Reappraising Walter Piston

[Ed. Note: The following essay, in a slightly modified form, originally appeared in the program guide for a March 29, 2011, concert devoted to the music of Walter Piston by the American Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Leon Botstein at Carnegie Hall.—FJO]

Walter Piston
Walter Piston, from the Associated Music Publishers archives, courtesy G. Schirmer/AMP

There are few opportunities these days to hear live performances of the deeply felt, sonorously shaped music of the New England composer Walter Piston. His colleague and contemporary Aaron Copland called Piston “one of the most expert craftsmen American music can boast,” which has become a standard assessment. It has also boxed him in. While intended as a compliment, this appraisal suggests Piston to be something of a technocrat, a musician of the mind rather than the heart. This impression is far from the case. While Piston’s technical expertise is irrefutable, as Copland and others affirmed repeatedly over the years, he also had a soul, and he attained a depth of beauty that at times was breathtaking. Perhaps today’s re-engagement with tonality makes us ready to give this important mid-20th-century talent another chance.

Piston’s roots reflected a classic post-immigrant saga. Born in Rockland, Maine, he was the grandson of a seaman who made his way to Maine from Genoa in the mid-19th century. The family moved to Boston in 1905. They were “far from wealthy,” as Piston later acknowledged. He went to Mechanical Arts High School, where he trained as a draftsman, and he then attended the Massachusetts Normal Art School, where tuition was free. There he met his future wife, the artist Kathryn Nason (1892–1976). In 1919, Piston took Archibald Davison’s counterpoint class at Harvard, and Davison recognized his gifts immediately, arranging for him to enter as a fulltime student the following year, when Piston was 26. Upon graduating from Harvard, Piston won a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship and joined a pilgrimage of American composers to Paris and the studio of Nadia Boulanger. In 1926, Piston returned to Harvard as a member of the faculty, remaining until his retirement in 1960. Over the course of nearly four decades, he taught a distinguished series of future leaders among American composers, including Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Irving Fine, John Harbison, Daniel Pinkham, Frederic Rzewski, and Harold Shapero.

With his longtime Ivy League association, Piston can seem like a composer of privilege. But at base he was a product of the American Dream—of upward social mobility through education and hard work. As his career developed, Piston identified with a cluster of intersecting composer networks. During the 1920s, his music occasionally appeared alongside that of Copland, Roger Sessions, and other young modernists in New York City. An equally crucial network emanated from Boston—not just from Harvard but also from a longtime association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. During Serge Koussevitzky’s directorship, Piston had a substantial series of premieres with the BSO. In an interview with the composer Peter Westergaard, Piston recalled vividly the impact of the Russian conductor, who joined the BSO in 1924:

When I returned from France I felt pretty gloomy about the situation of the composer in America. I knew conductors were not interested in what we composers were doing, so I was writing only chamber music…. Koussevitzky asked to see me. He asked, ‘Why you no write for orchestra?’ I said, ‘Because nobody would play it.’ And he said ‘Write, and I will play.’ So I wrote and he played.

The composer Mark DeVoto has rued Piston’s later fate with the BSO, which deteriorated after the directorship of Charles Munch (1949–62): “When Erich Leinsdorf and then William Steinberg followed Munch, Piston was essentially forgotten by the BSO, and his music was in eclipse nationally by the time of his death in 1976.” In fact, a recent search for “Walter Piston” in the Boston Globe online turned up far more hits for basketball games between the Detroit Pistons and Boston Celtics than for the city’s native-son composer.

Another influential strain in Piston’s career had to do with his work as “a progressive new theory teacher,” as his former student Elliott Carter put it. Ultimately Piston published four widely used textbooks: Principles of Harmonic Analysis (Boston, 1933), Harmony (New York, 1941), Counterpoint (New York, 1947), and Orchestration (New York, 1955). Harmony, revised and expanded by DeVoto, reached its 5th edition in 1987; in the 1950s it was translated into Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.

Like Roger Sessions, Piston was a determined internationalist, avoiding the “Americana” vogue that energized so many composers during the 1930s and 1940s. Piston emphatically identified as a trans-Atlantic musician, which he made clear in an interview with the British composer and scholar Wilfrid Mellers: “I would say that American backgrounds are the same as yours. I’m sure you would include in your background Italian music of the Renaissance, French music, German music; you should give us the right to include those in our backgrounds, because they are our artistic antecedents, and not only that, but our blood. I myself am one-fourth Italian.” Thus Piston strove to transcend national boundaries, aiming to write music that would take its place in a Euro-American cultural matrix.

Walter Piston’s 1937 Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra, which was commissioned by the Columbia Broadcasting System as part of an initiative to inspire new works for radio, mimics a traditional three-movement concerto, and its clarity and wrong-note tonality reveal Piston’s early affinity with the neoclassical phase of Stravinsky. His first Violin Concerto was composed in 1939 and had its premiere in Carnegie Hall on March 18, 1940, by Boston-based violin virtuoso Ruth Posselt and the National Symphony Orchestra. Nearly an exact contemporary of Barber’s Violin Concerto, Piston’s work has been eclipsed by that more famous work. Piston’s Concerto uses a traditional three-movement form: Allegro energico, Andantino molto tranquillo, and Allegro con spirito. Piston fully understood the capacities of each orchestral instrument, and he made them sound their best—a bit like a fashion designer who brings out the personality and physical attributes of the person for whom a piece of clothing is intended. “I must say I’ve always composed music from the point of view of the performers,” Piston once declared. “I believe in the contribution of the player to the music as written. I am very old-fashioned that way.” Benjamin Britten recognized this skill, telling Copland at the premiere of the Violin Concerto that “there was no composer in England of Piston’s age who could turn out anything so expert.”

Walter Piston Piano Concertino, first page

The Symphony No. 2 (1943) has an unabashedly beautiful middle movement (Adagio) which is shaped as a resonant and meditative chorale, albeit with bluesy flourishes; its emotional warmth shows Piston to have had an aesthetic kinship with Samuel Barber. The symphony won a New York Critics Circle Award, and it enjoyed considerable success during WWII, with subsequent performances by the BSO, the NBC Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, and the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, among others. Writing in The New York Times after the Philharmonic-Symphony’s performance of the work in 1945, the critic Noel Straus put his finger on the central issue in Piston’s reception:

It has been generally conceded that no contemporary composer of this country surpasses, if any [even] equal, Mr. Piston in sheer technical skill. But all too often his output has been considered dry and academic. In this symphony he is again the master craftsman, while at the same time he managed to invest the content with a wealth of mood and meaning that defy any such censure.

Piston’s Symphony No. 4 was commissioned by the University of Minnesota for its centennial celebration and had its premiere on March 30, 1951, by the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra (now the Minnesota Orchestra), conducted by Antal Dorati. The work is in four movements, and Piston described it as being “melodic and expressive and perhaps nearer than my other works to the solution of the problem of balance between expression and formal design.” In other words, Piston understood his yin and yang, even though his prose descriptions tended towards the formalistic. As with Symphony No. 2 and the Violin Concerto, this symphony plugs into a Central European orchestral lineage, perhaps connecting most with Brahms. But the second movement (Ballando) doffs its hat to country fiddling, appearing as a response to works like Copland’s Rodeo. Perhaps this was Piston’s way of offering regional color in a commission from the Middle West.

Piston Symphony No. 4, p.130
From Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 4 , Copyright © 1953 by Associated Music Publishers (BMI) New York, NY. International Copyright Secured. All Rights Reserved. Used by permission.

 

Ultimately, Piston wrote eight symphonies plus another 30-some works of various types for orchestra. He was almost exclusively a composer of instrumental fare.

Walter Piston's Signature
Image courtesy G. Schirmer/Associated Music Publishers

From the perspective of the early 21st century, the music of Walter Piston sounds mighty appealing. In the decades since his death, his reputation not only struggled because of his “conservative modernist style,” as his biographer Howard Pollack aptly defined it, but also because he was something of an “introvert,” as Pollack also observed. Piston expressed himself eloquently in music, but in prose he was largely pragmatic, offering few power-adjectives for those who might want to market his music.

Yet others found ways to articulate the cultural status of Piston’s compositions. Writing in 1946, Elliott Carter zeroed in on the main issues that held Piston back, yet he predicted a rosy future:

Through the years when the ‘avant-garde’ moderns were busy exploring fantastic new sounds and sequences, …through the early thirties when a new wave of nationalism and populism startled many into thinking that the concert hall with its museum atmosphere was finished as a place for living new music, down to the present more conservative situation, Piston went his own way. He stood firmly on his own chosen ground, building up a style that is a synthesis of most of the important characteristics of contemporary music and assimilating into his own manner the various changes as they came along. . . . His works have a uniform excellence that seems destined to give them an important position in the musical repertory.

Maybe Piston’s moment has arrived.

***

Carol J. Oja is the William Powell Mason Professor of Music at Harvard University. Among her many books, Making Music Modern: New York in the 1920s won the Lowens Book Award from the Society for American Music and an ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award.

14 thoughts on “Reappraising Walter Piston

  1. Terence O'Grady

    A wonderful article on Piston. It’s certainly true that Piston’s reputation has been somewhat diminished by the “craftsman” tag and it certainly doesn’t help in some quarters to have authored some widely used (at one time) theory textbooks. But Piston was a truly expressive ccmposer whose stylistic and emotional range was as impressive as that as any composer in his generation.

    Reply
  2. MarkNGrant

    May I add boldface emphasis to Carol Oja’s excellent article? Emphasis on these particular facts about Piston: that he was so talented a draftsman that he originally set out to be a graphic artist rather than a musician; that was entirely self-taught as a player of the piano, violin, and saxophone; that he didn’t even commence formal studies of music until the age of 25, several years after he already had obtained an art school degree; that he graduated from Harvard with a bachelor’s degree at the age of almost 30. That he didn’t commence study with Nadia Boulanger until he was 30. That despite the fact that he was such a late bloomer and that he held only a bachelor’s degree, he nevertheless taught at Harvard, for decades the go-to composition guru there. Never was he forced to “upgrade” to an advanced degree.

    Could a comparable composer with only a bachelor’s degree but with talent, early equivalent life experience, talent, and autodidactic insight be hired to teach and get tenured at a Harvard today? Not a chance. Could Rimsky-Korsakov, another spectacular late-blooming musical autodidact? Are you kidding? Could Arnold Schoenberg, who to all intents and purposes was not only not a college graduate but a high school dropout? Of course not. Yet eminent pupils lined up in long queues to seek instruction from each of these three gentlemen who, through self-initiative and sheer analytic brilliance, had attained intellectual grasp of their art so extraordinary that every one else sought them out, their lack of degrees be damned. In the late 1930s Arnold Schoenberg received about $400 (in 2011 adjusted value) and more for a single private composition lesson in Los Angeles. It was still the Depression, yet movie studio composers lined up at his door.

    To appreciate Piston’s accomplishment in playing several instruments well enough to perform them in dance bands in his 20s, note that few classical composers in history ever achieved proficiency on more than two families of instruments (two examples: Hindemith and Elgar), an accomplishment usually accomplished if at all by commercial arrangers (Robert Russell Bennett).

    In those distant years elite higher education institutions were shrewder about lack of advanced degrees. If you were self-evidently surpassingly brilliant and learned, you could be hired. Isn’t that a more sensible criterion than today’s bureaucratic mechanisms that enable tepid journeymen with Ph.D.s to command jobs unavailable to more gifted, knowledgeable, but untasseled, un-mortarboarded independent scholars? This was true outside of music departments as well. Harry Levin, one of the few people in the world smart enough and well read enough to fully understand Finnegans Wake immediately after it was published in 1939, taught comparative literature at Harvard for decades without any advanced degrees. Not even a master’s. Shocking, no?

    I would further suggest that Piston’s reputation unfairly suffers not do much from his actual music than from two (maybe three) inverse snobberies.

    First, inverse snobbery about textbook authors– that a textbook author must somehow be a lesser creator (unless he’s an auto-explicator writer like Messiaen). This bias doesn’t apply in other fields like economics; that Paul Samuelson’s text on Economics sold millions didn’t impede his colleagues or public from considering him brilliant. I was first introduced by a teacher to Piston’s Harmony as a lad way back in 1964 and I have never stopped consulting it. Piston’ Orchestration and Counterpoint, to the discerning student reading them in between the lines, are, despite their titles, also subtle composition lessons in a way that many other fine orchestration and counterpoint textbooks are not, in my humble opinion. (My personal library has over a dozen orchestration textbooks, I’m not picking favorites here.)

    Second, inverse snobbery about American artists and intellectuals compared with European counterparts. The analytical command of a Schoenberg as a musical analyst in his various books is hors concours. But somehow we are not similarly impressed by Paul Creston’s challenging Principles of Rhythm? A book which one needs to sift slowly as though one were reading a combination of higher math and Proust? By Henry Brant’s recently published Textures and Timbres, which answers questions about sound balances explicated nowhere else in any book (Rimsky-Korsakov’s book makes a stab at it but is less systematic and comprehensive). Or by Walter Piston’s books, because they are so logically structured and lucidly analyzed that the powerful mind that put them together is self-effacing? That’s not “dry.” That’s clarity that cuts to the chase. I think all three of these American composers were musical geniuses; they had to be to be geniuses as musical analysts.

    A third possible inverse snobbery is the bias against autodidact composers who write in a traditional or “conservative” idiom. If you’re an autodidact a la Henry Cowell, or John Cage, or Harry Partch, or Lou Harrison, no problem in “getting respect” (Cowell did plenty of “traditional” writing, too). But if you’re Piston or Creston, you’re somehow déclassé not just as a composer, but somehow “duddy” or “dry” as an analyst and textbook writer because you’re not an “innovator.” I think this is all a crock of [expletive deleted].

    I so regret having missed the live concert of the ASO’s all-Piston program. I so wanted my ears to take the measure of his orchestration live in the concert hall (having heard it on discs, of course).

    Reply
    1. MarkNGrant

      I should have added Ulysses Kay, William Grant Still, and Henry Brant himself to Piston in my above list of American “legit” composers who were proficient on many different band and orchestra instruments. Of course, all three of them did a substantial amount of arranging work in various media. No doubt there are other examples as well.

      Reply
  3. mclaren

    Piston is a dynamite composer who has gotten the back-of-the-hand treatment from American musical elites for obvious reasons. He doesn’t worship ugliness. He has no interest in brutalizing the audience. Worst of all, Walter Piston has musical talent.

    In an era where NewMusicBox bloggers grovel in abject worship of American composers who spent their lives submerged in numerological mathturbation which as Tom Johnson wrote in a critical summary produces no audible features which stand out, no discernible melodies, no functional harmonies, no perceptible rhythmic patterns, and which as a result sound amazingly boring, or flipping coins and drinking carrot juice while pressing a microphone to their neck, or proclaiming, as Recently Bob Ashley remarked[,] that if he performs a piece of music and if after five minutes the entire audience hasn’t walked out, then he has failed”, Walter Piston’s obvious talent makes him one of the true untouchables in American music.

    Reply
  4. MarkNGrant

    Hats off to you, McLaren. A ten-gun salute. I love people who cut through cant and take no prisoners.

    Another canard about Piston is that he was invariably severe and monochromatic. His “The Incredible Flutist” is an extremely charming and colorful piece.

    Reply
  5. mrmemory

    So nice to see an article about Piston on here and the positive responses. Piston remains one of the great American composers, and it is really tragic that his orchestral music isn’t being performed by all the US orchestras every season. (But I could say the same thing about Rochberg, Sessions, Schuman, and others.) I can guarantee that his symphonies would be hits with any orchestra audience. So why is his music not performed? It is because he wrote good music–actual music–meaning that its value comes from the enjoyment musicians and listeners receive based on musical factors (remember melody, rhythm, harmony, timbre, form?), which ultimately may be described by and created through that nasty word: technique.

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  6. Frank E. Warren

    Thank you Carol J. Oja, for being able to – in such a brief space – introduce Piston the man, along with Piston the composer, teacher, etc. Like Piston, I grew up in New England, and as a child spent considerable time in Maine (visiting grandparents), have always been far from wealthy, studying architectural drafting before attending music school in my 20s. As a late bloomer, studying with a former student of Piston, I was encouraged to find – then follow – my own voice as a composer. It is my personal belief that our individuality is shaped by our experiences as youngsters. So, not having a background in music, how was I (or anyone like me) to find that voice? In my case, the answer was to listen to music. Reading about music, and composers, and other people’s opinion was interesting – but for me – not much more than that. How I found my voice was through working hard and being honest to my “self.” In those days I listened quite a bit to Piston because, in his music, beyond the craft, I could identify with his voice of well-rounded influence. Mr. Piston was not identified with any school or movement. As you so eloquently state, he “strove to transcend … aiming to write music … in a Euro-American cultural matrix.” If he were alive today, my guess is that matrix might be even more global. Of course my own “voice” is rounded out by a great many varied musics and styles, and (I trust) does not belong to any particular “school.” By integrating all that listening, with the experiences of my youth, a voice eventually began to emerge. In a modest way I like to think that, long before reading any of his text, THIS is what I had learned from listening to Piston. Thank you for reminding us all of his value, not just to American music, but to music (period). It is my hope that your writing may help more people to actually start listening – and learning.

    Reply
  7. Christopher John Smith

    Knowing Piston only from “The Incredible Flutist”, I was intrigued by him and found this article quite interesting.

    It is unfortunate that it is marred by ugly, ignorant, and anti-intellectual comments that do him no service whatsoever.

    Reply
    1. MarkNGrant

      I for one don’t see any comments above that would remotely be describable as “ignorant” or “anti-intellectual.” Perhaps you could clarify your meaning?

      Reply
  8. Phil Fried

    “…I for one don’t see any comments above that would remotely be describable as “ignorant” or “anti-intellectual.” Perhaps you could clarify your meaning?..”

    Hmmmm. I do. I believe Mr. Smith was refereeing to Mclaren’s post actually. Personally I’m surprised that such a post was allowed here.

    Reply
  9. MarkNGrant

    To presume that there can be only one intellectually superior aesthetic is to play the politically correct thought police who equate the party line with wisdom. Coercive dogmatists are fundamentalists. If you don’t agree with them, you’re an anti-intellectual ipso facto. What arrant nonsense. It seems to me that that was precisely the point McLaren was making. I, personally, was more offended by Mr. Jones’s cavalier presumptiveness at soft volume than by anything Mr. McLaren said at loud volume.

    I stand by what I said. I think he should clarify what he meant. Maybe I misunderstood him.

    Reply
  10. Phil Fried

    “..Coercive dogmatists are fundamentalists…”

    Who is forcing who to do what? I really have no idea what you are talking about. I note this; that you seem to project a view of art as a see-saw. That is for one composer to be up you must put another composer down.

    Reply

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