Piston Power

Quite by accident, I came across the fact that November 25, the date of this posting, also marks the 1955 premiere of American composer Walter Piston’s Sixth Symphony. Taking the lead from that touch of serendipity, I thought this edition might give a sketch of the composer and his output. Within my own sphere of experience, his name is better known than his music.

Piston (1894–1976) was largely self taught as a musician and initially looked set for a career in engineering, with music as a side course, but following the First World War, Harvard University opened its doors to him as a music student. That was in 1919. He graduated five years later and then pursued advanced studies at the École Normale de Musique in Paris with distinguished teachers Nadia Boulanger, Paul Dukas and George Enescu. Returning to Boston in 1926, Piston joined the music staff at Harvard, where he was to remain until his retirement in 1960.

Piston’s Harvard duties meant that composition was largely restricted to the summer vacations, notably in a series of works commissioned for the Boston Symphony Orchestra by his long-time advocate Serge Koussevitzky. (The Sixth Symphony, referenced earlier, was commissioned to mark the orchestra’s 75th anniversary).

Luminaries such as Copland and Stravinsky were supportive of the quality of his craftsmanship. This technical security made him an ideal teacher, and it’s worth noting that his many students included the likes of Elliott Carter, Leonard Bernstein and Frederic Rzewski. And some of you reading this blog may well have interfaced in your own student days with one of the several excellent textbooks he wrote on harmony, counterpoint and orchestration. I certainly did.

But what of his music? I’ve selected works that span from 1933 (his first published composition appeared in 1929) to his last piece, premiered just 3 weeks before his death in 1976. Although Piston isn’t a household name, I hope you’ll find music in my selection that gives food for thought about his output and historical status.

We start with the First String Quartet (1933) which is neo-classical in style and reflects some idiomatic influence of Stravinsky and Hindemith. It’s cast in three movements (Piston almost always adopted this form). The finale’s bristling opening theme leads to hectic imitation between the instruments and some dexterous pizzicato before heading to an energetic close.

First String Quartet (8.559630)

We move on a few years to the end of the decade and Piston’s First Violin Concerto that was premiered in 1939. By way of introduction to the piece, here are some thoughts from violinist James Buswell, the soloist on our recording:

James Buswell
Photo: Stuart Murtland

“I had been schooled in all three of Mr. Piston’s famous texts: Harmony, Counterpoint and Orchestration. They appealed to me enormously as being extraordinarily lucid and straightforward, eschewing much of the jargon that seems to pollute so many other theoretical music texts.

As a young performer I was aware that this man had written several works for violin and orchestra, and a good bit of chamber music as well, but his music seemed to have been pushed to the back of people’s libraries. One always heard the deadly words, ‘well crafted but a bit academic’. Upon starting to work on the two violin concertos … I was more than a little surprised by the sheer vitality, the lyrical sweep and the rhetorical power of these works. This was a man whose head and heart worked very well together.”

Here’s the latter part of the concerto’s third and final movement.

First Violin Concerto (8.559003)

Four years later, Piston completed his Second Symphony. That was in 1943, when when the tide of World War II was beginning to turn in favour of the Allies. The symphony has a palpable American feel, yet avoids any atmosphere of patriotic war fever. It received the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award and enjoyed performances by the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra.

To introduce an extract from this work, here’s a quotation from the conductor on our recording,
Gerard Schwarz:

Gerard Schwarz

“In some ways Piston was the dean of American Music. But as a result of his intellect and his association with the university environment, he was considered to be a somewhat dull academic composer. For anyone familiar with Piston’s music, it is clear that he is neither dull nor academic, but incredibly imaginative and innovative. I have studied most of his output and I have come to realise that he was a master, an inspired composer.”

The heartfelt beauty of the opening of the Second Symphony’s slow movement certainly seems as far removed from the tags of ‘dull’ and ‘academic’ as one could get.

Second Symphony (8.559161)

Skipping to the next decade, Piston’s Sixth Symphony was written in 1955. As mentioned at the start of this blog, the work was commissioned to mark the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 75th anniversary by his long-time supporter Serge Koussevitzky. Piston himself had this to say about the work:

“While writing my Sixth Symphony, I came to realize that this was a rather special situation in that I was writing for one designated orchestra, one that I had grown up with, and that I knew intimately. Each note set down sounded in the mind with extraordinary clarity, as though played immediately by those who were to perform the work. On several occasions it seemed as though the melodies were being written by the instruments themselves as I followed along. I refrained from playing even a single note of this symphony on the piano.”

Here’s the fleet-footed scherzo that forms the second movement.

Sixth Symphony (8.559161)

Some ten years later, in 1964, Piston wrote his String Sextet in response to a commission from the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Foundation. It premiered the same year. I’ve again chosen the scherzo movement to represent the work.

String Sextet (8.559071)

The final piece in this brief introduction to Piston’s output is his Concerto for string quartet, wind instruments and percussion. Dating from 1976, Piston died three weeks after its premiere. He described the single-movement work as “ … a set of variations … with the themes growing out of one another.” Fodder for ‘academic’ analysis, no doubt, but far from ‘dull’. We play out with the concluding section.

Concerto for string quartet (8.559160)


3 thoughts on “Piston Power”

Leave a Reply