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.

Walter Piston

By Carol J. Oja

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

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. As the works on tonight’s program reveal, 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-twentieth-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-nineteenth 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.

Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1937)

Performance Time: approximately 14 minutes

In an era when American families gathered in front of their radios to experience a broad range of programming, Walter Piston’s Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra had its premiere on June 20, 1937 during a broadcast of the program Everybody’s Music, featuring the CBS Orchestra, with Jesus Maria Sanromá at the piano and the composer conducting. The work was commissioned by the Columbia Broadcasting System as part of an initiative to inspire new works for radio. The other composers commissioned were Aaron Copland, Louis Gruenberg, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, and William Grant Still. The principal challenge of these commissions, as The New York Times reported, was to devise orchestral compositions that could “utilize the possibilities of the microphone and loud-speaker.” For Piston, this commission appeared not long before the premieres of his Symphony No. 1 by the BSO and of The Incredible Flutist by the Boston Pops (both took place in 1938).

Conceived in a single movement, the Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra falls into a series of distinct sections that mimic the overall shape of a traditional three-movement concerto, and its clarity and wrong-note tonality reveal Piston’s early affinity with the neoclassical phase of Stravinsky. After a joyous and rollicking opening, the piano introduces the first theme over an earthy ostinato, and the piano also delivers the second theme, which is more lyrical. The work has an especially striking center section, which essentially serves as a gorgeously heartfelt slow movement. Heralded by the viola and cello, that centerpiece cloaks its beauty in lucid chamber writing—so much so that it is easy to imagine radio microphones poised by the piano, the woodwinds (plus horns), and the strings. The final segment of the work once again races along, and it essentially presents a recapitulation of the opening material, with cunning alterations. In spite of the Concertino’s juxtaposition of soulfulness and sheer energy, Piston focused on technical issues when discussing it with a reporter: “If the orchestra is muddy the microphones will not stand for it. I have approached this project very seriously in an effort to realize to the best advantage instrumental resources as they apply to radio.” And indeed, the texture and balances are clear as a bell.

Symphony No. 2 (1943)
Performance Time: approximately 25 minutes

Premiered on March 5, 1944 by the National Symphony Orchestra and conducted by Hans Kindler, Piston’s Symphony No. 2 was commissioned by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University. 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.

Symphony No. 2 shows kinship with the Concertino for Piano and Orchestra, from its overall shape and highly skilled handling of individual timbres to its unabashedly beautiful middle movement. The symphony’s first movement (Moderato) features lush chromaticism, emerging out of contemplative low strings and breaking into a frisky fanfare. Yet Piston once again described it pragmatically, writing of its “two themes, one given out at the opening of the movement by violas and cellos, legato and flowing, the other first played by the oboe, accompanied by clarinets and bassoons, staccato and rhythmic.” By contrast, the second movement (Adagio) is shaped as a resonant and meditative chorale, albeit with bluesy flourishes, and its emotional warmth shows Piston to have had an aesthetic kinship with Samuel Barber. The third movement (Allegro) kicks off with a demanding perpetuum mobile. It is “composed of three themes,” as outlined by Piston: “the first vigorous and rhythmic, played by cellos and horns; the second march-like, by clarinets and bassoons; and the third, of more songful character, first heard in English horn and clarinet.” The “songful” segments soar.

Violin Concerto No. 1 (1939)

Performance Time: approximately 22 minutes

Written for the Boston-based violin virtuoso Ruth Posselt (1914–2007), Piston’s first Violin Concerto was composed in 1939 and had its premiere on March 18, 1940 by Posselt and the National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Leon Barzin in Carnegie Hall. 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. As is by now apparent, 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. The violin writing is virtuosic and varied, and The New York Times praised Ruth Posselt for playing “with a flash and temperament that must have been a delight to the composer.” The surrounding orchestral instruments are once again shaped in sensitively appointed timbre groupings. “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.”

Symphony No. 4 (1950)

Running Time: approximately 23 minutes

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. As the Minneapolis Symphony’s original program note by Donald Ferguson put it, the first movement (Piacévole) “departs—but in the direction of simplicity—from the conventional first-movement form in that it has the general outline, A-B, A-B, A (Coda).” The second movement (Ballando) is a Rondo “(A, B, A, C, A, B, A),” and it 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. The third movement (Contemplativo) opens with a strikingly ruminative clarinet melody; Piston loved the clarinet, especially in its low, sensuous range. And the final movement (Energico) is cast in a traditional sonata form.

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

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.

Further Reading about Walter Piston, in chronological order:

Elliott Carter, “Walter Piston,” Musical Quarterly 32 (July 1946).

Peter Westergaard, “Conversation with Walter Piston,” Perspectives of New Music 7 (1968).

Howard Pollack, Walter Piston (Ann Arbor, 1982).

Mark DeVoto, “Two Composers on American Music at Mid-Century: Walter Piston in Conversation with Wilfrid Mellers, 1962,” American Music 28 (Spring 2010).

Carol J. Oja
Ms. 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.

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Three Songs to Poems by Carl Sandberg for Voice, Oboe, Piano, Percussion, and Optional Orchestral Ostinato

By Judith Tick, Department of Music, Northeastern University

Written for the concert American Modernism Seen & Heard: The Abstract and Geometric Tradition in Music and Painting, 1930-1975 performed on Dec 20, 1992 at Carnegie Hall. 

As a composer in the 1920s and early 30s, Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953) was regarded as one of the “most independent, able and promissory of the new American composers,” in new music, according to the leading modernist critic, Paul Rosenfeld. She was discovered by Henry Cowell in Chicago around 1925, where she was studying composition and piano at the American Conservatory of Music. Compressing her training in theory and composition into four years, Crawford wrote a set of piano preludes in 1924-1925 that convinced Cowell to put her on the board of his New Music Society; by 1927 she had appeared on the League of Composers concert for “young Americans” and, in 1930, she won a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition, the first awarded to an American woman (and the only one for the next fifteen years.)

In Chicago, Ruth Crawford met Carl Sandburg around 1925 or 1926, and she was a great admirer of both the man and the artist, using his poems as texts for eight of her ten solo songs. His artistic use of vernacular inspired her own acute observations of dissonance and asymmetric rhythms in nature. “One can draw a kind of rhythmic and dramatic pleasure from the very smallest things,” she wrote in 1927; and she affectionately parodied Sandburg’s poetic aesthetic by describing how his “spirit goes swooping into byways, pinching a piece of dust and asking ‘Are you a fact or a fancy? Have you a little dust-soul somewhere? Where are you going and what for?”

In 1930 she preserved this wry wit in her setting of a Sandburg poem that asked similar questions–“Rat Riddles” in which Rat asks “who do you think you are and why is a rat?” Crawford’s vocal line is intended more as declamation than as lyrical melody, interacting most with the oboe, which darts and scurries about, depicting Sandburg’s wise hyperactive rat. “Rat is joined by a Bee,” Crawford wrote about her setting of “In Tall Grass” (1932), which describes the frenetic “honey-hunting” in the third section of the poem by activating the piano and persistent buzzing drones through “dynamic” writing for the string ostinati, in which the pitches should scarcely be audible as single tones, submerged instead in the waxing and waning of crescendo and decrescendo and glissandi. “Prayers of Steel” (1932), a text of simultaneous construction and deconstruction, punctuates its severe declamatory vocal line with percussive hammer-blows.

Beneath the surface of these expressions pictorial devices is an avant-garde aesthetic build on paradox–on the one hand the ideal of “heterophony,” that is to say, a texture of non-relationship among the parts, depending primarily on Charles Seeger’s method of dissonant counterpoint; and on the other hand, the ideal of pre-compositional organization. From 1929-1930 Crawford studied with Seeger, whom she later married, and the songs reflect his influence. They are prophetic tours de forces of the application of serial thinking to elements other than pitch–including rhythm, articulation and dynamics–in an approach to composition that would later move to the forefront of a post-war generation of composers.

The scoring of these songs is also quite progressive. According to Charles Seeger, he suggested to Crawford that she add an orchestral component to the original instrumentation when she readied them for publication in Cowell’s New Music Quarterly in 1932. Therefore the original group of instruments was designated the soloistic “concertanti” and Crawford added two groups of optional orchestral “ostinati” to each song, one of clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, horn and trombone, and the other composed of strings, to be placed apart from the concertanti, and “if possible at the rear of the stage,” in order to underscore through spatial relationship their “other-soundingness” and their ambiguous relationship to the main material.

Along with the String Quartet 1931 Crawford’s Three Songs brought her the most recognition in her lifetime. She regarded their acceptance for the annual festival of the International Society of Contemporary Music in Amsterdam in 1933 as a high point of her career.