Home » Uncategorized » Walter Piston and “The Incredible Flautist”

Walter Piston and “The Incredible Flautist”

Walter Hamor Piston Jr, (January 20, 1894 – November 12, 1976), was an American composer, music theorist, and professor of music at Harvard University who is best known for his ballet The Incredible Flutist, his two violin concertos, eight symphonies, and numerous wonderful chamber works. Piston was born in Rockland, ME, on January 20, 1894. His paternal grandfather, a sailor named Antonio Pistone, changed his name to Anthony Piston when he came to America from Genoa, Italy. In 1905, when the boy was ten, the composer’s father, Walter Piston Sr, moved with his family to Boston. Walter Jr first trained as an engineer at the Mechanical Arts High School in Boston, but was artistically inclined. In his teens, Piston’s musical education commenced with piano and violin lessons, but painting was his main interest. After graduating in 1912, he enrolled in the Massachusetts Normal Arts School, where he completed a draftsmanship course in 1916.

During the 1910s, Piston made a living playing piano and violin in dance bands and later playing violin in orchestras led by Georges Longy. During World War I, he joined the U.S. Navy as a band musician after rapidly teaching himself to play saxophone. While playing in a service band, he taught himself to play most wind instruments. After the war, Piston was admitted to Harvard College in 1920, where he studied counterpoint with Archibald Davison, canon and fugue with Clifford Heilman, advanced harmony with Edward Ballantine, and composition and music history with Edward Burlingame Hill. He often worked as an assistant for various music professors there, and conducted the student orchestra. In 1920, Piston married artist Kathryn Nason (1892–1976), who had been a fellow student at the Normal Arts School. Their marriage lasted until her death in February 1976, a few months before his own.

On graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Piston was awarded a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship and chose to go to Paris, living there from 1924 to 1926. At the Ecole Nationale de Musique in Paris, he 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. Upon his return to the U.S., he taught at Harvard from 1926 until his retirement in 1960 appointed in 1951 as Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Music. His students include Samuel Adler, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Gordon Binkerd, Elliott Carter, John Davison, Irving Fine, John Harbison, Karl Kohn, Ellis B. Kohs, Gail Kubik, Billy Jim Layton, Noël Lee, Robert Middleton, Robert Moevs, Conlon Nancarrow, William P. Perry, Daniel Pinkham, Frederic Rzewski, Allen Sapp, Harold Shapero, and Claudio Spies. In 1928 the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky performed Piston’s Symphonic Piece.

Piston studied the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg and wrote works using aspects of it as early as the Sonata for Flute and Piano (1930). 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 broadcast on CBS radio. The following year, Piston wrote his Symphony No. 1 and conducted its premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on April 8, 1938. Piston’s only dance work, The Incredible Flutist, was a ballet written for the Boston Pops Orchestra, which premiered it with Arthur Fiedler conducting on May 30, 1938. His first fully twelve-tone work was the Chromatic Study on the Name of Bach for organ (1940), which nonetheless retains a vague feeling of key. Also, Piston arranged an Incredible Flautist concert suite including a selection of the best parts of the ballet. This version was premiered by Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on November 22, 1940.

In 1943, the Alice M. Ditson 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, the Third, earned a Pulitzer Prize in 1948, as did his Symphony No. 7 in 1961. His Viola Concerto and String Quartet No. 5 also later received Critics’ Circle awards. Although he employed twelve-tone elements sporadically throughout his career, these become much more pervasive in the Eighth Symphony (1965) and many of the works following it, such as the Variations for Cello and Orchestra (1966), Clarinet Concerto (1967), Ricercare for Orchestra, Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra (1970), and Flute Concerto (1971). Piston wrote four 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. He died at his home in Belmont, MA, on November 12, 1976.

As a composer, Walter Piston remained an enlightened conservative. Taking the neo-Classic mode of expression and infusing it into larger Romantic forms with flawless craftsmanship, he was one of the great bearers of the symphonic tradition in the twentieth century. Piston was a leading light among those mid-twentieth century American composers who opted to explore traditional musical forms and language. Although he was perhaps better known as a teacher and the author of a widely used book on harmony than as a composer, Piston’s music displays superb craftsmanship within his selected neo-Classic-Romantic idiom, though in his last decades his works also explore more complex harmonies and aspects of serialism within a tonal context.

The following works by Walter Piston are contained in my collection:

Concerto No. 1 for Violin and Orchestra (1939).
Concerto No. 2 for Violin and Orchestra (1960).
Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra (1970).
The Incredible Flutist Ballet Suite.

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources


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