Does it Need to Sound Pretty? Part II

A. Kori Hill

It’s time to meet Julia Perry! Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1924 and raised in Akron, Ohio, Perry pursued a composition career in the United States and Europe. She got her master’s degree in composition; won two Guggenheim awards; studied with Luigi Dallapiccola, and after a move to Europe, also studied with Nadia Boulanger.  

Perry’s style is a mix of old and new: of a break with the hard tonal rules of last century and the focused experimentalism of her time. Two of her pieces, Stabat Mater (1951) and A Short Piece for Orchestra (1952, revised 1955 & 1965) will be our guide through an update of last week’s question. Instead of “Does it need to sound pretty?” we’re going to ask: “Is it not beautiful because it doesn’t sound pretty?” 

Stabat Mater is one of Perry’s best-known works. Published in 1953, it’s dedicated to her mother and is set for contralto voice and string orchestra or quartet (Perry wrote the vocal part with THE Marian Anderson in mind!). The text comes from a poem of the same name by friar Jacopone da Todi (ca. 1230–1306).  

In the score, Perry includes her English translation underneath da Todi’s Latin text. Stabat Mater, translates to “Stands the Mother” and has ten short movements that explore Mary and “the spectator’s” witnessing of Jesus’ crucifixion. In subject matter and instrumentation, Perry engages with precedents of the oratorio and cantata (check out our posts on Handel’s Messiah and Bonds’ The Ballad of the Brown King). But there are some differences: there is only one soloist instead of two or more and there is no choir. Perry intended this work for the concert stage, not as music in a church service; the tonality she uses is rarely consonant; and there is little to no four-part harmony often used in Christian hymns.  

Why would Perry take this route? Maybe the better question is, why not? The use of tonalities that aren’t “traditional,” don’t sound haunting and unfamiliar because they are. It’s because we’re not used to them. When you study classical music, you usually start with music from the Baroque or Classical era. You develop an ear that associates specific tonalities with certain emotions. And while the tonal character of Stabat Mater makes sense when we think about the subject matter, A Short Piece for Orchestra is not so easy. It’s not a programmatic work; so why does it sound so dismal? 

Let’s try to look at it from another angle. Specifically, how Perry uses specific techniques and elements to create contrast, drama, and resolution. Unlike Shostakovich or Crumb, Perry doesn’t do away with smooth, connecting sounds. She also doesn’t use extended techniques. Instead, she uses motives that lead to new motives that build intensity and create dynamic contrasts. There are moments of motivic repetition; polyphony that isn’t muddied; and harmonic clarity without traditional tonality.   

What we’re hearing in A Short Piece for Orchestra is Perry developing and embracing her compositional voice. A voice that doesn’t always comment on something specific or evoke a story. A voice that shares how you can transform a small idea into a bigger one. A voice that tells us that genres and themes of the past are still relevant today and that the sounds we consider “beautiful” are not always the sounds we consider “pretty.”  

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Does it Need to Sound Pretty? Part II