Piston, Walter (Hamor, Jr.)

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Piston, Walter (Hamor, Jr.)

Piston, Walter (Hamor, Jr.) , outstanding American composer and pedagogue; b. Rockland, Maine, Jan. 20, 1894; d. Belmont, Mass., Nov. 12, 1976. The family name was originally Pistone; his paternal grandfather was Italian. He received his primary education in Boston, then took courses in architectural drawing at the Mass. Normal Art School, graduating in 1916; then took piano lessons with Harris Shaw, and studied violin with Fiumara, Theodorowicz, and Winternitz. He played in restaurants and places of public entertainment as a youth. During World War I, he was in the U.S. Navy; after the Armistice, he entered Harvard Univ., graduating in musical subjects summa cum laude in 1924; while at Harvard, he conducted concerts of the univ. orch., the Pierian Sodality. For a time he was employed as a draftsman for Boston Elevated Railway. In 1924 he went to Paris on a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship, and became a student of Boulanger; also took courses with Dukas at the École Normale de Musique (1925). Returning to the U.S. in 1926, he was appointed to the faculty of Harvard Univ.; in 1944, became a prof. of music; was named prof. emeritus in 1960. As a teacher, he was greatly esteemed, not only because of his consummate knowledge of music and pedagogical ability, but also because of his immanent humanity in instructing students whose aesthetics differed from his own; among his grateful disciples was Leonard Bernstein. As a composer, Piston followed a cosmopolitan course, adhering to classical forms while extending his harmonic structures toward a maximum of tonal saturation; he was particularly expert in contrapuntal writing. Beginning about 1965, Piston adopted a modified system of 12-tone composition, particularly in initial thematic statements; his Sym. No. 8 (1964–65) and Variations for Cello and Orch. (1966) are explicitly dodecaphonic. Piston rejected the narrow notion of ethnic Americanism in his music, and stated once that an artist could be as American working in the Library of the Boston Atheneum as roaming the Western prairie; yet he employed upon occasion the syncopated rhythms of jazz. He received Pulitzer Prizes in Music for his Sym. No. 3 and Sym. No. 7, and N.Y. Music Critics’ Circle Awards for his Sym. No. 2, Viola Concerto, and String Quartet No. 5. He held the degree of D.Mus. honoris causa from Harvard Univ.; was elected a member of the National Inst. of Arts and Letters (1938), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (1940), and the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1955). He traveled little and declined invitations to go to South America and to Russia under the auspices of the State Dept., preferring to live in his house in suburban Belmont, near Boston. His working habits were remarkably methodical; he rarely altered or revised his music once it was put on paper, and his handwriting was calligraphic. With 2 exceptions, he never wrote for voices.


DRAMATIC: Ballet : The Incredible Flutist (Boston, May 30, 1938; suite, 1938; Pittsburgh, Nov. 22, 1940). ORCH .: Symphonic Piece (1927; Boston, March 23, 1928); 2 suites: No. 1 (1929; Boston, March 28, 1930) and No. 2 (1947–48; Dallas, Feb. 29, 1948); Concerto for Orchestra (1933; Boston, March 6, 1934); Prelude and Fugue (1934; Cleveland, March 12, 1936); 8 syms.: No. 1 (1937; Boston, April 8, 1938), No. 2 (1943; Washington, D.C., March 5, 1944), No. 3 (1947; Boston, Jan. 9, 1948), No. 4 (1950; Minneapolis, March 30, 1951), No. 5 (1954; for the 50th anniversary of the Juilliard School of Music, N.Y., Feb. 24, 1956), No. 6 (for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Sym. Orch., Nov. 25, 1955), No. 7 (1960; Philadelphia, Feb. 10, 1961), and No. 8 (1964–65; Boston, March 5, 1965); Concertino for Piano and Chamber Orch. (CBS Radio, N.Y., June 20, 1937); 2 violin concertos: No. 1 (1939; N.Y., March 18, 1940) and No. 2 (Pittsburgh, Oct. 28, 1960); Sinfonietta (Boston, March 10, 1941); Prelude and Allegro for Organ and Strings (CBS, Cambridge, Mass., Aug. 8, 1943); Fugue on a Victory Tune (N.Y., Oct. 21, 1944); Variation on a Theme by Eugene Goossens (1944; Cincinnati, March 23, 1945); Toccata (Bridgeport, Conn., Oct. 14, 1948); Fantasy for English Horn, Harp, and Strings (1952; Boston, Jan. 1, 1954); Serenata (Louisville, Oct. 24, 1956); Viola Concerto (1957; Boston, March 7, 1958); Concerto for 2 Pianos and Orch. (1959; Hanover, N.H., July 4, 1964); 3 New England Sketches (Worcester, Mass., Oct. 23, 1959); Symphonic Prelude (Cleveland, April 20, 1961); Lincoln Center Festival Overture (N.Y., Sept. 25, 1962); Capriccio for Harp and String Orch. (1963; Madrid, Oct. 19, 1964); Variations on a Theme by Edward Burlingame Hill (Boston, April 30, 1963); Pine Tree Fantasy (Portland, Maine, Nov. 16, 1965); Variations for Cello and Orch. (1966; N.Y., March 2, 1967); Clarinet Concerto (Hanover, N.H., Aug. 6, 1967); Ricercare (1967; N.Y., March 7, 1968); Fantasia for Violin and Orch. (1970; Hanover, N.H., March 11, 1973); Flute Concerto (1971; Boston, Sept. 22, 1972); Bicentennial Fanfare (Cincinnati, Nov. 14, 1975); Concerto for String Quartet, Wind Ensemble, and Percussion (Portland, Maine, Oct. 26, 1976). Band : Tunbridge Fair: Intermezzo (1950). CHAMBER : 3 Pieces for Flute, Clarinet, and Bassoon (1926); Flute Sonata (1930); Suite for Oboe and Piano (1931); 5 string quartets (1933, 1935, 1947, 1951, 1962); 2 piano trios (1935, 1966); Violin Sonata (1939); Fanfare for the Fighting French for Brass and Percussion (Cincinnati, Oct. 23, 1942); Interlude for Viola and Piano (1942); Quintet for Flute and Strings (1942); Partita for Violin, Viola, and Organ (1944); Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord or Piano (1945); Divertimento for 9 Instruments (1946); Duo for Viola and Cello (1949); Piano Quintet (1949); Wind Quintet (1956); Sextet for Strings (1964); Piano Quartet (1964); Souvenirs for Flute, Viola, and Harp (1967); Ceremonial Fanfare for Brass and Percussion (1969; N.Y., Feb. 10, 1970); Duo for Cello and Piano (1972); 3 Counterpoints for Violin, Viola, and Cello (1973). KEYBOARD: Piano : Sonata (1926); Passacaglia (1943); Improvisation (1945). Organ : Chromatic Study on B.A.C.H. (1940). VOCAL : Carnival Song for Men’s Chorus and 11 Brasses (1938; Cambridge, Mass., March 7, 1940); Psalm and Prayer of David for Chorus, Flute, Clarinet, Bassoon, Violin, Viola, Cello, and Double Bass (1958).


Principles of Harmonic Analysis (Boston, 1933); Harmony (N.Y., 1944; 5th ed., rev. and enl. by M. DeVoto, 1987); Counterpoint (N.Y., 1947); Orchestration (N.Y., 1955).


O. Daniel et al, W. P. (N.Y., 1964); H. Lindenfeld, Three Symphonies of W. P.: An Analysis (diss., Cornell Univ., 1975); H. Pollack, W. P. (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1981).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire