About this work
Walter Piston modeled much of his instrumental music after a number of Classical forms, eschewing programmatic content except in a few rare cases. Though Piston had gained considerable attention in his native New England, it was this symphony, one of the lasting examples of the American symphonic literature, that cemented his reputation as a composer. The Second Symphony was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington, D.C. on March 5, 1944, and was repeated soon after by the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. In the following year it was named the outstanding new work by the New York Music Critics' Circle.
The Symphony is a work of considerable depth and wide emotional range. It also represents a rare case in which Piston ventured into the use of folk materials and musical Americana, which were then popular with composers of concert works. The second subject of the first movement suggests a country fiddle jig; some have suggested that the work also contains echoes of Piston's Italian heritage.
The opening legato idea of the first movement portends a noble and serious-minded tone for the work. This opening material, as well as the jig tune mentioned above, are developed in a manner that is searching and, in the end, unresolved. The second movement is also lyrical, and again echoes a certain Americanism. The movement is further marked by a long, highly expressive melody for clarinet, as well as by the prominent use of the uniquely plaintive alto flute. The final movement is a rondo with three main themes: the first is notably rhythmic, the second much less bold, the third lyrical. The rhythmic excitement remains throughout, however, unflagging until the movement's minor-key conclusion.