About this Recording
8.559153 - CRESTON: Symphony No. 5 / Toccata / Partita
English  German 

Paul Creston (1906 - 1985)

Paul Creston (1906 - 1985)

Toccata • Symphony No. 5 • Out of the Cradle • Partita • Invocation and Dance


The distinguished American composer Paul Creston was born in New York City to Italian immigrant parents in 1906. Though as a child he studied piano and organ with Gaston Dethier and Pietro Yon respectively, he enjoyed no such mentoring in composition. The itch to compose, however, came early, and by the age of eight he was already trying his hand at creating music. As an essentially self-taught composer he maintained that his greatest teachers were Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. The breadth of his knowledge in history, literature and philosophy derived as well from his own focused self-education. By the age of fifteen, forced by his family’s economic hardship, he left school in order to earn a living. Though this turn of events might have been daunting to a less-disciplined mind, it further prompted the young man to take responsibility for his own education. While still in school, he decided to take a more mainstream American name than that of his birth, Giuseppe Guttoveggio. The name “Creston” came from a play in which he was performing; “Paul” was simply a random choice.


Like Robert Schumann a century before him, Creston was drawn as much to a career in literature as he was to one in music. In 1932, when he was 26, he committed himself to musical composition, and because composers do not typically have an easy time making a living from so arcane a profession, the young man supported himself by playing the organ to accompany silent films. (Though the famous talkie The Jazz Singer with Al Jolson dates from 1927, it took almost a decade for movie houses throughout the country to update to the new genre, thereby ensuring work for theatre organists.)


Despite having no connection with an established musical institution, as did Walter Piston, for example, with Harvard and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Creston managed to attract audiences during the Great Depression, quite rapidly, in fact. In 1938 he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1941 he won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award. The following year, Arturo Toscanini conducted his Choric Dance No. 2 with the NBC Symphony. Over the next several years, other major conductors and orchestras performed his music, including his first and second symphonies. Creston’s music was clearly being heard during an era when classical music was, if not mainstream, at least disseminated on mainstream radio and in concert halls far and wide. His tonally centered harmonic vocabulary found a cordial reception among musicians and concert-goers alike during the period extending from the 1930s through the years following World War II, the same era in which Aaron Copland captivated the American concert audience with his popular/populist ballets. During the 1960s, as the pendulum in American composition swung heavily toward post-Webernian serialism and other modern approaches, Creston’s music fell into neglect, if not disfavor, along with that of other American composers who had not embraced non-tonal techniques. In the past two decades or so, the world seems to have rediscovered the great legacy of American symphonists, and Creston’s star has been on the ascendant once again.


Creston composed Toccata for the fortieth anniversary of The Cleveland Orchestra in 1957. George Szell, the ensemble’s famed music director, conducted the première on 17th October of that year. From the Italian for “touch”, the centuries-old toccata suggests a work of seemingly improvisatory character demanding (and rewarding) the highest levels of virtuosity. Szell had fashioned the Cleveland musicians into one of the finest orchestras in the world, and Creston had virtually free rein to compose a work reflecting their well-earned reputation. The resultant score bristles with unstoppable energy and provides ample opportunities for individual musicians to take a place in the spotlight. The piece’s primary theme, fashioned from widely spaced intervals somewhat redolent of Copland, sounds unmistakably American. A sequence of solos for clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon dot the musical landscape like a series of awe-inspiring sonic vistas. Occasional Latin-esque riffs extend the American connection southward. Textures are lean and neo-classic à la Stravinsky but without his customary acerbity. A serene central section with richer textures includes a lovely oboe solo above caressing strings. A return to the virtuosic mien of the opening section brings the work to a strenuous close.


Creston’s Symphony No. 5 was commissioned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the National Symphony Orchestra, which gave the première on 4th April, 1956, under Howard Mitchell. The first movement, marked Con moto, begins softly with a long unison string theme that evolves into a faster fugal episode. There follows an increase in urgency and dynamic levels achieved through layering of more strings, brass and percussion. A brief sinuous and anxious oboe theme weaves through the aggressive orchestral texture. Low brass instruments seek to calm things with a noble theme, but it too has its element of unrest. The tenor of the entire movement, in fact, is ceaselessly active and thrusting.


The Largo opens with strings rising dramatically to an emphatic chordal eruption from the orchestra. A sense of passion and unrest continues, though less aggressively than in the first movement. An attractive, yet nervously inquisitive oboe theme enters. Counterpoint in low strings maintains this feeling of urgency, which is mildly offset by a solo flute theme that adds poignancy. As in the Toccata, the wind principals in particular each have something to say in the manner of short solos. The entire movement has a double nature: Intense, long-breathed lyrical melodies float over or meander through a strongly inflected orchestral background. After a final peroration, the English horn intones a haunting theme against subdued strings to end the movement quietly.


The finale, Maestoso - Allegro, begins dramatically with barking brasses and surging rhythms punctuated by aggressive percussion and timpani. A sudden quieting of the orchestra leads to a new theme in the upper strings against quietly insistent rhythmic prodding from the rest of the ensemble. Brass instruments introduce a new theme, assertive but far more positive in mood than anything heard previously in the symphony. This highly rhythmic music conveys a sense of near-manic jubilation, and the work comes to an abrupt and emphatic close.


Creston composed Out of the Cradle in 1934. The inspiration for this moving work came from Walt Whitman’s “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking” from Leaves of Grass, a reflective and by turns elegiac and anxious poem originally titled A Child’s Reminiscence. Conveying the poem’s theme of love and loss, expressed through recollections of a pair of mockingbirds, of which one is lost while flying over the ocean, the music captures the surging power of the sea and the feeling of flight through undulating rhythms and scurrying wind lines. Overall, the piece has a strong forward rhythm and clean, neo-classic scoring with a distinct American timbre. Occasional moments recall the quieter moments in Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps and add to a sense of nature’s mystery. The music ends quietly, as the departed soul of the mocking bird and its human counterpart return to the comforting maternal arms of the sea.


Creston’s 1937 Partita evokes the spirit and sound of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos. The opening movement, aptly titled Preamble, has the motoric energy of a Baroque fast movement. The flute and violin soloists trade off long-spun melodies in conversational style. A lovely Sarabande follows in which the low strings establish the slow but forward rhythmic impetus over which the two soloists present and comment upon a sad and tender flowing melody. Here, too, the sentiment and melodic shape suggest a Bach slow movement. In well-gauged contrast, a quick, quirky and energetic Burlesk ensues, animated by close imitations between the violin and flute. The Air is a relaxed, sweetly melancholic duet over a gentle pizzicato accompaniment. The finale, a sprightly Tarantella, brings the work to a swirling close, its unstoppable demeanor suggestive of a perpetuum mobile.


The 1953 Invocation and Dance begins quietly and mysteriously. Soft but dissonant chords in the lower frequencies provide the backdrop for serpentine and chromatic melodies uttered by the winds. As the dynamic levels rise, so does the tension implicit in the beginning chords. Strong propulsive ostinatos and barking brass add a potent dose of primitive energy in the manner of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps. Janus-faced, the music pays homage to Stravinsky’s landmark ballet of 1913 while celebrating a distinctly American sound and kind of syncopation that suggests the music of his younger contemporary, Leonard Bernstein, though without any hint of Broadway grease paint.

Steven Lowe


g 2003 Seattle Symphony

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