Song Cycle for Soprano and Piano, Op.50
Poems by Wallace Stevens

Vincent Persichetti


World Premiere Recording



“Overholt has a firm grasp on this difficult music, and Pierce does an exemplary job with the… accompaniments. This is a first recording.”
Gimbel, American Record Guide [September/October 2013]
“To be sure, the demands of this cycle—with regard to intelligent musicianship as well as sheer vocal agility and beauty of tone—are great. There are not many sopranos capable of truly mastering it, and Sherry Overholt is to be congratulated for even taking on such a challenge. On the other hand, pianist Joshua Pierce is an experienced veteran in meeting the demands of  20th- century American music, from Nicolas Flagello to John Cage. He has a long history of involvement with the music of Persichetti, and he projects the details of his contribution with ease and aplomb—and far more effectively than the pianist on the Arizona recording. In this work the piano is an equal partner, not an accompaniment, and its importance is acknowledged by its prominence in the recording balance. In fact, I suspect that listeners new to the work will find themselves “grabbed” by some of the piano parts before they are captivated by the vocal lines… In any event, this new release— is a milestone in the history of American music on recordings. I would go so far as to assert that Harmonium is arguably the greatest American song cycle.”
Walter Simmons, Fanfare Magazine [May/June 2013]
“this may be the best performance we hear of the Harmonium. It is billed as a world premiere recording, and I don’t note any other recordings available…  this is a worthwhile composition.”
[ * * * * ] Mel Martin, Audiophile Audition [July 2013]
Harmonium, Persichetti’s Opus 50, is one of the earliest of these song cycles and one of the most demanding, not only for its difficult vocal part but also in terms of a keyboard part that demands a virtuoso pianist with both soul and brains. The composer’s selection of some of the most difficult and impenetrable poetry of the twentieth century is itself of note. Stevens, who was very attracted to the visual arts, was influenced by the work and theories of modernist painting, cubism in particular. One of the theoretical ideas behind cubism was the idea that the artist could show images from several points of view simultaneously, a notion translated into poetry in Stevens’ Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, still one of his most famous poems. The setting of this poem, almost symphonic in scope all by itself, provides the cornerstone finale of Persichetti’s cycle (and one of the earliest musical versions of this poem which has subsequently been a favorite with various other composers). At thirteen minutes, it is almost twice as long as any of the other songs in the set and its thirteen verses are separated by substantial piano interludes which provide a running musical commentary on this deeply abstract poem and also provide a kind of summing up of the whole cycle.

The only settings that come close in scope to Blackbird are Six Significant Landscapes (No. 8) and Domination of Black (No. 17), both over 6½ minutes in length and both also alternating piano interludes with sung verses. These are also somewhat extreme harmonically. The former, with a text that evokes Chinese landscape painting, uses bitonal techniques (with triads from different keys in the two hands) and a melodic style that uses tritones and half steps in a slightly exotic and  wide- ranging style. The latter actually evokes the dreaded Schoenbergian 12-tone ‘system’ with a recurring chromatic ground bass set against a more stepwise vocal line. Like Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, these are both musical settings of texts with a highly visual content.

The other settings in the cycle are highly aphoristic, each creating a miniature sound world around the poem in three minutes or less – closer to two minutes in most cases. The opaqueness of Stevens’ writing seems to have suited the abstractness and range of Persichetti’s style at the time, always subtly expressive in its clarity and formality and in the way it evokes the various domains of musical modernism (just as Stevens evoked the various domains of modernism in painting).

Wallace Stevens was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, in 1879, educated at Harvard and New York Law School, and worked as an insurance executive in Hartford, Connecticut. Most of his early poems were published in obscure poetry magazines between 1914 and 1923 when they were collected in a volume entitled Harmonium. In spite of the fact that the first edition of this work sold only 100 copies, it put Stevens, who was strongly influenced by modernism in painting, right into the forefront of the modernist movement in American poetry. In 1931, Harmonium was reprinted with three of the original poems omitted and fourteen new ones added (how many publishers today would reprint a book that sold only 100 copies the first time around?). Some of the author’s most famous poems come from this collection and, in spite of their extreme opacity, they have long had a major influence on other poets as well as on painters and composers.

In 1951 (or shortly before), Vincent Persichetti, a relatively new professor at the Juilliard School of Music, selected 20 of the 85 poems in Harmonium, reordered them to suit his own needs, and set them to music as an hour-long cycle for voice and piano. It is one of the major 20th century achievements in this classic form and it comes as a surprise to realize that this outstanding performance by soprano Sherry Overholt and pianist Joshua Pierce is its first recording.

Vincent Persichetti was born in Philadelphia and, in spite of his long association with the Julliard School of Music, remained a resident of that city for his entire life. Although he studied with
Fritz Reiner and Olga Samaroff at Philadelphia’s famous Curtis Institute of Music, his major musical studies were at the Combs College of Music and the Philadelphia Conservatory (later incorporated into the University of the Arts) where he headed the theory and composition department. In 1947, William Schuman invited him to teach at Juilliard where his students included Toshi Ichiyanagi, and Philip Glass. In his lifetime, Persichetti was a major figure in American music. His work is usually classified with the mid-century American symphonists like William Schuman, Samuel Barber, Peter Mennin, and Roy Harris. There was a kind of unspoken competition to create ‘The Great American Symphony’ and Persichetti was a leading contender; he wrote nine symphonies as well as a lot of music for winds and wind band (the wind music is probably the best-known and best-remembered of his work today). But he could just as easily be considered as a major composer for the piano. He was an excellent pianist himself and wrote twelve piano sonatas, a concerto, a concertino and other keyboard works. Nor did he neglect the human voice; his prolific output includes many choral and solo vocal works. Even in his solo vocal works, Persichetti tended to think big. For texts he almost invariably chose major poets, mostly American (Whitman, e. e. cummings, Carl Sandburg, Emily
Dickinson, Hilaire Belloc, Sara Teasdale and Robert Frost) but also W.H. Auden and James Joyce. Most of his settings are built around the work of one poet at a time and he typically organized these collections into big sets and cycles, often on a symphonic scale.

Sherry Overholt maintains a busy schedule as a performer and teacher. She gained a special affinity for contemporary song through her studies with Phyllis Curtin, a noted soprano with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and a champion in that genre. Curtin mentored Overholt as a fellow artist at the Tanglewood Festival for two seasons and as a Master’s and Doctoral student at Yale University. Overholt’s operatic credits include numerous performances with the Glimmerglass, Kentucky,  Sarasota and Virginia opera companies in leading roles, including Violetta, Gilda, Zerlina, Marzelline and Musetta. She premiered the title role of Mordeen in Frank Lewin’s Burning Bright to great  national and international acclaim, and subsequently recorded the opera for Albany Records. As an operatic recitalist, Overholt has performed in more than 300 concerts spanning 10 seasons as part of Columbia Artists’ Community Concerts series. Her orchestral highlights include performances with the Philadelphia Virtuosi chamber orchestra and Portland Symphony Orchestra, and five seasons with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. As a song recitalist, she specializes in Neo- Romantic and contemporary repertoire, with performances of music by composers including George Crumb, Joseph Marx, Benjamin Britten, Dominick Argento, Ned Rorem and Samuel Barber. Overholt received Masters, Master of Musical Arts and DMA degrees from Yale University.

Joshua Pierce has been heard in many of the world’s prestigious music centers, including Alice Tully Hall, Symphony Space, 92nd St. Y, Steinway Hall, Carnegie and Weill Recital Hall, Merkin Hall, Roulette, The Knitting Factory and Orchestra Hall in Chicago; and at the Royal Festival Hall, Tchaikovsky Hall, Victoria Hall, Smetana Hall, Teatro La Fenice, La Palacia de Belles Artes, and Seoul Opera House. He has performed with the Philharmonia Virtuosi, Chicago Sinfonietta and Utah, Missouri and San Antonio symphony orchestras; and internationally with the Royal Philharmonic, Philharmonia of London, Moscow State Philharmonic, Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra, Capella Istropolitana, Czech National Symphony, Slovak State Philharmonic, Bohuslav Martinu Orchestra, Symphony Orchestra of Polish Radio and Television and Mexico City Philharmonic. Pierce has recorded more than 200 works, including numerous premieres as a soloist and with orchestra, for EMI Classics, Carlton Classics, Helicon, Koch International, MSR Classics, Sony Classical, Vox, and others. A proponent of contemporary composers and their music, Pierce maintained a 30-year association with John Cage, and released numerous landmark recordings of his work. Pierce studied with Mr. Persichetti at the Dartmouth College Congregation of the Arts Summer Festival on a scholarship, and later at Juilliard where he collaborated on two major works with the composer: his Two-piano Sonata, Op.13, and the Piano Sonata, Op.101. Highly regarded as a chamber musician and collaborative pianist, Pierce studied with Bernard Greenhouse of the Beaux Arts Trio and Jascha Silberstein, as well as with Arthur Loesser, Josef Seiger and Artur Balsam. He has performed with a host of chamber ensembles, including the Leontovich String Quartet, Chamber Players International, Pierce-Aomori Duo, and with violinist Misha Vitenson and cellist Jeffrey Solow; and at the Music Mountain Chamber Music Festival and Phillips Collection. Pierce has several Grammy nominations to his credit, as well as a Diapason Award, Fono Forum Award, and citations of excellence from Downbeat Magazine, CD Review, Billboard, Turok’s Choice and Keyboard Magazine, among others. A recipient of a 2004 IBLA Foundation Award for Contemporary Music, he is an adjudicator of piano competitions and has served on the board of the International Fulbright Commission.

HARMONIUM - Song Cycle for Soprano and Piano, Op.50 (1951)
Poems by Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

Valley Candle
The Place of the Solitaires
Lunar Paraphrase
The Death of a Soldier
The Wind Shifts
The Weeping Burgher
Six Significant Landscapes
   An old man sits
   The night is of the colour
   I measure myself
   When my dream was near the moon
   Not all the knives of the lamp-posts
   Rationalists, wearing square hats
In the season of grapes
The Snow Man
Sonatina to Hans Christian
Infanta Marina
Metaphors of a Magnifico
Domination of Black
Earthy Anecdote
Of the Surface of Things
   In my room
   From my balcony
   The gold tree is blue
Thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird
   Among twenty snowy mountains
   I was of three minds
   The blackbird whirled in the autumn winds
   A man and a woman
   I do not know which to prefer
   Icicles filled the long window
   O thin men of Haddam
   I know noble accents
   When the blackbird flew out of sight
   At the sight of blackbirds
   He rode over Connecticut
   The river is moving
   It was evening all afternoon

MSR Classics