Music Appreciation: Pastoral by Vincent Persichetti

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In mid-January, my thoughts inevitably turn to spring. I don’t mind winter to some extent (and this year has been so much better than last year’s Big Bucket of Suck), but spring is my favorite season. Everything is new again, the flowers are blooming, and we don’t need twelve extra layers of clothing in order to go outside.

Photo of a lovely spring landscape

Lovely spring landscape by stux (via Pixabay)

This March (2015) I’m looking forward to performing with the Winds Off the Lake woodwind quintet as substitute clarinet. Rehearsing with them has reminded me of my love of quintet music, and I’ve had a great time filling in. It’s been a while since I talked about woodwind quintets, so I thought this would be a nice time to listen to Pastoral by Vincent Persichetti.

Persichetti (1915-1987) produced an enormous amount of work over his lifetime, providing music for a wide variety of musicians. He wrote everything from symphonies to cantatas, chamber music to pieces for concert band. Pastoral is one of two pieces he composed for woodwind quintet. The term “pastoral” (var. pastorale) is much used in art and music to portray country life.

The flute and clarinet lead off with a lovely little duet, painting a bucolic image of green grass, some trees along a fence line, perhaps a bubbling brook running through the field. The bit at 0:32 reminds me of little birds fluttering about, or butterflies. The oboe enters at 0:46, adding a different tone color into the mix. The three instruments finish up as the bassoon emerges (0:56).

The bassoon’s short phrase begins to take us toward new ideas. At 1:00, the flute, oboe, and clarinet come in together on a chord, the first time we’ve heard a “vertical” chord as opposed to one that occurs when various melodic lines happen to come together. Immediately after this the horn finally appears, playing a manipulated version of the flute’s melody from the beginning of the piece (theme A). The bassoon answers with an echo (1:10).

At 1:14, we think we’re going back to the opening melody, this time with oboe, but we learn quickly that Persichetti is starting to explore the countryside. We hear snippets of the first few notes of the original theme, though they’re not always exactly the same. Notice that there’s a lot more motion here. Perhaps we’ve encountered some small animals, like squirrels and bunnies and chipmunks. Listen to the clarinet at 1:19 – you will hear echoes of that throughout this section played by different instruments. The flute and oboe hint at a new motif at 1:29, but don’t explore it further.

We continue to rustle and flutter about, passing themes between instruments, having the flute and clarinet united at 1:37, followed by the horn and bassoon. The flute starts to remind us of another bit of theme A, but goes off on a tangent (1:42, probably following a butterfly). We’ve had some buildup of volume here, the loudest we’ve heard so far (the score is marked forte). The horn and bassoon enter firmly at 1:47, with the upper winds answering. There’s a bit more conversation, then the flute and clarinet call our attention (though softly) to something new in our scene.

Persichetti introduces new thematic material at 1:55. To me it’s a scene change as well – I imagine we’ve moved through the grass and trees and come upon a hamlet. I can see a farmer with his horse-drawn cart, a woman hanging laundry out to dry, other odds and ends of country life. There’s more and more activity starting around 2:10; it reaches its climax at 2:20 with everyone hitting a chord together. Things quiet down quickly, though, with the bassoon singing a line followed by a neat-sounding bit at 2:28 (perhaps a sigh of relief?). The flute, clarinet, horn and bassoon strike a quieter chord to prepare us for the next section.

The oboe introduces us to our next theme at 2:33 (theme B). Remember earlier when I said the flute and oboe hinted at a theme? Here it is. We hear it on its own, with the other instruments on sustained chords. But at 2:41, the other instruments decide to liven it up, with the bassoon and horn providing a jaunty accompaniment vamp that alternates between 3/8 and 2/4 time. They settle into steady 2/4 when the flute and clarinet pick up the melody. Persichetti ends the theme a bit differently this time compared to when the oboe played it earlier, followed by a fun bounce around the group at 2:52 (Malcolm Arnold uses a similar trick in his own woodwind quintet Three Shanties).

For the second time through the theme, the flute and oboe have the melody, and the bassoon is droning at the bottom with the clarinet playing a line that’s not quite a countermelody, but it’s not a typical accompaniment pattern, either. On top of all that, the horn has a true countermelody. If you listen closely, you’ll hear that it’s very much based on theme A. I would gladly listen to more of this, but Persichetti cuts us off with a bouncy statement from the flute and clarinet (3:02). The group (minus flute) answers with a unified statement (in rhythm, not in pitch). While that sounds somewhat solemn, we’re back with our 3/8 and 2/4 right away at 3:07.

At first, we think we’re just going to repeat what we heard earlier, but Persichetti plays with our expectations. He turns part of the accompaniment into its own melody. Listen to the horn here – isn’t that fun? The clarinet answers at 3:14, beginning our transition into the next section. The flute then enters with a line that harkens back to an earlier mood, closing with a slower version of theme B, while the bassoon and clarinet drone underneath.

Slow chords lead us into a more solemn, hymn-like section, the flute playing a melody that has elements of theme A. The other instruments have long, beautifully squishy chords underneath. The bassoon gives a sort of “amen” after the flute finishes its hymn, then both of them jump to life. The flute starts a recap of theme B (4:10) then flies away, the oboe and clarinet hopping along afterward. The flute-as-bird returns briefly with the bassoon trotting underneath. Then we hear statements from the clarinet and oboe; things are getting more cacophonous when the horn has its say (4:23).

At 4:27, we hear what I feel is the most unusual part of this piece, as it’s just different from anything we’ve really heard so far. For some reason, what comes to mind for me here is an odd game of “ring around the rosie.” The game is over quickly, however, and we start to calm down. At 4:33, I get the impression of chimes, first from the oboe and clarinet, immediately followed by the horn and bassoon. They settle into slow-moving chords as the flute still dances about, but then the oboe takes over the melody, slowing things down even more. The horn makes a statement that’s similar to what the bassoon has done before to lead us into the final section of the piece.

Here we come full circle. The flute and clarinet reprise the duet that we’d heard at the beginning (4:55), this time with the horn and bassoon playing sustained tones underneath. We don’t get a full repeat; the duet slows and quiets down, the day fading away. We hear one last word from the oboe, a breath, then a gentle, quiet major chord.

Did you enjoy your trip through the idyllic countryside? Can you feel spring approaching? Stay warm through this last bit of winter, the flowers will be here before we know it.

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