“Writing long-haired music is not a way to make a living...”
- Walter Piston
If you have ever had life kick you in the teeth, you understand the Einstein quote “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.” In a way, Walter Piston had this figured out for himself early on when he reluctantly decided he was going to be a composer. Admitting to a reunion of the Harvard Class of 1924:
After graduation I spent two years in Paris... I discovered [then] that I would probably become a composer. Now it is not from choice that one becomes a composer but rather, it seems, one does it in spite of everything even against one’s better judgement. But writing long-haired music is not a way to make a living...
Compose he did, along side teaching at Harvard. Simultaneously, he wrote four academic texts that are still discussed and argued about to this day: Principles of Harmonic Analysis, Harmony, Counterpoint, and Orchestration.
The fact that Piston developed, published, and continuously edited his academic texts would suggest that he is by and large of an analytical mindset. However, even in those texts he offers warnings and nuggets of wisdom along the way, cautioning against taking theoretical study too far. In Counterpoint, Piston spends the first chapter discussing “melodic curve”, instructing that “the outline of a melody may be perceived by simply looking at the music” and that “the word curve is useful to suggest the essential quality of continuity”. Then, after giving many examples and explaining his methodology, Piston makes sure to point out “it is important to see that in the process of analysis and simplification we do not destroy or lose sight of those details of a melody which are the essence of its individuality and expressive quality.” This statement is telling of his own philosophy on composition itself. Putting it succinctly, from the preface to Harmony, “[music theory] tells not how music will be written in the future, but how music has been written in the past.” So, as much as Piston wrote about theory, about theories about theory, and edited the books he wrote about those theories on his own theory... he held the perspective that composition is an organic event, not to follow a prescribed path.
This concept absolutely plays out in his work. Piston’s Symphony No. 3, his first symphony to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music (the 7th being the other), opens with a continually expanding melody, which seems to effortlessly pass through the orchestra, pushing to tension and then releasing back, over and over until finally resolving on a satisfying major chord resolution at the end of the movement. The second movement jumps out with energy, very angular and intense. In the Adagio third movement the harmonic complexity spills over, and by the last movement the character is so up-beat and positive—Piston calls the second theme “march-like”—all tension seems to have fallen away. An extended brass fanfare takes over the climax and plays out to the end. Automatic standing ovation!
Remember, this is only a single blog post. I can’t cover every piece by Piston deserving of recognition and analysis, which is honestly most of the orchestral pieces in his portfolio, most notably including his 8 numbered symphonies, the ballet The Incredible Flutist, Three New England Sketches, and Serenata for Orchestra. Carrying on his legacy, not only will his theory texts continue to be discussed for many decades to come, after teaching at Harvard for 34 years, his long list students include some recognizable names such as Samuel Adler, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, and Colon Nancarrow.
Piston’s music is moving and on the edge of what came to be a new sound in American music. Even now, his pieces have a distinctiveness of both depth and quality. As we continue to perform and hear his music, we will come to know more of the character of this great composer.