Walter Piston

1894 1976

Walter Piston

Composer

Biography

Piston received a multitude of awards for his compositions, including two Pulitzer Prizes, a Naumburg Award and a New York Music Critics’ Circle award for his symphonies. He was honored with positions in the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1938), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1940) and with several honorary doctorates from American universities. Piston was a master of neo-Classical and neo-Romantic form and expression, and one of the standard bearers of the symphonic tradition. By fusing these styles, in addition to incorporating select elements of 20th century composing, Piston created a unique branch of music which bridged the gap between old and new.

Header image courtesy of Duke Library Other images courtesy of New Music Box and public domain

Occasionally, Piston’s compositions demonstrated a more contemporary influence. He began writing withSchoenberg’s 12-tone method in the early 1940s, with his first work in the genre beingChromatic Study on the Name of Bach (1940), for organ. In the 1950s and 60s Piston began to write with chromatic density more regularly, and also employed more complicated forms than the basic four movement design. However, Piston never fully espoused the technique and often wrote about what he perceived as the limitations of serialism.

Although he embraced twelve-tone music only half-heartedly, Piston was much more enthusiastic about writing descriptive music in a nationalistic style. Works such asTunbridge Fair (1950), named after the location in Vermont, and Three New England Sketches (1959) both paint an idyllic portrait of rural New England life, and although he wrote very few other works explicitly in this style, all his music bears some influence from this region. These pieces bear some resemblance toAaron Copland’s Americana music: indeed Copland was a big fan of Piston, calling him “one of the most expert craftsmen American music can boast” in 1936.

However, Piston is very specific about the difference between their styles, mostly due to the fact that they were inspired by different parts of the country. He also resented the fact that the subject for his works were not seen as being as distinctively American as the romantic notions of the American West. In Piston’s words, “is the Dust Bowl more American than, say, a corner in the Boston Athenaeum? Would not a Vermont village furnish as American a background for a composition as the Great Plains?”

During his lifetime Piston was fairly prolific with a catalogue of eight symphonies, five string quartets, eight concertos and numerous other works. Many of his compositions, particularly his symphonies, are still performed today. However, his presence can be most ubiquitously felt through his presence in the classrooms and homes of countless musicians through his textbooks. Piston wrote four such textbooks:Principles of Harmonic Analysis (1933), Harmony (1941),Counterpoint (1947) and Orchestration (1955). As not only a world-renowned composer but also one of the most acclaimed arrangers and orchestrators of the 20th century, Piston held a unique position of authority on the subjects.

Following the war, Piston enrolled at Harvard University in Boston to finally formally study music. At Harvard he conducted the student orchestra and graduated with honours in 1924, after which he won a Paine Fellowship to travel to Paris. Piston spent two years in Europe, during which he studied withPaul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger, one of the gurus of the early 20th century music scene who could boast such pupils asAaron Copland, Philip Glass, Roy Harris and Quincy Jones. Both Dukas and Boulanger would prove extremely influential on Piston’s emerging style. Of his works from this period, his Three Pieces for flute, clarinet and bassoon (1925) demonstrates Piston’s nostalgic attachment to the Classical period, with elements of Stravinsky’s neo-classical style, while his Piano Sonata (1926) bears more of an influence of the Romantics.

Piston returned to Boston in 1926 and accepted a position in the music department at Harvard University, were he would teach for over 30 years. Helped by his friend and advocate Koussevitzky, Piston was able to have eleven of his early works commissioned by and premiered by theBoston Symphony Orchestra. Soon he was also receiving commissions from many of the greatest orchestras in the United States, including theNew York Philharmonic, Cleveland Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra and several more.

Walter Piston was an American who rejected most 20th century musical tenets in favour of composing exclusively in a neo-Classical and neo-Romantic style. In addition to being a masterful composer he was also a prolific writer and several of his textbooks on harmony and orchestration are still widely in use today.

Piston was born in Rockland, Maine, the US to parents of English and Italian origin. When he was eleven years old his family moved to the much more artistically vibrant city of Boston, Massachusetts, where Piston studied engineering in high school and visual art, his true passion from an early age, at the Normal Art School. While there he met his future wife, Kathryn Nason. She was an accomplished painter and it was actually partly her skill in the field that led Piston to seek out another profession – music – so as not to be in competition with her.

Although Piston was already starting to make a living playing piano and violin, despite being self-taught, his career was diverted by the onset of World War I. Piston hurriedly learned how to play the saxophone so he could join the Navy Band, during which time he also taught himself how to play almost every other instrument in what would prove to be a valuable asset to his composition and orchestration skills.

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