PAUL CRESTON (1906 - 1985)
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 his 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, he 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 his fellow immigrant sons, 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, he would rise early and work late into the night, practicing 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. Creston’s first employment as a musician occurred from 1926 through 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 thirty-three years.
In 1933, Creston approached the composer Henry Cowell (1897–1965) with his work Seven Theses for piano, who published the score as part of his New Music Quarterly. Cowell also arranged for Creston to perform his works in a composer’s 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 début, commissions and accolades came to the industrious, self-taught composer—two Guggenheim Fellowship in 1938 and 1939, the New York Critic’s 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 thru 1950, Creston worked as musical director of the ABC radio program Hour of Faith and later wrote numerous scores for radio and television, including the Philco Hall of Fame, Creeps by Night, and the children’s series called the 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 premières 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 American composer abroad. From 1956–60, a further honor 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 60s, Creston’s music began to fall into obscurity, losing favor to the more experimental works of the younger avant-garde composers. Writing for The New York Times, Edward Rothstein would say of the première 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 première 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 24 August 1985.