About this Recording
8.559160 - PISTON, W.: Incredible Flutist (The) / Fantasy for Cor Anglais, Harp and Strings (Goff, Danielson, Wunrow, Seattle Symphony, G. Schwarz)

Walter Piston (1894-1976): The Incredible Flutist • Fantasy for English Horn, Harp & Strings • Suite for Orchestra • Concerto f

Walter Piston (1894-1976): The Incredible Flutist • Fantasy for English Horn, Harp & Strings • Suite for Orchestra • Concerto for String Quartet, Wind Instruments & Percussion • Psalm and Prayer of David

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 the 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 honours 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 1938, Piston composed a ballet for the Viennese-American choreographer Jan Veen for a performance by the Boston Pops under its long-time conductor, Arthur Fiedler. Two years later the composer produced a suite of eleven numbers, about half of the music from the original ballet score, retaining the title, The Incredible Flutist. The sparkling suite, played without a break between individual sections, became his best known and his only composition with programmatic content. From the August 1938 issue of Dance magazine we have the following summary of action: "The siesta is over. With a hearty yawn and a wide stretch, the village shakes off its drowsiness. First to wake up is the Apprentice who opens the shop, and life begins its eventful flow. The Merchant’s Daughters demonstrate their father’s wares to Shoppers. The Busybody and the Crank have their argument. But what is this? … A march is heard! The Band, the Circus Band, marches in, followed by the people of the circus. They’re all here: the Barker, the Jugglers, the Snake Dancer, the Monkey Trainer with her Monkeys, the Crystal Gazer, and, of course, the main attraction, the Flutist … He not only charms snakes; he also charms…the Snake Dancer…and the Merchant’s Daughter, and they meet at eight o’clock that very evening. When the clock strikes eight, young couples are all over the place, and love is in the air. Even the prudish, rich Widow cannot resist the charged atmosphere, and she grants the Merchant the kiss he’s been begging for well nigh two years. But they don’t fare so well. Their sustained embrace is discovered, and the Widow faints right into the arms of her bewhiskered boyfriend. But the Incredible Flutist hies to her rescue. A little dancing, a little fluting, and the Widow comes out of her swoon, none the worse for wear. And then … the Band strikes up, the spell is broken; the Circus, Incredible Flutist and all, leave the village."

The Fantasy for English Horn, Harp and Strings was written for the Boston Symphony’s English horn player, Louis Speyer, and received its première in January 1954 with the harpist Bernard Zighera and conductor Charles Munch. Of this work the composer wrote, "The work intends primarily to exhibit, and indeed it may be said to have been inspired by, the poetic beauty of the English horn as played by Louis Speyer." Its opening calm yields to a buoyant staccato section and cadenza, returning to a somewhat more elaborate version of the opening section.

The Suite for Orchestra, dating from 1929, was Piston’s first published work and reflects his early years as a dance band musician. A strong rhythmic impetus and bluesy tone inform the first movement, with pride of place going to the cellos. A lovely, reflective movement follows featuring a plaintive English horn solo. The world of popular music is clearly in absentia in the rigorously contrapuntal finale that develops into a nine-part canon.

Piston died a mere three weeks after the première of his Concerto for String Quartet in October 1976. He scored the work for the unusual combination of string quartet, winds and percussion because, in his experience, music written for quartet and orchestra invariably favored the orchestral strings to the detriment of the chamber ensemble. Piston described the one-movement work as "a set of variations … with the themes growing out of one another." Opening with a strongly accented section, it soon withdraws into a mournful passage led by the string quartet. A quicker tempo returns in the scherzo, with an animated dialogue between the strings and winds. After a string cadenza redolent of the earlier mournful passage, a quick tempo is revisited, ultimately yielding to a quiet closing.

Although Piston had no particular religious affiliation, the Psalm and Prayer of David resonates deeply with its effective alternation of the assertive and positive opening psalm and the following sorrowful prayer-like psalm whose mood is deepened by a mournful phase for solo cello.

Steven Lowe

© 2002 Seattle Symphony

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