This post was written in preparation for our May 2017 concert, Music Speaks
In our 2017 spring concert,
Manitou Winds explores the meandering, mystical path connecting music and words.
Music and words are often united through a composer’s use of poetry or prose (i.e., lyrics), but sometimes a composer chooses to leave even more to the imagination by guiding audiences through scenes or stories using words only in a work’s title. With an evocative title and the composer’s clever use of colorful composition techniques, each audience member can journey to the destination the composer intends, and yet each can experience a different story or scene.
One such piece on our Music Speaks program is Pastoral, Op. 21 (1943) by Vincent Persichetti (1915-1987). A masterpiece in wind chamber music since its premiere by Philadelphia’s Curtis Quintet, this single-movement piece evokes for the audience bright and sunny scenes of rural life.
By definition, a “pastoral” is meant to be a depiction of pastureland, shepherds, farmers, beautiful idyllic countryside.1 What country? Which people? It turns out these details may be at least partly up to the audience’s imagination.
Written during his late twenties, while still a doctoral student, many scholars feel Pastoral reflects a composer who was yet on the cusp of finding his own compositional voice, possessing a technique still much influenced by Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, and Copland.2 Flavored as it is with a Coplandesque folk song sensibility and angular harmonies reminiscent of early 20th century composers, the voice of Persichetti’s influences is fairly obvious; but so too is his unique character — full of surprises, twists, and turns.
— Vincent Persichetti
Though it would be hard to prove scientifically (opinions would certainly vary from listener to listener), I believe it would be hard to listen to this piece and not picture the countryside — even if the title were kept secret from you. That, I believe, is proof that Persichetti captured a bit of the magic between music and words, making his Pastoral an endearingly popular piece for wind quintet.
As important as it is for the audience to explore the countryside using the live performance as a sort of map, the members of Manitou Winds must use the inner workings of Persichetti’s composition as a guide — shepherding all of his motifs and harmonies into a unified depiction of idyllic country scenery. To help us, we often talk about what we feel our individual parts might be contributing at any given point in the music, and also what the overall “story” of the piece might be.
While some who have written about this work hear a series of distinct scenes with contrasting characters and plot lines all their own, my own vision is far more simplistic. It’s a story of an ordinary drive along a rural highway that takes a spontaneous, child-like turn…
You’re driving along on a sunny day — maybe with a particular destination in mind, but you’re in no hurry to get there. You are blissfully unhinged from anyone’s schedule; a rarity in today’s world. Suddenly, around a bend in the road, the trees part to reveal a beautiful meadow with rolling hills, a pond in the distance with some cattails and a willow tree, maybe a few cows scattered about.
Entranced by the beauty, you find yourself pulling over to the side of the road to take it all in. On a whim, you step out of the car, walk to the edge of the fencerow, and lean cautiously onto it as you stare out across the meadow. Regardless that you’re wearing your good shoes and clearly not dressed for a hike, you suddenly find yourself going over the fence, smudging your clothes on the rough, weather-hewn boards. You notice this, but you keep going.
Birds skirt and soar overhead as you make your way across the meadow headed toward the pond. For a brief moment, you worry someone may be watching, wondering what you’re up to, but all those worries of self-consciousness dissolve as a breeze sweeps across the tall grasses, uniting them into a sea which parts and then enfolds in your wake. Weren’t there cows somewhere — OH! Yes, and here are their tell-tale leavings so suddenly and perilously in the path of your steps!
After a few spontaneous detours, you finally reach the edge of the pond by skirting across a patch of ground far boggier than expected (your shoes have simply had it by now). From a raised part of the bank where the old willow reclines, the pond reflects an early summer sun in its late-afternoon glow, rippled and dappled across the water. Your breaths come slower now, like the sighing of those willow branches brushing delicately against an invisible breeze.
How long have you been standing here? Is it okay to leave now? A brief escape from the everyday, maybe a momentary lapse of common sense in exchange for uncommon grace. A short excursion, but a meaningful one!
You’re invited to scurry over the fence with us and come along for an escape from the everyday on a journey with music as a map and words as pictures!
The pastoral-themed landscapes in today’s article are from the studio of our 2017 collaborating artist, Margie Guyot. For more information about Margie’s home studio and gallery and to view many more examples of her work, visit www.MargieGuyot.com.
1. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Pastoral,” (accessed March 26, 2017).
2. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, s.v. “Vincent Persichetti,” (accessed February 15, 2017).
3. Duffie, B. (November 15, 1986) “Composer Vincent Persichetti: A Conversation with Bruce Duffie”; http://www.bruceduffie.com/persichetti.html