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JSngry

How Does Walter Piston Fit Into the Grand Scheme Of Things?

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I set up a Walter Piston Pandora channel just because his name has always amused me, like he lived in Detroit and wrote proto-Industrial shit in praise of Henry Ford AND the UAW, but the pieces of his that they play invariably please, tonalities that are ambiguously precise, if that makes any sense. Since the Internet is my "school" now, I'm asking for donations of knowledge, especially of the "what went into it" and "what came after it" sort of musical trails that are always fun to explore. Also, what "great pieces" are there, or are there any?

I also see that Leroy Anderson was  student of his, so, like, did Piston ever write for typewriter? Just kidding.

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51 minutes ago, JSngry said:

I set up a Walter Piston Pandora channel just because his name has always amused me, like he lived in Detroit and wrote proto-Industrial shit in praise of Henry Ford AND the UAW, but the pieces of his that they play invariably please, tonalities that are ambiguously precise, if that makes any sense. Since the Internet is my "school" now, I'm asking for donations of knowledge, especially of the "what went into it" and "what came after it" sort of musical trails that are always fun to explore. Also, what "great pieces" are there, or are there any?

I also see that Leroy Anderson was  student of his, so, like, did Piston ever write for typewriter? Just kidding.

Like you, I've liked everything of Piston I've heard without being knocked down on the floor by it -- "tonalities that are ambiguously precise" is a nice way to put it. Also, maybe, a neatness that verges on the compulsive at times but is not trivial. BTW, Piston was of Italian background; the name was "Pistone." I'd recommend what there is on Naxos -- symphonies (though I haven't head those recordings: I have some good older ones on LP), the two violin concerti, a disc of chamber works. Piston wrote a fair number of string quartets, which I haven't heard, and I think that would a very good medium for him. Don't see a set on CD right now, and I recall that an LP set from the past (Portland String Quartet?) was thought not to be too good.

*** I see now that there is Naxos Piston String quartet disc (1,3,5) by the Harlem Quartet. If you can't check it out on Spotify, maybe I can.

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16 hours ago, Larry Kart said:

Like you, I've liked everything of Piston I've heard without being knocked down on the floor by it

I don't mean to "damn him with faint praise," but that's been my experience of Piston's music too. It's well-crafted and competent -- but less than inspiring. 

In my mind, I sorta associate Piston with Howard Hanson. They have similar strengths and shortcomings, imho.

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Howard Hanson...that's a name I perhaps incorrectly associate more with band music than orchestral music, the whole Eastman/Mercury Records/Frederick Fennell thing. If you were in a serious (enough) band program during "a certain time", you know what I mean.

The more of Piston's music I hear, though, the more it sounds like it would probably work for concert band (or wind bands/wind ensembles, I think they call them today?). It's got that "quality" to it, where conflicts are smiled at, not wrestled with.

However, I am interested in checking out the string quartets that Larry mentions...seems that Piston has a capacity for controlled exploratory dissonances that would work quite well in that idiom, should he have so chosen.

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2 hours ago, HutchFan said:

I don't mean to "damn him with faint praise," but that's been my experience of Piston's music too. It's well-crafted and competent -- but less than inspiring. 

In my mind, I sorta associate Piston with Howard Hanson. They have similar strengths and shortcomings, imho.

Hanson? At least in style, he and Piston couldn't be more different -- the former given to broad neo-Romantic strokes, the latter anything but that. 

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1 hour ago, Larry Kart said:

Hanson? At least in style, he and Piston couldn't be more different -- the former given to broad neo-Romantic strokes, the latter anything but that. 

I didn't mean to imply that they're similar stylistically. Only that I've reacted to their music similarly. They're both impressive craftsmen, in my opinion. But not much more.

Of course, this is just my take! Others may find much more in Piston (and Hanson, for that matter) than I've heard. ;) 

Edited by HutchFan

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26 minutes ago, HutchFan said:

I didn't mean to imply that they're similar stylistically. Only that I've reacted to their music similarly. They're both impressive craftsmen, in my opinion. But not much more.

Of course, this is just my take! Others may find much more in Piston (and Hanson, for that matter) than I've heard. ;) 

Gotcha.

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Never heard a lot, but nothing I hated.

 

 

.

Edited by 7/4

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Edited by MomsMobley

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I've always liked Piston, and rarely disliked him, but there's also nothing of his I can truly claim to outright "love".

I don't know if this analogy is accurate (or even relevant), but Piston has always kind of reminded me of what I so often like about Hindemith -- a sort of muscular but orderly modernist vision, not TOO modern, but decidedly "moderne".  I'm a little MORE uniformly fond of Hindemith, and especially of his contrapuntalism -- but Piston has some of that going for him too.

Trying not to damn him with faint praise -- he's a little better than that -- but at the same time, I've rarely been super-enthusiastic about Piston.

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Rooster's comparison with Hindemith instructive because, though Piston wrote x # 'interesting,' 'engaging,' 'well-crafted' works you don't mind hearing, his greater value BY FAR is as an educator.

Despite a few similarities, Hindemith is VASTLY-- exponentially-- the greater, more creative, more important composer: ballets, operas, songs, chamber music, concertante works, symphonies etc etc... With nearly every work of Hindemith, of every period, you'll learm something more than 'just' music; (likewise Schoenberg btw)... whereas Piston, well... He's more than a footnote, his books on harmony and counterpoint are 'famous' doorstops but... it's hard to say Piston underknown or that, in wider view of 20th c. classical music, he's doing much that's singular or remarkable. 

 

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I don't find Piston's music all that engaging or interesting. A bit too conservative and pleasant sounding. Hindemith, on the other hand, wrote a lot of brilliant music that keeps me listening.

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Enjoyed his symphonies (those available) and The Incredible Flutist. Like a lot of mid-century American tonal music, it's suffered from patchy availability. Even the Naxos series never seem to quite complete the cycles. Where unhip British tonal music tends to find champions and get recorded the American equivalent is less fortunate.

I particularly like Schuman and Harris (and Copland of course) from those American Socialist Realists.

 

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Once again, I agree with Moms.

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I have never heard anyone conduct Piston. His work appeared at the Proms in 1942, 1947, 1952 and 1984, conducted by Sargeant, Wood, Boult and latterly Slatkin. MTT who once regaled us with Ruggles' Suntreader (preceded by a loooong talk) seems never to have tackled it here, and he would have been most likely candidate of recent years. Only BBC Proms have an online archive so who knows elsewhere. I imagine US orchestras have done way more, at least in the past. 

 

 

Can Piston do this:

 

 

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Most of the Piston they play on Pandora is from a CD by the Louisville Orchestra. Some symphonies and Serenata. Don't know but that I'd like to hear some different perspectives on the music. Also don't know if it would ultimately make that much of a difference.

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Context:

Piston was among a large generation of American symphonists who came of age in the 1920s-40s, including Copland, Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Virgil Thompson, David Diamond, Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, early Elliott Carter. You could throw William Grant Still and William Levi Dawson in there too, and early Bernstein sometimes gets attached as well. Many of them spent time studying in France with Nadia Boulanger (practically a rite of passage for a while among would-be American classical composers), where they were steeped in fundamentals of harmony, counterpoint, disciplined analysis and the like. Specifics vary with the composer but, generally, they wrote in tonal idioms (though with harmonic spice) and with a certain clarity and allegiance to traditional forms. Neo-classicism, neo-romanticism and populism (in the best sense) are all associated with them in varying degrees depending on who we're talking about. Generally, their orientation was more French than German, and for many Stravinsky cast a long shadow. There's a lot of syncopation in Piston, and there are hints of jazz, but I tend to think of it at the intersection of  American vernacular syncopation and Stravinsky mixed meter shit. As has been alluded to above, Piston was important teacher, at Harvard for decades, and his books on harmony, counterpoint and orchestration were widely influential. A lot of these composers were swept aside in the post-war rush to serialism, and there have been periodic attempts through recordings and concert programs to revive interest, which in some ways has worked. As a group (and leaving aside the evergreens by Barber and Copland that have always been in the repertoire), their music today is probably better known than at any time since before 1950. Gerald Schwartz, Leonard Slatkin and Neeme Jarvi are among the conductors who have championed their work.  

For what it's worth, today is the birthday of Roy Harris, whose Symphony No. 3 was for quite a while at midcentury considered the "Great American Symphony." Now, not so much. But it's a great piece.

Edited by Mark Stryker

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4 hours ago, JSngry said:

Most of the Piston they play on Pandora is from a CD by the Louisville Orchestra. Some symphonies and Serenata. Don't know but that I'd like to hear some different perspectives on the music. Also don't know if it would ultimately make that much of a difference.

IIRC, Charles Munch's recording (LP only -- I have a copy) of Piston's Symphony No. 6 with the Boston Symphony Orchestra is a revelation.

2 hours ago, Mark Stryker said:

Context:

Piston was among a large generation of American symphonists who came of age in the 1920s-40s, including Copland, Roger Sessions, Roy Harris, Virgil Thompson, David Diamond, Howard Hanson, Paul Creston, Samuel Barber, William Schuman, early Elliott Carter. You could throw William Grant Still and William Levi Dawson in there too, and early Bernstein sometimes gets attached as well. Many of them spent time studying in France with Nadia Boulanger (practically a rite of passage for a while among would-be American classical composers), where they were steeped in fundamentals of harmony, counterpoint, disciplined analysis and the like. Specifics vary with the composer but, generally, they wrote in tonal idioms (though with harmonic spice) and with a certain clarity and allegiance to traditional forms. Neo-classicism, neo-romanticism and populism (in the best sense) are all associated with them in varying degrees depending on who we're talking about. Generally, their orientation was more French than German, and for many Stravinsky cast a long shadow. There's a lot of syncopation in Piston, and there are hints of jazz, but I tend to think of it at the intersection of  American syncopation and Stravinsky mixed meter shit. As has been eluded to above, Piston was important teacher, at Harvard for decades, and his books on harmony, counterpoint and orchestration were widely influential. A lot of these composers were sort of swept aside in the post-war rush to serialism, and there have been periodic attempts through recordings and concert programs to revive interest, which in some ways has worked. As a group (and leaving aside the evergreens by Barber and Copland that have always been in the repertoire), their music today is probably better known than at any time since before 1950. Gerald Schwartz, Leonard Slatkin and Neeme Jarvi are among the conductors who have championed their work.  

For what it's worth, today is the birthday of Roy Harris, whose Symphony No. 3 was for a quite a while at midcentury considered the "Great American Symphony." Now, not so much. But it's a great piece.

 

Associated with some of that crowd to some degree is a particular favorite of mine, the late Arthur Berger (1912-2003):

 

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur_Berger_(composer)

 

http://www.amazon.com/Complete-Orchestral-Music-Arthur-Berger/dp/B0000DI4SP/ref=sr_1_2?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1455316006&sr=1-2&keywords=arthur+berger

 

http://www.amazon.com/Arthur-Berger-Retrospective-Various-Artists/dp/B0000030E2/ref=sr_1_6?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1455316068&sr=1-6&keywords=arthur+berger

 

http://www.amazon.com/Arthur-Berger-Words-Music-Perhaps/dp/B00DJYK9PA/ref=sr_1_3?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1455316068&sr=1-3&keywords=arthur+berger

 

http://www.amazon.com/Berger-Serenade-Concertante-American-Masters/dp/B000005TVB/ref=sr_1_1?s=music&ie=UTF8&qid=1455316068&sr=1-1&keywords=arthur+berger

 

And don't neglect one of Mark's and my favorites, George Walker.

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Per Larry's reminder -- yes, George Walker, though on the younger side -- but still  composing at 93! -- belongs loosely in the group. Walker, for context, is just four years younger than Bernstein.

And I note in the listings posted by David that the Fort Worth Symphony seems to have a couple of Piston works scheduled for a year from now -- which I assume is within striking distance of Jim.  

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What is, Fort Worth or a year from now?

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btw, really enjoying all the different opinions and perspectives. Can't help but learn here!

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LAPO feature a snippet in their American Chamber music series in April, viz.:

 

PISTON Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon
LUBMAN Tangents (world premiere, LA Phil commission)
BARBER String Quartet
Intermission
EWAZEN Quintet for English Horn and Strings
BARBER Summer Music, for Woodwind Quintet

 

That would be fun to hear but I'm not going to LA just for that.

I'm on a mission to hear Piston 'live'.

Maybe just get some sheet music and hack it out myself.

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My feelings on this are close to Rooster's.

I'll admit, though, the Second Symphony really got under my skin. Perhaps it's one of the works where Piston was really learning how to sound like Piston. (I'm using the Schwarz recording, now on Naxos, formerly on Delos.)

If you ever see that LP of Charles Munch conducting the Sixth Symphony, grab it -- for Piston and for the Martinu Sixth on the other side.

 

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