Julia Perry’s A Short Piece for Orchestra

Notes by TŌN percussionist Petra Elek

The Composer
Julia Perry’s musical interest and talent was obvious from very early in her childhood. After multiple achievements growing up studying voice, piano, and violin, she was offered scholarships to attend the Westminster Choir College in Princeton, New Jersey. During her college years, she studied composition and conducting while she continued her studies in voice, piano, and violin. After college, she took classes at Juilliard and studied voice at the Curtis Institute until 1951. During this period she became acquainted with the Italian composer Piero Bellugi, who introduced her to his teacher, Luigi Dallapiccola. Because of the influence of these prestigious composers, she moved to Italy to continue working with Dallapiccola, at the conclusion of a successful summer at Tanglewood. After one of her most well-known pieces, Stabat Mater, was performed in Italy, Germany, Austria, and the United States, she decided to take a break from studying with Dallapiccola in order to learn from Nadia Boulanger at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. It was during Perry’s second year in Italy that the premiere of A Short Piece for Orchestra took place, and it quickly became one of her most-performed pieces. For the following years she traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Italy, and received multiple Guggenheim fellowships. Once she finally settled down in the States, she became a teacher. Both as a composer and a teacher she combined European classical and neoclassical training with her African-American heritage. As a consequence of underlying health problems, she suffered a stroke in 1970, which left her right side completely paralyzed and made her unable to speak. Even though she tried to have her work published, it was almost impossible to read her handwriting after the stroke, which ended up causing her work to either get lost after her death, or only be available in manuscript form.

The Music
Julia Perry wrote A Short Piece for Orchestra in 1952, and revised it twice before settling on its final version. After an energetic and prominent opening, we soon find ourselves in a lyrical slow section. The composition is clearly divided into five contrasting parts in which the opening thunderlike material comes back three times. In the first melodic section the theme is first played by the flute, then the oboe, the clarinet, and the horn. After an abrupt and short central section, the flute, violin, and oboe take over, leading us into the final recall of the vigorous opening. The short piece is full of contrasts and sound effects that make the work really exciting.