American Harmonies: The Music of Walter Piston

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert American Harmonies: The Music of Walter Piston, performed on March 29, 2011 at Carnegie Hall.

The contrast between Walter Piston’s career and his posthumous reputation and place in the repertory exposes the ironies and shortcomings in the way the history of music often gets told. We are led to believe that there are great figures who are overlooked and misunderstood in their own times, but who are posthumously revered. But often, the opposite is the case. Many composers who were well-regarded and successful during and immediately after their lifetimes, are sometimes altogether forgotten today. Furthermore, we are led to believe that great composers, like painters and writers, suffered in their lives, and were more often than not poor, lonely, unhappy in love, and perhaps unstable. This too is a groundless post-Romantic assumption, as the examples of Bach, Mendelssohn, and dozens of others amply testify.

Walter Piston was not overlooked in his own time, and his reputation as a major American composer was well deserved. This bodes well for a revival of his music in the future. He seems to have been quite stable, happily married, and prosperous. By all accounts he was generous in spirit, a good citizen, and blessed with two rare gifts: humor and wit. Howard Pollack, in his fine 1992 volume on Piston’s students entitled Harvard Composers, tells the following story. When one of Piston’s students, Harold Shapero, went to study with Hindemith (whom Piston admired) he discovered that Hindemith was ruthless in criticism and regularly rewrote Shapero’s drafts of melodies. Frustrated, Shapero handed in the ‘cello theme from the Concertino being performed on tonight’s concert as his own. Hindemith was pleased and much less critical, describing the tune condescendingly as “Frenchy.” But then Hindemith proceeded to rewrite it. When Shapero later told the story to Piston, Piston mused, “Well, I could change one of his, too.”

Piston, in his lifetime, was best known and prominent as the dominant figure in music at Harvard who, among other things, brought Stravinsky for the lectures that turned into the 1947 Poetics of Music. For 34 years Piston taught music at Harvard. Yet he himself was largely self-taught as a musician before entering college. His first interests were engineering and painting. But he went on to teach himself to play the piano, the violin, and the saxophone. Piston’s hands-on familiarity playing a vast array of instruments explains the persuasive economy and practicality of his 1955 textbook Orchestration and his unerring skill in handling instruments, from the flute (Piston’s 1930 Sonata for Flute and Piano helped establish his reputation) to the harp (consider the late “Souvenir” for harp, viola and flute from 1967) and harpsichord (the 1945 Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord). Piston’s ear was incisive and in symphonic music he orchestrated as he wrote.

Returning from Paris, where he studied not only with Boulanger (whom he brought later to Cambridge) but also with Paul Dukas, in 1926, Piston settled into a comfortable routine, producing steadily an impressive array of works. As a celebrated and revered teacher at Harvard, Piston enjoyed, for years, the patronage of the Boston Symphony and the loyalty of many generations of students from Leroy Anderson and Leonard Bernstein to Elliott Carter and John Harbison. However, Piston’s prominence as a teacher and the success of his textbooks, particularly the 1941 text entitled Harmony, would eventually become liabilities. There is perhaps no more damning phrase among critics and in self-consciously artistic circles than the word “academic.” It has recently become fashionable for composers, writers, and painters to do some teaching, but only on and off. To hold a regular responsible position in an institution smacks of a bureaucratic disposition and a yen for respectability that is incompatible with spontaneity, inspiration, originality, risk taking, and eccentricity—all hallmarks according to the popular imagination of true artistic temperament. In the argument for a strict separation of teaching and doing, however, the examples of Fauré and Rimsky-Korsakov are conveniently forgotten.

Apart from his consummate musical skills and judgment there was nothing visibly flamboyant about Piston in mid-career and he seems never to have harbored an ambition to write for the theatre or make a career as a conductor, despite his considerable skill on the podium. Piston was too much the ultimate insider, and a generous one at that. Nothing outside of his music and writings seemed memorable by the ever-more-dominant criteria of stardom the world of classical music adopted from Hollywood after World War II. Piston was not a “personality.” He courted no controversy, even in the McCarthy era. He was not a natural subject of publicity.

Furthermore, Piston’s music exhibited no obvious markers of radical innovation. Piston was a composer who excelled at strategies others had pioneered, an artist capable of synthesis. Piston’s music was influenced certainly by the example of Stravinsky, in manner reminiscent of but also distinguished from Copland. Piston, a lifelong Francophile, admired Debussy, but in the end he developed his own eclectic and distinct American voice. His models from the 19th century were Chopin and Brahms. His America was not Copland’s vision of the West and the “frontier,” but one closer to Ives (despite the differences in their music): New England.

Piston has a distinct voice, but it demands the capacity to appreciate the consummate command of musical materials. Piston’s music is beautifully crafted. That should not be held against it. There is nothing academic about Piston’s music. Its range and quality—in contrast to that of Roy Harris, for example—justify Elliott Carter’s view that Piston’s music reveals a rare combination of elegance, wit, sparkle, craftsmanship, and a fluid and persuasive flexibility in its emotional range and authenticity.

Walter Piston may not have been an original in the sense of Ives, Cowell, or Varése, or a composer intent on exploiting mere contrast and effect, but, as Carter put it, he excelled at the “most durable and most satisfying aspects of the art of music,” giving us hope that the “qualities of integrity and reason” in our culture are still with us.

American music in the 20th century had its share of brilliant new voices such as George Antheil and Leo Ornstein, where the promise of early success was never realized. There are other composers in history known in retrospect for just a few works (e.g. Carl Ruggles), or one period, or even a single work (e,g, Leoncavallo). Piston represents a different case: a career marked by consistency and growth over time. His music has the substance, sophistication, variety, and unpretentious candor of feeling sufficient to sustain interest over time.

In contrast to one of Piston’s contemporaries, Roger Sessions, whose music shares with Piston’s an extraordinarily high level of craftsmanship and integrity, Piston’s music was always intentionally accessible (or “realist” as Pollack argues) and transparent (if a bit “ironic,” as Pollack suggests) in intent, even in his more explicitly modernist works from the late 1950s and early 1960s. Let us continue to hope that musicians and audiences have the capacity to respond to and become attached to music that stands back from spectacle and flash and explores more deeply, as Piston’s does, the unique qualities of musical form as a means of expression in response to contemporary life. The refinement and the dialogue with tradition in Piston’s music permit it to transcend its historical context and engage new generations of performers and listeners.