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.

Four Musical Firsts

firsts

In celebration of the beginning of a new year, here are four pieces which qualify as musical “firsts.” Listen to the music on the list and then share your own favorite musical “firsts” in the comment thread below.

Monteverdi’s “Orfeo”

Let’s start with the birth of opera. Italian Renaissance composer Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643) is often credited with singlehandedly inventing the art form. In reality, opera gradually evolved out of Intermedio, music and dance sequences which were performed between the acts of early seventeenth century plays. At least two fledgling operas by Jacopo Peri, Dafne (1598), and Euridice (1600), predated Monteverdi’s Orfeo (1607). But with Orfeo, Monteverdi assembled all of the pre-existing building blocks (aria, recitative, chorus) to create the first mature and fully developed opera. For the first time the blending of music, libretto and staging realized its full dramatic potential. Four hundred years later, Monteverdi’s Orfeo is still regularly performed.

Listen to the haunting recitative from Act 3,  Possente spirto (“Mighty spirit and formidable god”), in which Orpheus attempts to cross the river Styx into Hades.

Learn more about the history and synopsis of Orfeo here.

Mozart’s First Symphony

Mozart was eight years old when he wrote Symphony No. 1 in E-flat major, K. 16. Although he was already known throughout Europe as a wunderkind piano sensation, he had composed little music. The First Symphony was written in London (Chelsea) during the summer of 1764 while the Mozart family was in the middle of a concert tour of Europe. A plaque marks the house today.

Listen carefully to the four note motive in the opening of the second movement (6:07). This motive returns in the final movement of Mozart’s final symphony (listen to Symphony No. 41 “Jupiter” here).

Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata

The opening of the first movement of Beethoven’s First Violin Sonata grabs your attention as if to say, “Here I am!” This opening firmly establishes the home key of D major, but listen to the way we’re pulled into increasingly distant keys as the movement progresses (especially in the development section beginning at 5:26). This opening movement is marked, Allegro con brio (with fire). Listen to the dialogue between the violin and piano.

Beethoven dedicated this sonata, written in 1798, to his contemporary, Antonio Salieri (1750-1825), the Italian composer who popular legend has erroneously accused of murdering Mozart. The final movement seems to sparkle with the light frivolity and humor of Italian opera.

Here is a great recording by violinist Pamela Frank and her father, the legendary pianist Claude Frank, who passed away last week:

Listen to the second and third movements.

 Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23

Let’s finish with a dose of atonality. In Arnold Schoenberg’s Five Piano Pieces, Op. 23, written in 1923, harmonic relationships between pitches are almost completely gone. The final piece is considered to be the first example of twelve-tone composition. This is a highly ordered technique which ensures that all twelve pitches of the chromatic scale remain equal and independent. Schoenberg described this technique, also known as Serialism, as a:

method of composing with twelve tones which are related only with one another.

Here is Glenn Gould’s recording:

Stravinsky Goes Back to the Future

Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)
Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971)

What do you do when you drive around a sharp curve and suddenly see the road coming to a dead end in front of you? The obvious answer is to turn around and find another route forward.

Around 1920, Igor Stravinsky and other composers confronted a similar challenge. Romanticism had hit a wall. The colonialist expansion of nineteenth century Europe was disintegrating in the post-battlefield daze of an apocalyptic World War. In the almost hundred years between Beethoven’s Eroica and Wagner’s epic 15-hour-long Ring Cycle, music had progressed in one general direction: bigger, louder and longer. Now it had finally reached its limit. A new Zeitgeist was in the air.

Neoclassicism, a label which Stravinsky despised, represented a return to the cool, pared-down structural efficiency of music before the Romantic era. Detached, dry and witty, this music blends Classical and Baroque form with the distinct sound of the twentieth century. Prokofiev (the “Classical” Symphony), Poulenc, Milhaud, and others moved in a similar direction.

Composers have been known to say some outlandish and highly debatable things about music. This quote from Stravinsky’s 1936 autobiography may fall into that category, but it’s still thought-provoking and suggests a decidedly anti-Romantic philosophy of music:

For I consider that music is, by its very nature, essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence. If, as is nearly always the case, music appears to express something, this is only an illusion and not a reality. It is simply an additional attribute which, by tacit and inveterate agreement, we have lent it, thrust upon it, as a label, a convention – in short, an aspect which, unconsciously or by force of habit, we have come to confuse with its essential being.

By the 1950’s, Stravinsky would move on to the twelve-tone serialism pioneered by Arnold Schoenberg (listen to Stravinsky’s Agon). But for now, let’s stay with three fun examples of Stravinsky’s neoclassical period…music which looks back in order to move forward:

Pulcinella

Pulcinella was a 1920 ballet commissioned by Sergei Diaghilev with sets and costumes designed by Pablo Picasso. Stravinsky’s score is based on music which was attributed to the Italian Baroque composer Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (1710-1736). Later it was discovered that some of the music was written by contemporaries of Pergolesi. Here is what Stravinsky said about Pulcinella:

Pulcinella was my discovery of the past, the epiphany through which the whole of my late work became possible. It was a backward look, of course—the first of many love affairs in that direction—but it was a look in the mirror, too.

Take a moment and listen to the music as it was originally written. Then listen to the way Stravinsky uses these Baroque blueprints to create completely new music.

This is Christopher Hogwood conducting the Orquesta de Cámara Basel:

  1. Sinfonia (0:00)
  2. Serenata (1:48)
  3. a: Scherzino b: Allegretto c: Andantino (4:41)
  4. Tarantella (8:56)
  5. Toccata (10:49)
  6. Gavotta (con due variazioni) (11:39)
  7. Vivo (15:27)
  8. a: Minuetto b: Finale (16:51)

At times the Pulcinella Suite seems like a caricature of the music on which it was based. It’s filled with sudden surprising dissonances, little rhythmic jabs and strange new voices, like the conversation between the trombone and the double bass (15:27). Every time I play Pulcinella, I’m amazed by those moments when the music seems to briefly suspend time (for example 10:32 at the end of the Tarantella and in the last bars of the Finale). Then there’s the drama of the Minuetto, which slowly builds anticipation, setting up the exuberant joy of the Finale. 

Here is a clip of Stravinsky rehearsing the Pulcinella Suite with the Toronto Symphony in 1967. Also listen to Ilya Kaler performing a version for violin and piano.

Violin Concerto

Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major was written in 1931 for Polish-American violinist Samuel Dushkin. All of the movements open with the same distinctive chord, each time presented in a slightly different configuration. Like a Baroque concerto, a single atmosphere and tempo permeates each movement. There is also an interactive dialogue between the violin, groups of instruments and the full orchestra which suggests a traditional Concerto grosso (here is some Vivaldi for comparison). You’ll hear walking bass lines (in the first and last movements listen to the tuba and trombone lines comically rising and falling), sequences, contrapuntal lines and other details which seem to be holding up  a giant sign saying, “I’m a Baroque Concerto.”

Here is a live performance with Gil Shaham:

  1. Tocatta (0:00)
  2. Aria I (5:58)
  3. Aria II (10:18)
  4. Capriccio (15:43)

Dumbarton Oaks

Concerto in E-flat “Dumbarton Oaks” was commissioned in 1937 for the thirtieth wedding anniversary of Robert Woods Bliss and Mildred Barnes Bliss. It was named after the couple’s estate in Washington D.C. Listen to the dialogue between instruments and enjoy the sense of rhythmic groove. There’s something fresh and almost innocent about the opening of this piece.

Here is Robert Craft conducting the Orchestra of St. Luke’s:

  1. Tempo giusto (0:00)
  2. Allegretto 
  3. Con moto (8:01)