Walter Hamor Piston Jr. (January 20, 1894 – November 12, 1976) was an American composer and theorist of the front rank in the middle twentieth century. Winner of two Pulitzer Prizes in music for his Third Symphony (1948, premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra) and his Seventh Symphony (1961, premiered by the Philadelphia Orchestra) and two New York Music Circle awards, Piston was among several prominent American symphonists of the World War II era who attained international notoriety. In addition to his many achievements as a composer, Walter Piston wrote authoritative books on harmony, counterpoint, harmonic analysis and orchestration.
Though he was considered to be a part of the new school of American "nationalism" in music, he downplayed the idea of establishing an American style preferring to be more concerned with developing his craft in pursuit of his own personal style. On this subject, he wrote, "The self-conscious striving for nationalism gets in the way of the establishment of a strong American School of composition and even of significant individual expression. If composers will increasingly strive to perfect themselves in the art of music, and will follow only those paths of expression which seem to them the true way, the matter of a national school will take of itself."
This is concomitant with the insights of another celebrated composer and theorist, Arnold Schoenberg:
“Whether one calls oneself conservative or revolutionary, whether one composes in a conventional or progressive manner, whether one tries to imitate old styles or is destined to express new ideas—one must be convinced of the infallibility of one's own fantasy and one must believe in one's own inspiration.”
Piston was born in Rockland, Maine. His father's father, a sailor named Antonio Pistone, changed his name to Anthony Piston when he came to America from Genoa, Italy. In 1905, Walter Piston Sr. and his family moved to Boston. Walter Jr. trained as an engineer at the Mechanical Arts High School in Boston, but he was artistically inclined and upon graduating from there in 1912, proceeded to the Massachusetts Normal Arts School, majoring in painting, also studying architectural drawing and American history. There he met Kathryn Nason, and married her at a Unitarian church.
With his brother Edward, Walter Piston Jr. took piano lessons from Harris Shaw (who was Virgil Thomson's organ teacher). During the 1910's Walter Piston made a living playing piano and violin in dance bands, and later on in the decade played violin in orchestras led by Georges Longy. With help from Shaw, Walter Piston was admitted to Harvard in 1920, where he studied counterpoint with Archibald Davison, canon and fugue with Clifford Heilman, and advanced harmony with Edward Ballantine, composition and music history with Edward Burlingame Hill. Piston often worked as an assistant to the various music professors there, and conducted the student orchestra.
At about that time Piston joined the Navy Band and learned to play more instruments. He wanted to join the U.S. Navy as an officer, but was deemed more useful as a musician.
Upon graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Piston was awarded a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship, consisting of $1500 yearly for two to three years of travel abroad. He chose to go to Paris, living there from 1924 to 1926, but he also visited Italy. At the Ecole Nationale de Musique in Paris, Piston studied composition and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger, composition with Paul Dukas and violin with George Enescu. His Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon of 1925 was his first published score.
He moved to Belmont, Massachusetts after returning from Europe, and taught at Harvard from 1926 until retiring in 1960. His students include Samuel Adler, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Irving Fine, John Harbison, Frederic Rzewski and Harold Shapero.
In 1936, the Columbia Broadcasting System commissioned six American composers (Aaron Copland, Louis Gruenberg, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, William Grant Still and Piston) to write works for CBS radio stations to broadcast. Piston considered radio better suited to smaller orchestras and he wrote a Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orchestra. The following year Piston wrote his Symphony No. 1, which was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on April 8, 1938.
Piston's first orchestral composition, Symphony Piece, was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitsky in 1928. It was the first of eleven premieres by the BSO. At the invitation of Arthur Fiedler, Piston composed his most famous work, the ballet, The Incredible Flautist, for Hans Wiener and the Boston Pops Orchestra. Other premieres of his music were presented by major American Orchestras, including the Cleveland Orchestra, the CBS Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, the National Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. His Sixth Symphony was commissioned for the 75th Anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1955 and the BSO performed the work extensively on its tours to Europe and Russia.
In addition to Koussevitsky, other notable conductors who championed his works included Fritz Reiner, George Szell, Eugene Ormandy, Antal Dorati, Leonard Bernstein Charles Munch, Paul Paray, Leonard Slatkin and Gerard Schwartz.
Like many composers of the era (Stravinsky, Rochberg, Copland, e.g.) Piston delved into the twelve-tone techniques of Arnold Schoenberg, and began to experiment in atonal processes. This led to his writing a dodecaphonic work for organ, his Chromatic Study on the Name of Bach. In spite of this flirtation with serialism, Piston was nonetheless a traditionalist at heart. His identifiable style was more the progeny of Bach and Beethoven in its harmonic schemes and its polyphonic and developmental style than of the Second Viennese School.
Piston's compositional style was not in the "populist" vain of Aaron Copland or Charles Ives but was far more neo-classic in the manner of Stravinsky. He once remarked, "Ours is a big country and we are a people possessing a multitude of different origins." He wrote very few choral or vocal works preferring the realm of instrumental music. "I must say I've always composed music from the point of view of the performers. I love instruments, and I value the cooperation of the performers. I believe in the contribution of the player to the music as written."
During World War II, Piston was an air raid warden in Belmont, and he wrote patriotic fanfares and other such works. His symphonies are among the finest works by American composers in the genre of the middle twentieth century.
In 1943, the Alice M. Piston fund of Columbia University commissioned Piston's Symphony No. 2, which was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra on March 5, 1944 and was awarded a prize by the New York Music Critics' Circle. His next symphony, Symphony No. 3 earned a Pulitzer Prize, as did his Symphony No. 7. His Viola Concerto and String Quartet No. 5 also later received Critics' Circle awards.
At a time when there was a great deal of interest in developing an American style of music, Piston (echoing the thought of Schoenberg opined, "The major problem for the composer must be to preserve and develop his individuality. He must resist the temptation to follow this or that fashion. He must find what it is he wishes to say in music and how best to say it, subjecting his work to the severest self-criticism...Strength of will and faith in one's creative gift are essential. The composer must judge for himself in these matters, with self-reliance based on a thorough knowledge of his craft and a capacity for independent thinking as an individual creative artist."
Commenting on his popular Sixth Symphony, Richard Freed observes, "The music is thoroughly characteristic of Piston's style—direct in its appeal, neatly but unostentatiously tailored to fit the materials, abundant in handsome themes and striking colors, and informed with a vitality that seems to renew itself unfailingly with each hearing. It is characteristic too, that the symphony speaks directly and effectively without analytical aids."
Between 1933 and 1955 Piston wrote four important books on the technical aspects of music theory which are considered to be classics in their respective fields: Principles of Harmonic Analysis, Counterpoint, Orchestration and Harmony. The last of these went through four editions in the author's lifetime, was translated into several languages, and (with changes made by a later author) is still widely used by teachers and students of harmony. In it, Piston introduced, for the first time, the concept of the secondary dominant, as well as his unique theory of classifying nonharmonic tones (nonchord tones).
Piston's handwriting was so neat that almost all his orchestral scores were published as facsimiles of his original scores, and he also wrote the musical examples in the textbooks he authored.
In his final years, Piston was debilitated by diabetes, and his vision and hearing suffered. His wife died in 1976, and he died later that same year, of a heart attack, in Belmont, Massachusetts. He was cremated, and his ashes were dispersed at Mount Auburn Cemetery.
Walter Piston was among the first generation of American symphonists who established their reputations as significant composers on the world stage. Along with Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Roger Sessions, Peter Mennin, Roy Harris and William Schuman, Piston pioneered the beginnings of what would become an important phase of composition in the United States.
The edition of Piston's Harmony that is currently available is:
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