Variations on a Theme of Julia Perry
picc.2.2.e hn.3(b cl.).2.cbsn 4.3.2.b tr.1
timp/3 perc./harp/piano-cel. strings
Year of composition
I first encountered Julia Perry’s “Prelude for Piano” as an assignment for post-tonal analysis class and immediately fell in love with it. Written when Perry was only a junior in college, “Prelude for Piano” conjures an entire world—lush, vast, and full of longing—that unfolds in less than two minutes and only 28 bars. For me, its achingly chromatic melody, sinuous voice leading, and lush jazz-inspired harmonies evoke a lonely walk during the mysterious but foreboding hours of the madrugada, in line with Peter Nelson-King’s interpretation of the piece as “midnight music… a dark and seething reflection of the deep internal.”
Perry was born in Lexington, KY in 1924 but grew up in Akron, OH. A brilliant and prolific composer, Perry made short work of the compositional circuit, studying at Westminster Choir College, the Juilliard School, and with Luigi Dallapiccola in Florence and Nadia Boulanger in Paris on two Guggenheim fellowships before returning to the United States. Throughout her life, she wrote 12 symphonies, at least four operas, and a wide breadth of choral and chamber works. However, she found that opportunities were scarce for a Black female composer in America and was forced to take up substitute teaching in Akron. Her career finally began to take off in the late 1960s when the New York Philharmonic premiered her Short Piece for Orchestra in 1965. Tragically, at age 45, she suffered a stroke that paralyzed her right side and left her unable to speak or walk; however, she learned to write with her left hand and steadfastly continued composing. She died in 1979 at age 55, and her work remained largely neglected for years. Despite a recent revival, many of her scores remain lost or unpublished.
Though the “Prelude” stands alone as a perfect, self-contained piece in its own right, I wanted to pay homage to Perry in the long tradition of composers riffing on their favorite melodies and finding the worlds contained within. My treatment of the theme layers a winding triplet scale in the strings over Perry’s melody and countermelody, with specks of light in the harp, winds, and crotales sprinkled on top. The theme ends with a heavy polychord, stacked low to high, that will provide the foundation for the ending of each variation. This chord launches directly into the first variation, Vivace inquieto, which pits a slowly climbing version of the theme against a paranoid, darting scale. This buildup erupts into the second variation in furious 5/8 time, a consequence of Perry’s decision to remove an eighth note from some measures of her 3/4 theme. The variation alternates between a manic quasi-tarantella and moments of sweeping lyricism.
The momentum fades into the third variation, slow-fast-slow. The slow section evokes Bartók’s night music, with two or three brooding lines intertwining over queasy timpani glissandi and sparkling celesta. The fast section develops the serpentine countermelody of the theme into a lighthearted scherzo. The return of the slow section combines the night music and the scherzo into a pesante lament, perhaps for the tragedy of Perry’s early death and the sad fate of much of her music. However, a pleading violin line leads to a fourth variation that plays the theme and its inversion simultaneously. If the theme is midnight music, this is dawn music, perhaps reflecting my optimism that Perry’s music and life are finally coming to light. This sunrise ushers in the finale, which reharmonizes the theme in dense brass chords, decorated by a whirlwind run in the strings and woodwinds. The piece ends with an intensified version of the polytonal stack, a monolith that stretches from the depths of the earth to the highest heavens.
Variations on a Theme of Julia won the Vanderbilt University Orchestra call for scores and was premiered under the direction of Dr. Robin Fountain, February 2023, Nashville, TN.