PISTON: Symphony No. 4 / Three New England Sketches

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Walter Piston: Symphony No. 4 • Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra

Three New England Sketches

Walter Piston continues to be 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, he instructed students including 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 1950, the University of Minnesota commissioned Piston to compose what became his Symphony No. 4 for the hundredth anniversary of the school the following year. Antal Dorati conducted the première with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra on 30th March, 1951. Piston’s eight symphonies cover a broad spectrum of twentieth century styles. The sixth, for example, was unabashedly tonal, while the eighth was pointedly dodecaphonic. Nos. 1, 2, 5, 7 and 8 are all in three movements; No. 4 is in the traditional four-movement format.

The composer described his fourth symphony as "melodic and expressive and perhaps nearer than my other works to the solution of the problem of balance between expression and formal design". As such, he would have undoubtedly found himself in the spiritual company of Brahms, whose own symphonies amply fit that description. Marked piacevole (pleasant), the first movement posits a long, flowing and somewhat rustic main theme with a more contained and subdued secondary melody introduced by the clarinet. Exulting in a succession of changing meters, the ensuing Ballando (dancing) movement pays homage to both the urban waltz and to unbuttoned country fiddling. In contrast, the third movement, marked Contemplativo, a "continuous Adagio," opens with the clarinet quietly intoning a fairly atonal theme that is taken up and varied by the violas and French horn before mounting to an impressive climax broadcast by the brass. The Energico finale, in sonata form, opens with a terse but rhythmically insistent theme that is answered by a comparatively lyrical secondary tune entrusted to the oboe. A short development and recapitulation in which the second theme has been appropriated by the violins yield to a final climax based on the primary theme.

If any work sets aright Piston’s reputation as an academic composer, it is his Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra, which moves through its paces with unforced grace, perhaps recalling the composer’s youthful days in the Navy band. The work resulted from a commission from Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) in 1963 and was dedicated to renowned Spanish harpist Nicanor Zabaleta, who gave the première performance in Madrid on 19th October, 1964. In one movement, the Capriccio abounds in delectable syncopation, clever contrapuntal exchanges between the solo and the strings, and slower sections that are by turns dreamy and sensuous. The work ends with an animated return to the playfulness of the opening measures capped by an ecstatic series of harp glissandos.

Three New England Sketches was commissioned by the Worcester (Massachusetts) County Musical Association and given its first performance by Paul Paray and the Detroit Symphony on 23rd October, 1959. It is but one of a handful of pieces by Piston with a programme. (Here, too, Piston resembled the classical orientation of Brahms in essentially sticking to "absolute" musical compositions.) The composer was not entirely at ease attaching a storyline or specific scenes to his music, and he wrote of the Sketches:

"[It] is not a symphony, although the evolution of its musical thought is rather symphonic in character…. [The movements] are: I. Seaside; II. Summer Evening; III. Mountains. These programmatic titles serve in a broad sense to tell the source of the impressions, reminiscences, even dreams that pervaded the otherwise musical thoughts of one New England composer.

"The Sketches are not intended as descriptive or representational tone painting; any chance impressions of realism or specific reference come as incidents in the act of composition. This act may be described here, prosaically, as the controlled expansion and development of two or three short musical motives."

In any case, Seaside, an atmospheric Adagio, evokes the ever-changing surface of the ocean. The ensuing Summer Evening, with its flitting tremolos vivify the cumulative background murmur of countless insects hovering in aestival splendor. The concluding Mountains states its case with granite certainty in its bedrock C-major chordal tonality. Its massive strength is complemented by an extended fugal section in hushed dynamics before the return of the Maestoso opening.

Steven Lowe

© 2002 Seattle Symphony

Item number 8559162
Barcode 636943916223
Release date 04/01/2003
Category 20th Century
Label Naxos Classics
Media type CD
Number of units 1
Artists Wunrow, Therese Elder
Wunrow, Therese Elder
Composers Piston, Walter
Piston, Walter
Conductors Schwarz, Gerard
Schwarz, Gerard
Orchestras Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Seattle Symphony Orchestra
Producers Tucker, Lawrence E.
Tucker, Lawrence E.
Disc: 1
Three New England Sketches
1 Piacevole
2 Ballando
3 Contemplativo
4 Energico
5 Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra
6 Seaside (Adagio)
7 Summer Evening (Delicato)
8 Mountains (Maestoso; Risoluto)
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