Walter Piston (1894-1976), American composer, wrote traditionalist music of great technical skill which was neoclassic in its orientation. He was highly influential as an educator.
Walter Piston was born on Jan. 20, 1894, in Rockland, Maine. His grandparents had settled there after their arrival from Italy, and soon after dropped the final "e" from their original name of Pistone. At the age of ten young Piston moved to Boston with his family and, after graduating from high school, studied painting at the Massachusetts Normal School, where he graduated in 1916. Music was a secondary interest to Piston until World War I. During the war he served in a service band and taught himself how to play most of the wind instruments. "They were just lying around and no one minded if you picked them up and found out what they could do, " he said about this time in his life.
Returning to the United States in 1919, he entered Harvard University and began to study music seriously. He graduated in 1924 with the highest honor of summa cum laude and went to Paris, where he studied with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger.
In 1926 Piston returned to the United States and joined the Harvard University faculty. From 1944 on he was professor of music; he was the first occupant of the Naumberg chair, a position of great distinction. He retired from Harvard in 1960.
The performance of his Symphonic Piece in 1928 by the Boston Symphony began Piston's long association with that orchestra. The Incredible Flutist, first performed in 1938 with dancers, proved a major success. Subsequent performances and a recording of the suite derived from the ballet score secured a national reputation for Piston. Thereafter there were many commissions and honors. He had received a Guggenheim fellowship in 1935. He was elected to the Institute of Arts and Letters in 1938 and the American Academy of Arts and Science in 1940. Piston was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for the Third Symphony in 1948 and for the Seventh Symphony in 1961. He received the New York Music Critics Circle Award in 1945 for the Second Symphony and again, in 1959, for the Viola Concerto. His Sixth Symphony, was included in the programs of the Boston Symphony, when, in 1956, it became the first American orchestra to tour the Soviet Union.
Piston's eminence as a music educator was enhanced by the publication of his books, Principles of Harmonic Analysis (1933), Harmony (1941), Counterpoint (1947), and Orchestration (1955). These works combine traditional viewpoints with individual concepts. Through their popularity as texts in American conservatories and universities, his influence as a teacher was more extensive than as a composer.
Piston wrote music of originality and vitality. His neoclassic attitude is reflected by a concentration on large abstract orchestral and chamber works. He was interested primarily in formal concepts and leaned upon classical models. His work can be quite complex, rhythmically and tonally, and it expresses a high degree of balance and uniform excellence. Above all, he was highly skilled in the disciplined control of his material and in his knowledge of the orchestra. His craftsmanship reveals a polish and elegance that reflect the highest traditional values.
Piston died on November 12, 1976 at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts and was remembered by the New York Times music critic as a man "who has thoroughly mastered the ground principles of his art; who knows what he wants to do and how to do it; whose basis is a thorough command of counterpoint and form, on which is superimposed brilliant treatment of the orchestra."
A number of Piston's compositions are described in David Ewen, The World of Twentieth-century Music (1968). For an interesting view see Wilfred Mellers, Music in a New Found Land: Themes and Developments in the History of American Music (1965). See also the discussions of Piston in Aaron Copland, The New Music, 1900-1960 (1941; rev. ed. 1968), and Joseph Machlis, Introduction to Contemporary Music (1961). A study of Piston's music and a biography of the composer are published in Howard Pollack Walter Piston (1982). Piston's obituary appears in the November 13, 1976 edition of the New York Times. □