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Walter Piston was a leading light among those mid-twentieth century American composers who opted to explore traditional musical forms and language. Although he was perhaps better known as a teacher and the author of a widely used book on harmony than as a composer, Piston's music displays superb craftsmanship within his selected neo-Classic-Romantic idiom.
Piston was born in Rockland, ME, of Italian lineage; the family name had been Pistone but his grandparents had Anglicized it by dropping the "e." His parents moved to Boston in 1904. In his teens, Piston's musical education commenced with piano and violin lessons. At that time, however, painting was his main interest, but he conceded the superiority of his future wife, Kathryn Nason, in that field and concentrated on music. With the entry of the United States into the First World War, Piston hurriedly crammed the rudiments of saxophone technique and enlisted in the Navy as a band musician. In between rehearsals and performances, he familiarized himself with most of the other instruments in the band, learning to produce at least a few tunes on each one. This was an invaluable experience for one whose name would become linked to orchestral composition.
After the war, Piston entered Harvard and began to study music in earnest, graduating summa cum laude in 1924. From there he went to Paris on a Paine Fellowship to study with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. This was a heady time, for many of who would become America's most noted composers were under the wing of the latter: Copland, Harris, Thompson, and Barber, to name a few. Piston returned to the U.S. in 1926 and joined the faculty of Harvard, retiring in 1960.
In 1928 the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky performed Piston's Symphonic Piece. Although it met with moderate success and acclaim, the composer chose not to publish it and followed it with his Suite for Orchestra which met with more acclaim, finding a champion in Stokowski, who performed the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra. In 1938 his ballet The Incredible Flutist was performed, and the suite from this was for a long time his most celebrated work. Meanwhile, Piston had commenced upon his series of eight symphonies with his First in 1937. With these the composer revealed his prowess in the field of large-scale absolute music, garnering a steady stream of prestigious awards and honors, among them the New York Music Critics Circle for the Second Symphony (1945), and the Pulitzer Prize for the Third (1948) and the Seventh (1959). In the last year of his life, Piston achieved what may have been his largest audience when a performance of the Second Symphony was televised on PBS's Evening at Symphony.
As a composer, Walter Piston remained an enlightened conservative. Taking the neo-Classic mode of expression and infusing it into larger Romantic forms with flawless craftsmanship, he was one of the great bearers of the symphonic tradition in the twentieth century.
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