Home » Uncategorized » Paul Creston and his first three symphonies

Paul Creston and his first three symphonies


Paul Creston (October 10, 1906 – August 24, 1985) was an American composer of Italian parentage noted for his accessible tonal style and for the strong emphasis on rhythm in his works.  Born Giuseppe Guttoveggio on October 10, 1906, in New York City, NY, to Sicilian immigrants, Creston was entirely self‐taught as a composer with the exception of piano and organ lessons in his youth.  His father had come to the States from Italy and was employed as a house painter. During his childhood, Creston visited Sicily with his mother where he was exposed to the folk songs and dances of the Sicilian peasants and his love of music was awakened. Upon his return to the States, he persuaded his parents to let him begin music lessons. The precocious Creston quickly surpassed the abilities of his teacher and by the age of fourteen began to seek his own way. Around this time, he made his first attempts at composition, though his dreams of a musical career were cut short when he was forced to drop out of high school at the age of fifteen in order to help support his family.

The young Giuseppe decided to “Americanize” his name and pursued his studies by reading the classics of history, theory, composition, literature, and philosophy and studying the scores of the masters: Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Chopin, Debussy, Ravel, Stravinsky, and, above all, Johann Sebastian Bach, while helping to support himself and his family.   Working as an errand boy, and later as a bank clerk and as insurance claim examiner, he would rise early and work late into the night, practicing on a $10 piano and composing.   Creston’s first employment as a musician occurred from 1926 through 1929, when he worked as a theater organist for silent movies. Following the introduction of talkies, Creston was appointed organist of St. Malachy’s Church in New York, a post he was to occupy for the next thirty-three years.  Fiercely independent by nature, the composer developed his style free of any particular school of thought or teacher’s influence and made rhythm a cornerstone of his work, often emphasizing shifting subdivisions of regular meters. He created works in many genres including five symphonies, concertos for violin, piano, saxophone, and marimba, several dance works, songs, and choral, chamber, and instrumental pieces.

In 1933, Creston approached the composer Henry Cowell (1897–1965) with his work Seven Theses for piano, who published the score as part of his New Music Quarterly. Cowell also arranged for Creston to perform his works in a composer’s forum recital at the New School for Social Research in October 1934. Cowell greatly admired the younger man’s work, and became a life-long advocate. Following his début, commissions and accolades came to the industrious, self-taught composer—two Guggenheim Fellowships in 1938 and 1939, the New York Critic’s Circle Award for Symphony No. 1 in 1941, the Music Award of the National Academy of Arts and Letters in 1943, and the Alice M. Ditson Award in 1945.  Creston considered his greatest “teachers” to be Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel. He wrote in an accessible, conservative style that incorporated song and dance idioms and often featured unusual instruments like the trombone, marimba, or saxophone.  There is a distinct religious sensibility to much of his music that is clearly evident in such works as the Symphony No. 3 (“Three Mysteries”; 1950) and the orchestral meditation Corinthians: XIII, Op. 82 (1963).

In 1940, Creston accepted a teaching post at the Cummington School of the Arts in Massachusetts where he taught piano and composition. Other teaching jobs were first at Swarthmore, and later at the New York College of Music (1963-1967) and Central Washington State College (1968-1975).  Lush harmonies and expansive orchestrations characterize an often brash and spontaneous body of his work, organized around a remarkable mastery of thematic development evident in works such as the Symphony No. 2 and Chant of 1942.  From 1944 thru 1950, Creston worked as musical director of the ABC radio program Hour of Faith and later wrote numerous scores for radio and television, including the Philco Hall of Fame, Creeps by Night, and the children’s series called the Storyland Theater. Creston earned several awards for his work in radio and television, including the Christopher Award for his score for Revolt in Hungary 1958 and an Emmy citation from the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences for his score to the documentary In the American Grain (1964).

Creston was one of the most performed American composers of the 1940s and 50s. His music was championed by a number of important conductors, including Toscanini, Ormandy, and Stokowski, but few were as committed to Creston’s music as Howard Mitchell, longtime conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra of Washington, D.C.  The 1950s were a period of tremendous creativity and success for the composer—with premières of over thirty new compositions. His international fame spread and his music was, along with that of Gershwin, Barber, and Harris, the most frequently performed American composer abroad. From 1956–60, a further honor was accorded Creston when he was asked to serve as president of the National Association of American Composers and Conductors. Creston continued his activities as a television composer, providing scores for the ABC Television documentary series, Twentieth Century, and his Emmy-winning score to In the American Grain, a documentary about the poet William Carlos Williams. Throughout the early 1960s, Creston continued to be in demand as a guest composer and teacher.

However, by the late 60s, Creston’s music began to fall into obscurity, losing favor to the more experimental works of the younger avant-garde composers.  Yet, Creston continued to compose works such as Sadhana for ‘cello and orchestra in 1981.  His Symphony No. 6 receiving its première at the Kennedy Center in 1982, and the Prelude and Dance for two pianos was performed at the Convention of the National Federation of Music Clubs in 1983.  Several of his works have become staples of the wind band repertoire. Zanoni, Prelude and Dance and the Celebration Overture have been and still are on several state lists for contests across the U. S. A.  Also, his work as a teacher provided him with the opportunity to set down his unique theories of music composition, and he was the author of the theoretical books Principles of Rhythm (1964), Creative Harmony (1970), and Rational Metric Notation (1979), as well as numerous articles analyzing four centuries of rhythmic practice and a massive ten-volume compendium entitled Rhythmicon.

Creston was an honorary member of Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity, initiated into the national honorary Alpha Alpha chapter. His work tends to be fairly traditional in style, with a strong rhythmic element. His pieces include six symphonies, a number of concertos, including two for violin, one for marimba and orchestra premiered by Ruth Stuber, one for one piano, one for two pianos, one for accordion, and one for alto saxophone dedicated to Cecil Leeson, a fantasia for trombone and orchestra composed for and premiered by Robert Marsteller), and a Rapsodie again for alto saxophone written for Jean-Marie Londeix. He also wrote a suite (1935) and a sonata (op. 19, 1939) for alto saxophone and piano(both dedicated to Cecil Leeson), as well as a suite for organ, Op. 70. Several of his works were inspired by the poetry of Walt Whitman. Creston was also a notable teacher, with the composers Irwin Swack, John Corigliano, Elliott Schwartz, Frank Felice, and Charles Roland Berry, accordionist/composer William Schimmel and the jazz musicians Rusty Dedrick and Charlie Queener among his pupils. After retiring from his academic career, Creston moved to San Diego, CA.  In 1984, he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor. He never completely recovered from the surgery and died on August 24, 1985, in Poway, CA, a suburb of San Diego.

The following works by Paul Creston are contained in my collection:
Symphony No. 1, op. 20 (1940)

Symphony No. 2, op. 35 (1944)

Symphony No. 3, op. 48, Three Mysteries (1948)

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


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