Paul Creston (1906 - 1985)
Toccata Symphony No. 5 Out of the Cradle Partita Invocation and Dance
The distinguished American composer Paul Creston was born inNew York City to Italian immigrant parents in 1906. Though as a child hestudied piano and organ with Gaston Dethier and Pietro Yon respectively, heenjoyed no such mentoring in composition. The itch to compose, however, cameearly, and by the age of eight he was already trying his hand at creatingmusic. As an essentially self-taught composer he maintained that his greatestteachers were Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel. The breadth of hisknowledge in history, literature and philosophy derived as well from his ownfocused self-education. By the age of fifteen, forced by his family's economichardship, he left school in order to earn a living. Though this turn of eventsmight have been daunting to a less-disciplined mind, it further prompted theyoung 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 wasperforming; "Paul" was simply a random choice.
Like Robert Schumann a century before him, Creston was drawnas much to a career in literature as he was to one in music. In 1932, when hewas 26, he committed himself to musical composition, and because composers donot 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, ittook almost a decade for movie houses throughout the country to update to thenew genre, thereby ensuring work for theatre organists.)
Despite having no connection with an established musicalinstitution, as did Walter Piston, for example, with Harvard and the BostonSymphony Orchestra, Creston managed to attract audiences during the GreatDepression, quite rapidly, in fact. In 1938 he was awarded a GuggenheimFellowship, and in 1941 he won the New York Music Critics' Circle Award. Thefollowing year, Arturo Toscanini conducted his Choric Dance No. 2 with the NBCSymphony. Over the next several years, other major conductors and orchestrasperformed his music, including his first and second symphonies. Creston's musicwas clearly being heard during an era when classical music was, if notmainstream, at least disseminated on mainstream radio and in concert halls farand wide. His tonally centered harmonic vocabulary found a cordial receptionamong musicians and concert-goers alike during the period extending from the1930s through the years following World War II, the same era in which AaronCopland captivated the American concert audience with his popular/populistballets. During the 1960s, as the pendulum in American composition swung heavilytoward post-Webernian serialism and other modern approaches, Creston's musicfell into neglect, if not disfavor, along with that of other American composerswho had not embraced non-tonal techniques. In the past two decades or so, theworld seems to have rediscovered the great legacy of American symphonists, andCreston's star has been on the ascendant once again.
Creston composed Toccata for the fortieth anniversary of TheCleveland Orchestra in 1957. George Szell, the ensemble's famed music director,conducted the premi?¿re on 17th October of that year. From the Italian for"touch", the centuries-old toccata suggests a work of seemingly improvisatorycharacter demanding (and rewarding) the highest levels of virtuosity. Szell hadfashioned the Cleveland musicians into one of the finest orchestras in theworld, and Creston had virtually free rein to compose a work reflecting theirwell-earned reputation. The resultant score bristles with unstoppable energyand provides ample opportunities for individual musicians to take a place inthe spotlight. The piece's primary theme, fashioned from widely spacedintervals somewhat redolent of Copland, sounds unmistakably American. Asequence of solos for clarinet, flute, oboe, bassoon dot the musical landscapelike a series of awe-inspiring sonic vistas. Occasional Latin-esque riffsextend the American connection southward. Textures are lean and neo-classic ?ála Stravinsky but without his customary acerbity. A serene central section withricher textures includes a lovely oboe solo above caressing strings. A returnto the virtuosic mien of the opening section brings the work to a strenuousclose.
Creston's Symphony No. 5 was commissioned to celebrate the25th anniversary of the National Symphony Orchestra, which gave the premi?¿re on4th April, 1956, under Howard Mitchell. The first movement, marked Con moto,begins softly with a long unison string theme that evolves into a faster fugalepisode. There follows an increase in urgency and dynamic levels achievedthrough layering of more strings, brass and percussion. A brief sinuous andanxious oboe theme weaves through the aggressive orchestral texture. Low brassinstruments seek to calm things with a noble theme, but it too has its elementof unrest. The tenor of the entire movement, in fact, is ceaselessly active andthrusting.
The Largo opens with strings rising dramatically to an emphaticchordal eruption from the orchestra. A sense of passion and unrest continues,though less aggressively than in the first movement. An attractive, yetnervously inquisitive oboe theme enters. Counterpoint in low strings maintainsthis feeling of urgency, which is mildly offset by a solo flute theme that addspoignancy. As in the Toccata, the wind principals in particular each havesomething to say in the manner of short solos. The entire movement has a doublenature: Intense, long-breathed lyrical melodies float over or meander through astrongly inflected orchestral background. After a final peroration, the Englishhorn intones a haunting theme against subdued strings to end the movementquietly.
The finale, Maestoso - Allegro, begins dramatically withbarking brasses and surging rhythms punctuated by aggressive percussion andtimpani. A sudden quieting of the orchestra leads to a new theme in the upperstrings against quietly insistent rhythmic prodding from the rest of theensemble. Brass instruments introduce a new theme, assertive but far morepositive in mood than anything heard previously in the symphony. This highlyrhythmic music conveys a sense of near-manic jubilation, and the work comes toan abrupt and emphatic close.
Creston composed Out of the Cradle in 1934. The inspirationfor this moving work came from Walt Whitman's "Out of the Cradle EndlesslyRocking" from Leaves of Grass, a reflective and by turns elegiac and anxiouspoem originally titled A Child's Reminiscence. Conveying the poem's theme oflove and loss, expressed through recollections of a pair of mockingbirds, ofwhich one is lost while flying over the ocean, the music captures the surgingpower of the sea and the feeling of flight through undulating rhythms andscurrying wind lines. Overall, the piece has a strong forward rhythm and clean,neo-classic scoring with a distinct American timbre. Occasional moments recallthe quieter moments in Stravinsky's Le sacre du printemps and add to a sense ofnature's mystery. The music ends quietly, as the departed soul of the mockingbird and its human counterpart return to the comforting maternal arms of thesea.
Creston's 1937 Partita evokes the spirit and sound of Bach'sBrandenburg Concertos. The opening movement, aptly titled Preamble, has themotoric energy of a Baroque fast movement. The flute and violin soloists tradeoff long-spun melodies in conversational st