About this Recording
8.559034 - CRESTON: Symphonies Nos. 1- 3

Paul Creston (1906-1985)

Paul Creston (1906-1985)

Symphonies Nos 1-3


“I consider music, and more specifically the writing of it, as a spiritual practice. To me, musical composition is as vital to my spiritual welfare as prayer and good food and exercise are necessities of physical health...”


Paul Creston was born Giuseppe Guttoveggio in New York City in 1906. His father had come to the States from Sicily and was employed as a house-painter. During his childhood Creston visited Sicily with his mother, where he was exposed to the folk-songs and dances of the Sicilian peasants and his love of music was awakened. Upon Creston's return to the States, he persuaded his parents to let him begin music lessons. The precocious Creston quickly surpassed the abilities of his teacher and by the age of fourteen began to seek his own way. Around this time, Creston made his first attempts at composition, though his dreams of a musical career were cut short when he was forced to drop out of high school at the age of fifteen in order to help support his family.


Along with other sons of immigrants, Walter Piston and Peter Mennin, young Giuseppe decided to "Americanize" his name. Having earned the nickname "Cress" from playing the part of Crespino in a school play, he expanded it to Creston and the name "Paul" was chosen because he liked the sound of it. While working as an errand-boy, and later as a bank-clerk and as insurance claim examiner, Creston would rise early and work late into the night, practising piano and composing. Driven by the desire for self-improvement, Creston would smoke ground coffee beans in order to keep awake while he read the classics of history, literature and philosophy. His first employment as a musician occurred from 1926 to 1929, when he worked as a theater organist for silent movies. Following the introduction of talkies, Creston was appointed organist of St Malachy's Church in New York, a post he was to occupy for the next 33 years.


In 1933, Creston approached the composer Henry Cowell with his work Seven Theses for piano, and Cowell published the score as part of his New Music Quarterly. He also arranged for Creston to perform his works in a composers' forum recital at the New School for Social Research in October 1934. Cowell greatly admired the younger man's work, and became a life- long advocate. Following his debut, commissions and accolades came to the industrious, self-taught composer - two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1938 and 1939, the New York Critics' Circle Award for Symphony No. 1 in 1941, the Music Award of the National Academy of Arts and Letters in 1943, and the Alice M. Ditson Award in 1945.


In 1940, Creston accepted a teaching post at the Cummington School of the Arts in Massachusetts, where he taught piano and composition. From 1944 to 1950, Creston worked as musical director of the ABC radio programme, Hour of Faith and later wrote numerous scores for radio and television, including the Philco Hall of Fame, Creeps by Night, and scores for the children's series called Storyland Theater. Creston earned several awards for his work in radio and television, including the Christopher Award for his score for Revolt in Hungary (1958) and an Emmy citation from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his score to the documentary In the American Grain (1964).


The 1950s were a period of tremendous creativity and success for the composer, with premieres of over thirty new compositions, His international fame spread and his music was, along with that of Gershwin, Barber and Harris, the most frequently performed abroad by an American composer, From 1956-60, a further honour was accorded Creston when he was asked to serve as president of the National Association of American Composers and Conductors, Creston continued his activities as a television composer, providing scores for the ABC Television documentary series Twentieth Century and his Emmy-winning score to In the American Grain, a documentary about the poet William Carlos Williams. Throughout the early 1960s, Creston continued to be in demand as a guest composer and teacher. His work as a teacher provided him with the opportunity to set down his unique theories of music composition, especially rhythm, in his books Principles of Rhythm (1964), Creative Harmony (1970) and a massive ten-volume compendium entitled Rhythmicon.


By the late 1960s, Creston's music began to fall into obscurity, losing favour to the more experimental works of the younger avant-garde composers. Writing for the New York Times, Edward Rothstein said of the premiere of Creston's Sadhana for cello and orchestra in 1981. "ripe Romantic gestures could have been penned 40 years ago... for a few brief moments. Music history seemed undone" Though embittered at the direction that music seemed to be taking, Creston continued to compose, his Symphony No. 6 receiving its premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1982, and the Prelude and Dance for two pianos was performed at the Convention of the National Federation of Music Clubs in 1983. In 1984, Creston was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. He never completely recovered from the surgery and died in Poway, California on 24th August 1985.


Creston's first symphony, composed in 1940 and premiered on 22nd February 1941 by the NYA Symphony Orchestra with Fritz Mahler conducting, firmly established the composer as a major American symphonist, In 1943, the score won the New York Critics' Circle Award and was praised by Virgil Thompson as:


"… a work of gusto and buoyancy ...the piece is full of notes, and they all sound. It is full of tunes, and they are all good. Such effective musical abundance is rare and welcome."


A bumptious opening, full of angular rhythms and skittering scales, soon gives way to a lyric melody in the violins. A lyrical restatement of the opening in the horns and woodwind provides a brief respite from the nervously pulsing forward momentum. An almost mediaeval-sounding harmonization of the lyrical second theme in the brass brings the movement to its climax, followed by an extended recapitulation of the opening material. The scherzo second movement was to become a favorite of conductor Leopold Stokowski, who often programmed it. A pert, dance-like movement, full of irregular rhythms and phrase-lengths makes for a delightful "left-footed" waltz. The trio features a sweeping string melody that could have almost come from a Hollywood sound track. Some spiky commentary from the brass section leads to an altered restatement of the opening, and the movement ends quietly. The lyrical third movement is this symphony's melodic soul Lush string chords alternate with delicately wrought woodwind solos and the prominent uses of whole-tone progressions is reminiscent of Debussy. Rhythm returns as the preoccupation of the playful finale A lively, syncopated theme, first announced by the oboe and clarinets, is contrasted with a stately brass passage. The symphony ends in a glorious restatement of the brass theme while strings and winds weave tricky, ornate passagework.


Creston's preoccupation with melody and rhythm became the raison d'etre for his Symphony No. 2, Composed in 1944, the composer described the work as "an apotheosis of the two foundations of all music, song and dance". The entire symphony is constructed out of material presented in the opening bars of the first movement. Following the brief introduction, the Song begins with a variant of the opening material, heard first in the flute and then the oboe. A brief rhythmic episode returns to the "song" theme, accompanied by gently pulsing strings. As the movement reaches its climax, a series of unison figures brings an expanded treatment of the rhythmic episode. This outburst ends abruptly and a return to the lyric "song" theme brings the movement to a calm conclusion. In contrast to the highly melodic first movement, the Interlude and Dance begins violently, with a surging upward momentum. The stormy Interlude leads directly to the Dance, without pause. The Dance is built around the motifs from the opening, transformed both melodically and rhythmically. Violent outbursts eventually give way to an extended restatement of the opening Introduction. A simple ostinato announced in the bassoons and lower strings - and derived from the symphony's opening bars – leads to a passionate restatement of the lyrical Song theme as the symphony is brought to its close.


In his Symphony No.3 Creston expressed his deep religious feelings in an orchestral Life of Christ. Premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on 27th October 1950, virtually all of the major themes are derived from or inspired by Gregorian chant. The symphony opens with a poetic evocation of night. The movement's main theme is introduced by the horn and is derived from an ancient Gregorian Alleluia. A more dance-like episode follows, with the horn continuing its development of the Alleluia theme, answered antiphonally by the winds. This is followed by a more pastoral episode, featuring solos from the woodwind. The dance material reappears, ending with a series of joyous restatements of the Alleluia theme. The second movement, The Crucifixion, begins with ominous chords in the lower brass and winds, over which a tender melody on the cello is played. A brief, outburst from the full orchestra is followed by an ostinato, in which an atmosphere of hushed tragedy is established. A solemn melody played on the oboe and later by the strings, building in intensity, becomes a militaristic trudging throughout the orchestra and the movement closes with a fragile restatement of the chant-like melody in violin harmonics. A shimmer of high strings open The Resurrection, as another chant-inspired melody rises out of the cellos and basses. Regal horns harmonize the chant, which is then played on trumpet with the accompaniment of a harp. A faster, antiphonal passage between woodwinds and strings leads to a livelier section with hushed, murmuring strings playing as the chant is taken up and fragmented in the wind and brass. The movement ends with a glorious statement of the chant, harmonized in the brass, while the violins hover excitedly in their upper register.


Joshua Cheek





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