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8.559161 - PISTON: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 6
Walter Piston (1894-1976): Symphony No. 2 • Symphony No. 6
Walter Piston continues to be virtually damned with faint praise more than a quarter-century after his death. While acknowledging his extraordinary ear for orchestra timbre, his consummate contrapuntal skills and his overall lifelong employment of classical forms, commentators have for too long dismissed him as an academic, as if intellectual rigor and the acceptance of historical models was a bad thing. Even his remarkably clear notation of scores and his early background in engineering reinforces the notion of a fastidious craftsman, which he certainly was in the best sense, rather than a creative artist. An even casual reflection on music history shows that the pantheon of truly great composers is peopled by such conservatives as Bach, Mendelssohn and Brahms, all three content to build upon and find vitality in musical structures created by their forebears. Likewise, Walter Piston combines an uncommon rigor with a tone-poet’s sensitivity. Well-meaning admirers refer to him as a “composer’s composer,” an intended compliment that can imply a lack of touch with the public audience. In truth, his music commands respect and admiration from his composer colleagues, including Stravinsky, Krenek, Sessions, Hanson, Thomson and Carter, as well as by his lay enthusiasts who have simply given him a close and open listen.
Piston was a New Englander, born in Rockland, Maine, in 1894, of English and Italian ancestry. (His paternal grandfather, Antonio Pistone, was a Genoan seaman.) From the age of ten, Piston was raised in Boston, enlisted in 1916 and spent three years in the Navy, where he played saxophone in the Navy band, and was educated primarily at Harvard (summa cum laude, 1924) where he joined the faculty in 1926 following two years in Paris for lessons with Paul Dukas and the legendary Nadia Boulanger. He remained at Harvard until 1960 when he was named professor emeritus. An excellent teacher, his students included Elliott Carter, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero and Leonard Bernstein. Among many honors he received were a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934 and Pulitzer Prizes for his third (1948) and seventh (1960) symphonies. In 1951, he became the first recipient of the Walter W. Naumberg Chair of Music.
In 1943, when the tide of World War II began to turn in favor of the Allies, Walter Piston composed his Symphony No. 2, a work with a palpable American feel that nonetheless avoided the hot blood of patriotic war fever. The new score received the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award and enjoyed performances by the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic and the Cleveland Orchestra, yet fell into relative obscurity until revived in 1970 when Michael Tilson Thomas recorded it in 1970.
The opening Moderato begins with a long-spun theme in the strings, darkly hued and somewhat anxious. Winds add a dash of color to the otherwise basic string sonority. Piston raises the temperature through increases in pacing, animation and dynamics. A wind- and percussion-dominated section follows. Jaunty and syncopated, this paragraph sounds conspicuously American, reflecting the composer’s youthful years playing in bands. Quiet strings return with distant wind commentary and reticent timpani. Piston treats the primary theme in canonic imitation, though the music remains utterly free of academic note-spinning. Periodic brass chorales add an effective somber mien that balances the rowdier moments.
The rapt Adagio, quiet and sadly nostalgic, evokes a sense of American homespun innocence and provides a lovely solo for the first clarinet before handing over the lead to the principal flute. This is Piston at his most achingly beautiful and utterly belies facile and unfounded later charges of academicism. Orchestral strings lead the orchestra into a section of elevated dynamics and an intensification of warm feeling before allowing the clarinet quietly to assert itself, with an occasional “blue” note that furthers the American backdrop.
The final Allegro surges forward, propelled by percussive thwacks and emphatically barking brass. Three separate themes, one dance-like, another poignantly sung by English horn and clarinet, and a third brassily assertive tune, course through the Rondo-like movement.
The Symphony No. 6 dates from 1955, composed to celebrate the 75th season of the Boston Symphony and first performed by them under Charles Munch. Piston dedicated the new work to the ensemble’s previous music director, Serge Koussevitzky, and his wife Natalie. Piston’s intimate association with the BSO began when he settled in Boston in 1926. Over the next four and a half decades, the orchestra performed nearly two-dozen works by Piston, including many written expressly for them. In this vein, the composer wrote, “While writing my Sixth Symphony, I came to realize that this was a rather special situation in that I was writing for one designated orchestra, one that I had grown up with, and that I knew intimately. Each note set down sounded in the mind with extraordinary clarity, as though played immediately by those who were to perform the work. On several occasions it seemed as though the melodies were being written by the instruments themselves as I followed along. I refrained from playing even a single note of this symphony on the piano.”
From that statement one might rightly infer that the Sixth Symphony drew more than typically upon Piston’s consummate skill as an orchestral painter: the work abounds in delicious contrasts of timbre and coruscating bursts of color. In the opening movement, marked unusually Fluendo espressivo, the long opening theme is attractively though modestly scored for strings and winds. Eventually, descending scales from the harp add a splash of golden tone before yielding to a second long-flowing tune, this one richly orchestrated and as highly varied in its unfolding as the initial theme was unchanging.
The ensuing Scherzo brews up its own contrast of sonority and mood. Galvanized by percussion, a whirlwind of activity from the rest of the orchestra creates a high-jinx atmosphere tinged with subliminal anxiety. This movement provides a perfect foil for the ravishing Adagio that follows. Low strings provide a sonic “wash” (to use the term from painting) from which emerges a solo cello enunciating an especially attractive melody that informs the entire movement even when transferred to other instruments. Though key signatures are not indicated in the score, the Finale is resolutely in bright A major. Echoes of jazzy syncopation animate this bright and optimistic music, internally contrasted by episodes of beguiling warmth featuring, among others, flute and harp. The work concludes in a blaze of positive energy in a full orchestral restatement of the opening cello theme.
g Seattle Symphony
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