Vincent Persichetti was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on June 6, 1915 and died in the same city on August 13, 1987. This prolific composer was the son of immigrant parents, his father having emigrated from Abruzzi, Italy, and his mother from Bonn, Germany. Persichetti composed in a wide range of genres, both instrumental and vocal, and was respected for his compositional ability to integrate a variety of historical influences and musical styles into his works. Persichetti began his development as a musician at a young age by studying piano, organ, double bass, tuba, theory and composition. By the time he was sixteen years old, Persichetti had secured a position as the church organist of the Arch Street Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. His advanced education in theory, composition, and piano included degrees at Combs College and the Philadelphia Conservatory. In addition to being an active composer, Persichetti was a music educator, teaching at two of his alma maters (Combs College and Philadelphia Conservatory) before accepting a position in 1947 at the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. Persichetti composed nine symphonies, a series of serenades for various combinations of instruments, a large number of instrumental solos and chamber music. His compositions for piano, including 12 piano sonatas and 6 sonatinas, have become standard works in the piano repertoire. During his successful career, Persichetti was honored with two Guggenheim fellowships, grants from the National Foundation on the Arts and Humanities, and citations from the American Bandmasters Association. Persichetti also received commissions from performing groups such as the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Koussevitzky Foundation, and the Martha Graham Dance Company.

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If you are an educator, musician, composer or student with a suggestion for a “piece of the week” blog post, you can email your suggestion to Griffin at [email protected]. Please let me know the name of the piece, composer, publisher, and why this piece is special to you.

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