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Friday, August 14, 2009

Vincent Persichetti and Richard Nixon

Vincent Persichetti
(1915-1987) was a distinguished Italian-American composer, teacher, and pianist from Philadelphia (photo top left). He composed nine symphonies, chamber compositions, twelve piano and harpsichord sonatas, songs, choral works, pieces for band, a series of really cool and oft-performed solo works called Parables, and an opera. He taught at the the Juilliard School for four decades beginning in 1947. In 1963 Persichetti was appointed chairman of Juilliard's world-class composition department.

I met Persichetti when I attended Juilliard as an Extension School student in 1972-73. He allowed me to sit in on his weekly composition colloquium which featured a wide spectrum of visiting composers who lived in or happened to be passing through NYC (I recall George Rochberg, Otto Lunning, Charles Dodge, to name a few).

Vincent Persichetti was a good composer and a well-respected teacher. It is said that he could modify a few notes in a student's score, add a few accents here and there, and presto, the student's music would be transformed into neo-classic Stravinsky. I still have Percichetti's book "Twentieth Century Harmony" and browse through it from time to time.

The big news in 1972 was that Richard M. Nixon (photo on top right) was reelected to a second term as President of the United States. His Presidential Inaugural Committee looked around for a composer to commission a work to perform at Nixon's second Inaugural Concert scheduled for January 19th, 1973. The new piece would be performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra. Since Persichetti was a distinguished American composer with a long-standing history with the Philadelphia Orchestra, they selected him for the honored commission.

The result was a cantata titled "A Lincoln Portrait" op.124. Persichetti completed it in 1972.

I remember this well, because I was taking a music copying class at Juilliard with Arnold Arnstein, the famous music copyist for all the big-name composers of the day. Arnstein's staff at his pricey West Side studio had been working on the parts for "A Lincoln Portrait" in anticipation of the high-profile premiere in Washington D.C.

One day in January of 1973 we got news from the front page of the NY Times that the White House was pissed. Nixon didn't like certain passages of the text Persichetti had selected from Abraham Lincoln. He thought it would be construed as antiwar. In particular it was Lincoln's reference to the Civil War where he described it as a ''mighty scourge'' that offended President Nixon to most. The reference hit too close to home, since the country was still deeply engulfed in the horrors of the Vietnam War.

Persichetti did not want to retract the text or revise his work under political pressure, so the White House withdrew "A Lincoln Portrait" from the Inaugural concert program. Not surprisingly, other orchestras rushed to perform the work in its' original version. The work received its' much anticipated premiere later that month by the St. Louis Symphony conducted by Walter Susskind.

The White House snub had turned into a marketing bonanza for the relatively obscure contemporary American composer. It was a big moment.