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.

Rattle Heads to London

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Recently, some the world’s top conductors have been playing a game of musical chairs. Early last month it was announced that Alan Gilbert will step down in 2017, following eight seasons as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic. Christoph Eschenbach will be leaving his post at the National Symphony. Yesterday, we learned that Sir Simon Rattle will take the helm at the London Symphony Orchestra in 2017. He talks about the appointment here. Kenneth Woods has some interesting thoughts about Simon Rattle and the culture of celebrity in classical music. In the 1980s and 90s, Rattle rose to international prominence as principal conductor of Britain’s City of Birmingham Symphony. He has been leading the Berlin Philharmonic since 2002.

The anticipation of a new Music Director is an exciting time for any orchestra. It’s a time when it’s easy to sense new possibilities, renewal and growth, and an infusion of fresh artistic energy. An incoming Music Director’s honeymoon usually follows a long period of “courtship” as a guest conductor. Both the conductor and the orchestra have to make sure the chemistry is right.

As Sir Simon Rattle prepares to return to his English roots, let’s listen to a recording from his days in Birmingham. Here is Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ethereal “pastoral romance for orchestra,” The Lark Ascending. Nigel Kennedy plays the violin solo:

Exploring the Lullaby

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The lullaby is universal and timeless. It’s one of the clearest expressions of the deep bond between mother and young child. Its gentle, repetitive, rocking rhythm lulls infants to sleep. The simple expression of its melody evokes warmth and security. At the same time, many lullabies contain an inexplicable hint of sadness.

From Franz Schubert to George Gershwin to U2, music history is full of lullabies. Here are five of my favorites:

Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2

We’ll begin with the simple perfection of Franz Schubert’s Wiegenlied, Op. 98, No. 2, written in November, 1816. You can read the text here. Listen to the way this performance by mezzo-soprano Janet Baker and pianist Gerald Moore fades into sleepy oblivion:

Brahms’ Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No. 4

Johannes Brahms may have written the world’s most famous lullaby. Wiegenlied, Op. 49, No.4  was dedicated to Brahms’ former lover, Bertha Faber, after the birth of her son. The melody found its way into the first movement of Brahms’ Second Symphony in a slightly altered form. You can hear it at this moment about four minutes into the movement.

Violinist Rachel Barton Pine included a transcription of the Brahms Lullaby on her 2013 Violin Lullabies album (pictured above).

The text is from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of German folk poems which inspired composers from Schumann and Mahler to Webern. Here is a performance by Anne Sofie von Otter and pianist Bengt Forsberg. Notice the gentle rocking rhythm and hypnotic repetition of the tonic in the piano line.

Julie’s Lullaby from Dvořák’s “The Jacobin”

Antonín Dvořák’s rarely performed 1889 opera, The Jacobin, is set in Bohemia around the time of the French Revolution. The aging Count Harasova is preparing to hand over power to his nephew, Adolf. Harasova has disowned his son, Bohuš who has just returned home from Paris with a French wife, Julie. The scheming Adolf has convinced Harasova that Bohuš is a dangerous revolutionary, allied with the Jacobins. By the end of the opera, Count Harasova realizes that he has been deceived and proclaims Bohuš to be his true successor.

In Act III, Scene V, Count Harasova hears Julie sing Synáčku, můj květe (“Son of mine, mine flower”)It’s a lullaby that the late Countess sang to Bohuš as a child, many years earlier. In the opening of the aria, the sound of the horn seems to take on mystical significance, as if preparing us for the dreamscape of nostalgia and memory which follows.

Julie’s Lullaby enters the same magical Bohemian folk world we hear in Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarercompleted around the same time, in 1885. As in the Mahler, Dvořák’s aria conjures up a complex and confusing mix of indescribable, but powerful emotions. Notice the way the music slips between major and minor.

Here is Eva Randova and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra:

Busoni’s Berceuse élégiaque

Ferruccio Busoni’s haunting Berceuse élégiaque turns the lullaby on its head with the subtitle, “The man’s lullaby at his mother’s coffin.” Written in 1909, the first performance was given by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall on February 21, 1911 with Gustav Mahler conducting. Mahler must have felt strongly about this music because he insisted on conducting, despite a fever of 104. It was his final concert. He returned to Vienna and died three months later.

The rocking rhythm at the opening of this piece is similar to what we heard in Brahms’ Lullaby, but this is an entirely different world. In the opening, dark, murky string colors suggest the feeling of being under water.

Here is a 2010 performance by Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Ed Spanjaard:

Ravel’s Berceuse sur le nom de Gabriel Fauré

Maurice Ravel wrote this short lullaby in 1922 as a tribute to the 77-year-old Gabriel Fauré. The piece’s motive grew out of Fauré’s name (GABDBEE FAGDE). Behind the music’s innocence and simplicity lies a hint of something dark and ominous. But, like so much of Ravel’s music, we only catch a glimpse of the storm clouds. The piece concludes with a sense of joyful, child-like detachment. It’s like watching a young child who is completely absorbed in the imaginary world of play. The final bars evaporate into a dreamy haze.

This performance comes from a recording by violinist Chantal Juillet and pianist Pascal Rogé:

Hush, little one, and fold your hands;
The sun hath set, the moon is high;
The sea is singing to the sands,
And wakeful posies are beguiled
By many a fairy lullaby:
Hush, little child, my little child!

Dream, little one, and in your dreams
Float upward from this lowly place,–
Float out on mellow, misty streams
To lands where bideth Mary mild,
And let her kiss thy little face,
You little child, my little child!

Sleep, little one, and take thy rest,
With angels bending over thee,–
Sleep sweetly on that Father’s breast
Whom our dear Christ hath reconciled;
But stay not there,–come back to me,
O little child, my little child!

-Emily Dickinson (Sicilian Lullaby)

Two Nights on Bald Mountain

From Disney's Fantasia
A scene from Disney’s Fantasia (1940), which popularized Night on Bald Mountain with a version by conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Modest Mussorgsky’s 1867 tone poem, Night on Bald Mountain was inspired by an old Russian legend which was turned into a ghoulish short story by Nikolai Gogol. The story centers around witches, black magic, and events which you might expect in the most grisly horror movie.

Here is Mussorgsky’s description of the musical program for Night on Bald Mountain:

Subterranean din of supernatural voices. Appearance of Spirits of Darkness, followed by that of the god Chernobog. Glorification of the Black God, The Black Mass. Witches’ Sabbath, interrupted at its height by the sounds of the far-off bell of the little church in a village. It disperses the Spirits of Darkness. Daybreak.

The popular version of Night on Bald Mountain we hear performed most often was as much the work of fellow Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov as Mussorgsky. Following Mussorgsky’s death, Rimsky-Korsakov reworked the score, which he found promising but unwieldily in its original form. He made a similar revision of Mussorgsky’s sprawling opera, Boris Godunov.

Listen to Mussorgsky’s original score, and you’ll hear the extent to which the two “versions” are actually completely different pieces. Mussorgsky’s score may lack the structural refinement and polished orchestration of Rimsky-Korsakov’s, but it rumbles with a uniquely terrifying, hellish energy.

Rimsky-Korsakov was one of the most influential orchestrators of the nineteenth century. As you listen to the clip below, notice the ways instrumental voices are combined and the resulting sense of color. For example, listen to the unique texture created by the combination of string tremolos and pizzicatos around the 0:35 mark, and the following splashes of color in the cymbals. Notice the personas which emerge from the clarinet and flute solos in the “daybreak” music at the end. Throughout this passage (beginning at 7:40), the repeated, almost hypnotic bass pizzicatos suggest a distant, ominous funeral procession, subtly reminding us of the terror of the night. Listen to the shimmering purity of the final chord, as it alternates between strings and woodwinds, evoking a colorful sonic kaleidoscope.

Russian nationalism is central to both versions. Mussorgsky and Rimsky-Korsakov were both part of a circle of five composers (“The Russian Five”) who were dedicated to the promotion of a distinctly Russian style of music. Regarding the composition of Night on Bald Mountain, Mussorgsky wrote in a letter,

The form and character of the composition are Russian and original … I wrote St. John’s Eve quickly, straight away in full score, I wrote it in about twelve days, glory to God … While at work on St. John’s Eve I didn’t sleep at night and actually finished the work on the eve of St. John’s Day, it seethed within me so, and I simply didn’t know what was happening within me … I see in my wicked prank an independent Russian product, free from German profundity and routine, and, like Savishna, grown on our native fields and nurtured on Russian bread.

What qualities make this music, or any music, sound uniquely Russian? Folk music is a starting point. While there may be few overt folk references in Night on Bald Mountain, there are occasional ornamental grace notes which suggest eastern folk influence (for example, 1:56 in the woodwinds). This type of ornament pops up throughout Russian music, even in the flute line at the end of Stravinsky’s The Firebird. 

Another detail which feels distinctly “Russian” is the repetition of a small melodic fragment while the music around it changes (Listen at 2:47 and notice the ascending brass scale which follows, something we hear in Tchaikovsky).

Here is the Rimsky-Korsakov version, performed by the New York Philharmonic and Leonard Bernstein:

Now it’s your turn…

Now that you’ve heard both versions, which one do you prefer and why? If you can’t decide between the two, what aspects of the music do you find most interesting? Share your thoughts in the comment thread below.

Fanfare for the Common Man

Aaron Copland at the piano
Aaron Copland at the piano

In honor of Labor Day, here is a great performance of Aaron Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, featuring the New York Philharmonic brass and percussion sections with conductor James Levine.

In 1942, as the US entered the Second World War, Cincinnati Symphony music director Eugene Goossens commissioned eighteen composers to write fanfares. The title of Copland’s Fanfare was inspired by a speech, given by Vice President Henry Wallace, called Century of the Common Man. A few years later, the same music found its way into the final movement of Copland’s Third Symphony. 

The spirit of this piece embodies something uniquely American. The unison trumpet voice emerges out of the solemn percussion, suggesting the bravery and dignity of the individual. It reaches into the highest register, as if aspiring to something mythical and unattainable. Then we hear two voices, the trumpets and horns, and finally the trombones and tuba.

Listen to the power and ring of overtones which result from perfectly focused intonation:

So long as the human spirit thrives on this planet, music in some living form will accompany and sustain it and give it expressive meaning.

To stop the flow of music would be like the stopping of time itself, incredible and inconceivable.

-Aaron Copland

Remembering Lorin Maazel

Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)
Lorin Maazel (1930-2014)

Conductor Lorin Maazel passed away yesterday at the age of 84. He will be remembered for his long, distinguished career and dramatic and idiosyncratic interpretations.

Maazel debuted as a conductor at the age of 9, after starting violin lessons at 5. As an 11-year-old, he received an invitation from Arturo Toscanini to conduct the NBC Symphony. His music director posts included the Cleveland Orchestra (1972-1982), Vienna State Opera (1982-1984), Pittsburgh Symphony (1988-1996), Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra (1993-2002) and the New York Philharmonic (2002-2009). In 2008 he served as a cultural ambassador, leading the New York Philharmonic on a tour of North Korea. In 2009 Maazel and his wife founded the Castleton Festival, a summer program for young musicians at his Virginia estate.

Learn more about Lorin Maazel’s life in this obituary at The Guardian and this PBS Newshour interview.

These memorable quotes reflect Maazel’s views on the essential role of the arts in society:

Art rises above and beyond the issues of the day. It reunites what has been rent asunder, not along national or religious lines, but along individual, human ones. It heals, redefines goals, and strengthens the resolve to move on, to rebuild, to reconstruct. However obtuse human behavior is in other arenas, art, if not suborned, can clarify, put into perspective and re-inspire.

Our Orchestra must also continue to play its leadership role in the community and in our nation. The young look to us to provide substance in place of dross, emotional depth in place of shallow titillation.

In these confused times, the role of classical music is at the very core of the struggle to reassert cultural and ethical values that have always characterized our country and for which we have traditionally been honored and respected outside our shores.

Here is the final movement of Dvořák’s “New World” Symphony with the New York Philharmonic:

Mahler the Titan: Symphony No. 1

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)
Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Gustav Mahler described the opening of the First Symphony as “Nature’s awakening from the long sleep of winter.” A seven octave deep “A” emerges out of silence, slipping into our consciousness on the level of pure sound. The high harmonics in the violins seem as natural and fundamental as the white noise of insects in a forest. The motive, which forms the bedrock of the symphony, slowly, searchingly takes shape in the woodwinds. As the music progresses, we hear bird songs and the echoes of distant fanfares in the clarinets and offstage trumpets.

Mahler’s music speaks to us on a deeply psychological level, evoking complex, indescribable emotions. It embodies heroic struggle and can alternate between moments of transcendence and the vulgar street sounds of a bohemian village band. Mahler said, “A symphony must be like the world. It must embrace everything.” The sense of paradox in Mahler’s music is captured in a story of Mahler as a child, frequently running into the street to escape his father’s violent abuse of his mother, and suddenly being met with the cheerful sounds of an organ grinder.

The First Symphony grew out of Mahler’s song cycle, Songs of a WayfarerIt was originally conceived as a five movement symphonic poem. Mahler later cut the second movement, Blumine, and dropped the subtitle, “The Titan”, which was a reference to a novel by Jean Paul. The piece requires a greatly expanded orchestra (seven horns, four trumpets, four trombones, tuba and an expanded woodwind and percussion section). At times, instruments are used in strange new ways, playing out of their normal range to create mocking, demonic sounds. In the second movement we hear the distinctive, raspy sound of stopped horns.

Mahler was a prominent conductor (and champion of Wagner’s operas) and his scores were meticulously marked with words and phrases intended to guide future interpreters. Common musical themes reappear throughout Mahler’s nine symphonies and in some ways these works can be heard as one massive symphony. The bewilderment of the audience at the 1889 premier in Budapest is a testament to the revolutionary nature of Mahler’s vision. The music would come to be embraced by audiences of the twentieth century. Today, performances of Mahler’s symphonies are often the dramatic high point of an orchestra’s season.

Here is Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D Major, performed by conductor Pierre Boulez and the Chicago Symphony. Listen carefully to the distinct voices of the instruments (for example the horns at 10:44). What personas do they suggest? How does the final movement resolve the symphony as a whole?

  1. Langsam. Schleppend 00:00
  2. Kraftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell 16:00
  3. Feierlich und gemessen, ohne zu schleppen 22:48
  4. Sturmisch bewegt 33:28

Did you feel a sense of growing anticipation in the first movement? Go back and listen to the opening with those sustained “A’s” (the dominant in D major). It isn’t until around 4:06 that the music settles into a resolution in D major. We can relax and breathe easily. But at 7:59 we’re back where we started in the opening and this time it’s more ominous. All of the raw energy and tension, which has been building from the beginning, is released in one frighteningly explosive, but ultimately heroic climax towards the end of the movement (14:18). We’re left with crazy, giddy humor and a musical cat and mouse game in the final bars.

The Huntsman's Funeral
The Huntsman’s Funeral

The third movement was inspired by a children’s wood carving, The Huntsman’s Funeral, in which a torch-lit procession of animals carry the body of the dead huntsman. At the end of the movement, the sounds of the procession fade into the distance. You probably recognized the folk melody, Frère Jacques. Here it’s transformed into minor and played by the double bass, an instrument rarely featured in orchestral solos. Consider the persona of the double bass sound. The bizarre interjections of Jewish band music give this movement its ultimate sense of paradox and irony.

Opening amid a life and death struggle and ending in triumph, the final movement forms the climax of the symphony. Amid birdcalls, the bassoon recaps a familiar fragment (45:23) and for a moment we hear echoes of the first movement. The haunting motive from the opening of the first movement is transformed into a heroic proclamation in major. You may hear a slight, probably unconscious, similarity to Handel’s equally triumphant Hallelujah Chorus from Messiah. In the score, Mahler asks the seven horns to stand for the final statement of the theme, “so as to drown out everything…even the trumpets.”

For some interesting links, watch Leonard Bernstein’s Young People’s Concert, Who is Gustav Mahler? and Keeping Score with Michael Tilson Thomas.

 Recordings, old and new

There are many great recordings of this piece. Here are a few which I recommend. Share your favorites in the thread below.

Remembering David Nadien

David Nadien
David Nadien

American violinist David Nadien passed away last week at the age of 88. A student of Ivan Galamian, Adolfo Betti and Adolf Busch, Nadien first soloed with the New York Philharmonic at the age of 14. Between 1966 and 1970 he served as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. You can hear him play the “Pas de deux” violin solo from Tchaikovsky`s Swan Lake here

For years Nadien taught at the Mannes College of Music and performed as a top freelance studio musician in New York. His immaculately clean, Romantic style of playing, suggestive of violinists from Elman to Milstein, was an inspiration to a younger generation of musicians. The Suzuki violin repertoire, books 1-10, are among his diverse recording credits. Notable recordings include the Franck Sonata and Tchaikovsky Concerto as well as showpieces such as Sarasate’s Habañera, Weiniawski’s Scherzo Tarentelle and Massenet’s Meditation from Thais

Here is his recording of Sarasate’s Introduction and Tarantella:

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