Walter Piston: Symphony no. 2

performed by the Seattle Symphony under Gerard Schwarz

…without even the shadow of a doubt one of the half dozen great works written during the last ten years. It sings forever in my heart and in my consciousness, and it does not want to leave me

Hans Kindler, of Piston’s 2nd

(cover image by Simon Mason)

Walter Hamor Piston, Jr. was born 20 January 1894 in Rockland, Maine. HIs family was of English heritage, but his paternal grandfather was from Genoa and carried the Italian name ‘Pistone,’ which became Piston upon landing on American soil.

Piston’s training was not originally music. He began studies in engineering before enrolling at the Massachusetts Normal Arts School, completing a four year fine arts program. It seems, though, that he already had quite a musical background, as he played in dance bands as well as violin in orchestras throughout the decade, and eventually a band in the U.S. Navy. He taught himself to play “most wind instruments” there, says Wikipedia. The composer is quoted as saying that “They were just lying around and no one minded if you picked them up and found out what they could do.”

He began his (more) formal studies at Harvard in 1920, where he studied composition with Edward Burlingame Hill, a composer and professor and a student of Paine. Hill’s other students include Leonard Bernstein, as well as folks we will yet talk about or already have, such as Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter (as we will learn later, Carter also studied with Piston).

Unrelated to his studies with Paine (probably), Piston, upon graduating from Harvard, earned a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship and found himself in Paris, where he studied, of course, with Boulanger, as well as with Paul Dukas (composition) and George Enescu (violin). He taught at Harvard from 1926 until his retirement in 1960. In that time he taught such people as Carter, mentioned earlier, as well as Arthur Berger, Bernstein, Gail Kubik, Frederic Rzewski, Claudio Spies, Leroy Anderson, John Harbison, and Irving Fine. Some of these names we will see more of later this series (actually only two).

Throughout his compositional career, he wrote eight symphonies, a number of concertos, five string quartets, among other chamber or symphonic work. Today we’ll discuss his second symphony, completed in 1943.

The work was commissioned by the Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University, (some kind of new music thing?) and premiered in D.C. on March 5, 1944 by the National Symphony Orchestra under Hans Kindler, who sent the composer the statement that opened this article the day after the premiere. It went on to get other performances pretty quickly, and Wiki says that “It was this work that established Piston’s reputation as an important American composer,” citing Steven C. Smith’s liner notes to Schwartz’s recording of the work.

Of his compositions, Piston himself says that:

It is not one of my aims to write music that will be called modern, nor do I set out to compose according to any particular style or system. I believe my music is music of today in both manner and expression, since I am inevitably influenced by the art, thought and daily life of the present.

In Butterworth’s The American Symphony, on page 69, Piston continues, somewhat disparaging “the self-conscious striving for nationalism,” saying it “gets in the way of the establishment of a strong American school of composition,” and that composers should “strive to project themselves in the art of music and… follow the only paths of expression which seem to them the true way.” What we don’t have here is some kind of patriotic, canned ‘American’ sound. What we do have, though, is powerful, immediately moving music, a wonderfully compelling symphony.

It is in three movements, lasting around 25 minutes. The first movement is ominously captivating from the first bar. It’s dark and brooding, rich and broad, as the strings continue to unfold and expand, establishing the mood of this first subject. Winds and timpani are just streaks of color and detail over the form built by strings, and this first subject comes to a climax with an angular, unison phrase that acts as the dotted line between the first and second subjects, which couldn’t be more different.

The second subject is bouncy and sunny. It features oboe and other woodwinds, plonking percussion, and it isn’t quite a march, per se, but if the first subject were a dark, moody Mahlerian thing, this is more like the little march tucked into the first movement of the third symphony. Piston’s diversion from the serious here sounds a bit Sousa-influenced, unmistakably American.

My thought here was that these two subjects are so wildly different, so disparate that they’ll be a bit oil-and-water for any kind of development. Indeed, the first theme predominates, with little influence from the second subject save when it outright returns. As dissimilar as these two themes may be, and as small as this ten-minute first movement may feel like it is, it’s really very effective, a memorable first movement.

As American as that second subject sounded, something that it seems we see the American composers (at least this week) doing so well is slow movements. Piston’s adagio is superb, again presented on a backdrop of strings, but featuring a very sentimental, very moving clarinet solo eventually picked up by the flute. There’s a sense of innocence, unadorned poignant lyricism. The colors and textures achieved after the solos are also beautiful, largely strings, with ripples and shades of color from winds. It’s heartfelt and exquisitely written. It reaches an intense climax before cooling back down to a quiet finish with clarinets.

After these two ten-minute movements, the finale is surprisingly short, at under five minutes, a little diminutive in relation to the others. It’s a quick, short rondo, deriving energy from who-knows-where, but it blasts off with strings and brass, burns through three themes, one of them more lyrical, quite quickly. It outdoes the opening for energy and drive. While the first two movements were somewhat pensive, straightforward, charming explorations of really magical material, this movement rolls up its sleeves for a few good punches before the piece finishes. This is the burliest of the movements, and it seems almost paradoxical that it’s also the shortest, but it certainly finishes the second symphony with an immensely satisfying, conclusive bang. I love it!

All in all, this isn’t a work like Schuman’s, or Diamond’s, earlier in the week. It doesn’t have a deep interconnectedness that unites the three movements in a fascinating structure or anything like that, but just from a listener’s perspective, putting this work on and giving it a listen, it’s at least a little bit irresistible, with charm and immediacy, and that is to be admired in its own right. I’m interested in hearing more of Piston, but for now, this second symphony will have to do. His later works, to my understanding, are not as immediately charming as they are perhaps interesting, as he began to make use of serial procedures, and was accused of being too academic, but I’ve listened and am eager to hear more. We’ll see more of him eventually, but stay tuned because tomorrow’s work is entirely different. Thank you so much for reading.

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