Paul Creston (1906-1985)
Symphonies Nos 1-3
\I consider music, and more specifically the writingof it, as a spiritual practice. To me, musical composition is as vital to myspiritual welfare as prayer and good food and exercise are necessities ofphysical health..."
Paul Creston was born Giuseppe Guttoveggio in New York City in 1906. His father had come to the States from Sicily and was employedas a house-painter. During his childhood Creston visited Sicily with hismother, where he was exposed to the folk-songs and dances of the Sicilianpeasants and his love of music was awakened. Upon Creston's return to theStates, he persuaded his parents to let him begin music lessons. The precociousCreston quickly surpassed the abilities of his teacher and by the age offourteen began to seek his own way. Around this time, Creston made his firstattempts at composition, though his dreams of a musical career were cut shortwhen he was forced to drop out of high school at the age of fifteen in order tohelp support his family.
Along with other sons of immigrants, Walter Piston andPeter Mennin, young Giuseppe decided to "Americanize" his name.
Having earned the nickname "Cress" from playing the part of Crespinoin a school play, he expanded it to Creston and the name "Paul" waschosen because he liked the sound of it. While working as an errand-boy, andlater as a bank-clerk and as insurance claim examiner, Creston would rise earlyand work late into the night, practising piano and composing. Driven by thedesire for self-improvement, Creston would smoke ground coffee beans in orderto 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 asa theater organist for silent movies. Following the introduction of talkies,Creston was appointed organist of St Malachy's Church in New York, a post hewas to occupy for the next 33 years.
In 1933, Creston approached the composer Henry Cowellwith his work Seven Theses for piano, and Cowell published the score as part ofhis New Music Quarterly. He also arranged for Creston to perform his worksin a composers' forum recital at the New School for Social Research in October1934. Cowell greatly admired the younger man's work, and became a life- longadvocate. Following his debut, commissions and accolades came to theindustrious, self-taught composer - two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1938 and1939, the New York Critics' Circle Award for Symphony No. 1 in 1941, theMusic Award of the National Academy of Arts and Letters in 1943, and the AliceM. 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 radioprogramme, Hour of Faith and later wrote numerous scores for radio andtelevision, including the Philco Hall of Fame, Creeps by Night, andscores for the children's series called Storyland Theater. Creston earnedseveral awards for his work in radio and television, including the ChristopherAward for his score for Revolt in Hungary (1958) and an Emmy citationfrom the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his score to thedocumentary In the American Grain (1964).
The 1950s were a period of tremendous creativity andsuccess for the composer, with premieres of over thirty new compositions, Hisinternational fame spread and his music was, along with that of Gershwin,Barber and Harris, the most frequently performed abroad by an Americancomposer, From 1956-60, a further honour was accorded Creston when he was askedto serve as president of the National Association of American Composers andConductors, Creston continued his activities as a television composer, providingscores for the ABC Television documentary series Twentieth Century andhis Emmy-winning score to In the American Grain, a documentaryabout the poet William Carlos Williams. Throughout the early 1960s, Creston continuedto be in demand as a guest composer and teacher. His work as a teacher providedhim with the opportunity to set down his unique theories of music composition,especially rhythm, in his books Principles of Rhythm (1964), CreativeHarmony (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-gardecomposers. Writing for the New York Times, Edward Rothstein said of thepremiere of Creston's Sadhana for cello and orchestra in 1981. "ripeRomantic gestures could have been penned 40 years ago... for a few briefmoments. Music history seemed undone" Though embittered at the directionthat music seemed to be taking, Creston continued to compose, his SymphonyNo. 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 NationalFederation of Music Clubs in 1983. In 1984, Creston was diagnosed with amalignant 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 premieredon 22nd February 1941 by the NYA Symphony Orchestra with Fritz Mahlerconducting, firmly established the composer as a major American symphonist, In1943, the score won the New York Critics' Circle Award and was praised byVirgil Thompson as:
"... a work of gusto and buoyancy ...the piece is fullof notes, and they all sound. It is full of tunes, and they are all good. Sucheffective musical abundance is rare and welcome."
A bumptious opening, full of angular rhythms and skitteringscales, soon gives way to a lyric melody in the violins. A lyrical restatementof the opening in the horns and woodwind provides a brief respite from thenervously pulsing forward momentum. An almost mediaeval-sounding harmonizationof 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, whooften programmed it. A pert, dance-like movement, full of irregular rhythms andphrase-lengths makes for a delightful "left-footed" waltz. The triofeatures a sweeping string melody that could have almost come from a Hollywoodsound track. Some spiky commentary from the brass section leads to an alteredrestatement of the opening, and the movement ends quietly. The lyrical thirdmovement is this symphony's melodic soul Lush string chords alternate withdelicately wrought woodwind solos and the prominent uses of whole-toneprogressions is reminiscent of Debussy. Rhythm returns as the preoccupation ofthe playful finale A lively, syncopated theme, first announced by the oboe andclarinets, is contrasted with a stately brass passage. The symphony ends in aglorious restatement of the brass theme while strings and winds weave tricky