Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Mark it 3, Walter: Piston's First Pulitzer Winner

Why not start this New England-based blog off with a local hero? A hero, at least, according to the Pulitzer Prize Board. In 1948, Maine-born Harvard professor Walter Piston (1894-1976) joined a small and distinguished group of composers — including Aaron Copland and Charles Ives — when he took home the Pulitzer for his Symphony No. 3, the subject of today's post. (Piston won again for his 7th, in 1961.) This Koussevitzky Music Foundation commission had its premiere on January 9, 1948, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Seems like a good start, right?

Despite its auspicious first year, this piece doesn't seem to have held audiences over the last 60 years the same way as, say, Copland's Appalachian Spring, which nabbed the Pulitzer just three years earlier, in 1945. And given Piston's career at Harvard, maybe it's fitting that the only CD recording I could find of this work was by James Yannatos and the Harvard-Radcliffe Orchestra, made in 1999. (We also have a 1954 recording on vinyl by Howard Hanson and the Eastman-Rochester Symphony Orchestra.)

For now, let's skip straight to the feverish second movement, where Piston loves to pass jumpy, brief melodic and rhythmic figures from instrument to instrument. Detached articulation and frequent, unpredictable rests give much of this movement a prickly, spiky feel — but this all slows, and fades, to a middle section that is almost shockingly warm and welcoming, given what's come before. In fact, it's so nice, with its harp and bass clarinet accompaniments, that it almost doesn't fit. (The first and third movements also have some of these lyrical moments, but nothing quite stops the show like this.) The flute fires off the tune-bomb we've all been waiting at least 10 minutes for, and then some other instruments get a chance to play around with it before the flute returns. Have a listen:

2nd movement, leading into the lyrical episode:

The prickliness, though, takes over again. In the rousing fourth movement, the spiky staccatos from the second movement return, and overall, it's a bit more stately and, on the surface, resolute (and certainly more tonally grounded) than that other fast movement. But there's something missing. In his recent book The Great American Symphony, Nicholas Tawa calls this movement "carefree and frolicsome." I didn't find it to be that, exactly. I actually found it to be pretty unsettling. Piston really hits you over the head with the last chord. It's a bit too obvious and forced for me think of this movement as "carefree," and that may be the point. The relentless ending (with its abrupt final sonority, complete with clipped cymbal crash) might be meant to contrast with the much nobler close of the symphony's first movement. That movement's climax actually felt, to me, like the end of a complete journey, finishing as it does with a thrilling build in texture, an almost sudden purge of chromaticism to land on a solid C-major, and a nice final swell. The closure there seems a bit more earned. Compare the movement conclusions and tell me what you think satisfies you more as an ending:

End of 4th movement:

End of 1st movement:

Piston's Third was my real first foray into this composer's music, but I preferred those moments when he allowed a solo instrument to sing for more than a few seconds before letting it get washed away in a sea of competing sounds. It seems, though, that I could be falling into an old trap of Piston criticism. Some think that the price Piston paid for his highly skilled and learned compositional approach is that his music lacks good old-fashioned soul — he was a "craftsman" but, perhaps, not a true artist. A 1958 review of the Hanson recording of this symphony, published in Gramophone, sums up that view: "There is something altogether too rational about Piston's music, and, in the last resort, too little inspired." I don't agree with the dichotomy there — I think logical music can be profoundly moving — but as I explore more Piston, I wonder if my desire for more time with really catchy tunes means I'm just not Piston's target audience. Or maybe I'm listening to the wrong symphony. What do Pistonites out there think about Walter and this highly decorated work?
— Matthew Mugmon


  1. The more I listen to it, the more I'm impressed by that lyrical episode from the 2nd movement. You say it's not the norm in this symphony, but I wonder if there are any pieces from Piston that sustain that sort of tranquil mood (for longer than a minute, at least)?

  2. More and more I am convinced that most 2d and 3rd tier (I'm being polite) composers have the most trouble with slow movements exactly because they just can't spin a tune. Think of every slow movement by Piston, Diamond, Sessions, Carter (in his 1st), and even Harris. It's always a wash of sound with nothing going anywhere or getting anywhere. Very disappointing actually, and it's the main reason I cannot recommend these symphonies to most listeners. Piston manages a few good tunes in the faster movements, like the surprising little folk-tune that pops up in the first movement of his #2. (But ... did he compose it or... steal it?) Unfortunately, in the last analysis, after listening to ALL Piston's symphonies over and over and over (TRYING to follow the thematic material where it just floats around like cold fog) there is just a big, big difference between the big boys and everybody else. Put on any Piston slow movement; after it, put on Rachmaninov's slow movement for his Symphony 2. Is there anything more to say?

    1. I don't agree with you re Piston's slow movements. To me they have a real mastery of organic flow and development. For example, the slow movements of Symphonies 1, 2, and 6. Nor do I agree with you that Piston was second tier; he was a master craftsman (his textbooks alone show all he knew about the art of composition) and one of the best American composers.

    2. 1st tier would be Beethoven. Piston was no Beethoven.

    3. That's true, but with all the music that's out there, 2nd or 3rd tier is still pretty good, if ultimately easily discarded.

  3. Unfortunately, "tunes" don't make a good symphony. I should add that the ability to "spin a tune" doesn't make a good composer. Diamond, Piston, and Sessions were all first rate composers who deserve more than modern audiences and orchestras give them.

  4. I do urge you to seek out the Boston Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (on DGG) of Piston's 2nd Symphony. It will stop you in your tracks. (Released in the early 1970s and briefly issued on CD)....do seek out this treasure.

  5. I do urge you to seek out the Boston Symphony / Michael Tilson Thomas (on DGG) of Piston's 2nd Symphony. It will stop you in your tracks. (Released in the early 1970s and briefly issued on CD)....do seek out this treasure.