Walter Piston’s Second Symphony: A Neglected Mid-Century Gem

Walter Piston’s Second Symphony, written in 1943, is one of those mid-twentieth century American musical gems that deserves to be heard more often. Following its National Symphony Orchestra premiere in March, 1944, conductor Hans Kindler declared that the symphony,

is without even the shadow of a doubt one of the half dozen great works written during the last ten years. It sings forever in my heart and in my consciousness, and it does not want to leave me.

American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)
American composer Walter Piston (1894-1976)

A year later, the work was performed by the Boston Symphony, NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic. But, with the exception of a few recordings, it has fallen largely off the radar.

The unfair perception of Walter Piston as a dry, Ivy League academic and later a twelve tone composer (as heard in his Eighth Symphony) may be partly to blame. Born in Rockland, Maine in 1894, Piston served for many years on the faculty of Harvard University. His students included Leroy Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, and Daniel Pinkham. As a music theorist he is remembered as the author of a series of respected textbooks: Principles of Harmonic Analysis, CounterpointOrchestration, and Harmony. Aaron Copland described Piston as, “one of the most expert craftsmen American music can boast.” But as conductor Gerard Schwarz noted, with the advantage of hindsight, Piston’s music goes beyond craft:

In some ways Piston was the dean of American music. But as a result of his intellect and his association with the university environment, he was considered to be a somewhat dull, academic composer. For anyone familiar with Piston’s music, it is clear that he is neither dull nor academic, but incredibly imaginative and innovative. It is true that he uses classic forms, but with his own language. I have studied most of his output and I have come to realize that he was a master, an inspired composer.

Beyond a neoclassical structural purity, the Second Symphony doesn’t conform easily to any distinct stylistic category. At moments it may remind you of the sonorous chorale-like orchestration of Piston’s German contemporary, Paul Hindemith. As with Hindemith, who could play almost every instrument and wrote a wide array of sonatas, Piston had a deep understanding of orchestration. “I’ve always composed music from the point of view of the performers” he said. As the second symphony unfolds, it’s easy to sense the instruments coming to life, suggesting distinct personas. At times, they engage in a soulful conversation (as in the second movement’s lamenting dialogue between the clarinet and flute).

As Carol J. Oja points out in this article, Piston was an “internationalist” who did not actively seek to develop a distinctly “American” musical style. But there are moments in the Second Symphony when it’s easy to catch a hint of the blues. Additionally, there’s a feeling of Ragtime swing in the spunky melody that pops up around the 2:00 mark in the first movement. The fugal counterpoint that follows sparkles with a fresh, innocent mid-century American vibe. Despite these lighthearted adventures, the first movement ends with a solemn brass chorale, sinking back into the atmosphere the music seemed to be trying to escape in the opening.

The second movement emerges out of a single horn tone. A lonely bassoon line spins into a short canon in thirds with the low strings. By the time the clarinet begins its soulful, extended statement, we already have a sense that the music is striving, reaching higher towards some unknown goal. The flute picks up where the clarinet leaves off, taking the conversation to a new level of intensity. The movement alternates between collective anguish and serene beauty (listen to the glistening violin entrance at 15:30).

Here is Gerard Schwarz’s recording with the Seattle Symphony, originally released on the Delos Records label in 1992:

  1. Moderato 0:00
  2. Adagio 10:07
  3. Allegro 21:51

Additional Links

  • View the New York Philharmonic’s score to Piston’s Symphony No. 2 with Leonard Bernstein’s markings.
  • Listen to the Seattle Symphony’s recordings of Walter Piston’s Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Symphonies.

Ravel Writes the Blues

1920's ParisFrench impressionist composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) found inspiration in the American jazz, which was sweeping Paris in the 1920s. At a time of prohibition and racial discrimination in the United States, many African-American jazz musicians settled in Paris, enjoying its liberating cosmopolitan energy. Additionally, Aaron Copland, George Gershwin and other young American composers came to study with eminent composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.

Here is what Ravel said about the potential of the new musical language of jazz:

[quote]The most captivating part of jazz is its rich and diverting rhythm…Jazz is a very rich and vital source of inspiration for modern composers and I am astonished that so few Americans are influenced by it.[/quote]

Let’s listen to two of Ravel’s jazz and blues influenced pieces from the 1920s:

[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Piano Concerto in G major[/typography]

Here is the Piano Concerto in G major performed by Krystian Zimerman and the Cleveland Orchestra, conducted by Pierre Boulez. The piece opens with splashes of bright color. Pay attention to the way Ravel combines the instruments of the orchestra and the colors created throughout the piece. Around 0:45, you’ll hear blues chords which might remind you of Gershwin. In the opening of the whirlwind final movement, listen for the jazzy conversation between the screeching clarinet and the trombone. Do you hear comic elements in this movement?

  1. Allegramente (0:00)
  2. Adagio assai (8:38)
  3. Presto (18:09)

Now that you’ve heard the whole piece, go back and listen again to the second movement. (8:38). In character, this Adagio assai seems far removed from the exuberant outer movements. The long, dream-like solo piano opening almost makes us forget we’re in the middle of a piano concerto. Consider how the music is flowing. The three simple beats in the left hand of the piano suggest Erik Satie’s static, almost expressionless GymnopediesBut while Satie’s music remains a numb, out of body experience, Ravel’s long melody restlessly searches and builds expectation, offering up one surprise after another.

Can you feel a sense of tension and anxiety slowly build as the movement develops? Maybe something ominous and unsettling was lurking slightly below the surface from the beginning? Listen to the frightening chord at 14:53. It’s a glimpse of terror which forms the climax of the movement and then quickly evaporates.

At 16:54, think about where you expect to hear the music resolve and then listen to the resolution Ravel gives us. For a moment we enter a new world. What new musical colors do you hear and what instruments does Ravel use to create them? Does the music remind you of the hazy dreamscape of a Monet painting?

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]Sonata for No. 2 for Violin and Piano[/typography]

The second movement of Ravel’s Violin Sonata No. 2 also is influenced by the blues. In the opening, it’s easy to imagine a sultry day in Louisiana. Here is a performance by violinist Janine Jansen and pianist Itamar Golan:

  1. Allegretto (0:00)
  2. Blues. Moderato (8:00)
  3. Perpetuum mobile. Allegro (13:20)

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[typography font=”Cantarell” size=”28″ size_format=”px”]La création du monde[/typography]

Ravel wasn’t the only French composer to be influenced by jazz. Darius Milhaud’s La création du monde (The Creation of the World), written between 1922 and 1923 is a ballet depicting the creation in African mythology. Here is a performance by Leonard Bernstein and the National Orchestra of France:

  1. Overture 0:00
  2. The Chaos before Creation 3:55
  3.  The slowly lifting darkness, the creation of trees, plants, insects, birds and beasts 5:32
  4. Man and woman created 8:48
  5. The desire of man and woman 10:48
  6. The man and woman kiss (Coda) 14:54

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