Nowadays unjustly neglected, Neoclassical composer Walter Piston is often praised for his individuality and disciplined handling of material, which is highly evident in Violin Concerto No. 1. In his youth, Piston taught himself how to play violin and piano, and upon enlisting in the Navy band at the start of WWI—prior to his studies at Harvard—he taught himself to play saxophone. His sure sense of instruments and capabilities of performers is evident in all his scores.
A refined and thoughtful writer on music, his textbooks Harmony (1941) and Counterpoint (1947) are indicative of his fresh approach to education, where basic principles are to be recognized rather than merely taught. While a member of Harvard’s faculty from 1926-1960, Piston taught many students who would go on to become distinguished American composers including Elliott Carter, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Berger and Irving Fine.
Recorded live during the concert, American Harmonies: The Music of Walter Piston
Available through June 19, 2020.
Program Note by Carol J. Oja
Written for the concert American Harmonies: The Music of Walter Piston
Violin Concerto No. 1 (1939)
Performance Time: 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.”
Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Soloist Miranda Cuckson, violin