Walter Piston

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Walter Hamor Piston Jr. (born January 20, 1894 in Rockland , Maine , † November 12, 1976 in Belmont , Massachusetts ) was an American composer .


Piston's grandfather, the navigator Antonio Pistone, changed his name to Anthony Piston when he came to America from Genoa . In 1905 Walter Piston Sr. moved his family to Boston . Walter Junior initially embarked on an engineering career at the Mechanical Arts High School in Boston, but felt drawn to the arts and after graduating in 1912 switched to the Massachusetts Normal Arts School with a focus on painting, but also studied architectural drawing and American history. There he met Kathryn Nason and married her in a Unitarian church.

Together with his brother Edward, Walter Piston took piano lessons from Harris Shaw (the organ teacher of Virgil Thomson ). In the 1910s, Walter Piston led a life as a pianist and violinist in dance bands, and later in that decade he also played the violin in orchestras directed by Georges Longy . In 1920 Walter Piston was admitted to Harvard University with the support of Shaw, where he studied counterpoint with Archibald Davison, canon and fugue technique with Clifford Heilman, advanced harmony with Edward Ballantine and composition and music history with Edward Burlingame Hill. Piston often worked as an assistant to the various music professors and directed the student orchestra.

During this time Piston also joined the Navy Band and learned other instruments. He wanted to join the US Navy as an officer, but was considered even more useful as a musician.

After graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Piston was awarded the John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship , which consisted of $ 1,500 annually for two or three years of overseas travel. He decided to go to Paris , where he lived from 1924 to 1926, but he also visited Italy. At the Ecole Nationale de Musique in Paris, Piston studied composition and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger , composition with Paul Dukas and violin with George Enescu . His 1925 Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon was his first published work.

After returning from Europe, he moved to Belmont, Massachusetts, and taught at Harvard from 1926 until his retirement in 1960. Among his students were Samuel Adler , Leroy Anderson , Arthur Berger , Leonard Bernstein , Elliott Carter , Irving Fine , John Harbison , Frederic Rzewski , Harold Shapero, and Robert Strassburg

In 1936, CBS commissioned six American composers ( Aaron Copland , Louis Gruenberg , Howard Hanson , Roy Harris , William Grant Still, and Piston) to compose works for broadcast on CBS radio stations. Piston believed that smaller orchestras were better suited for radio and wrote a concertino for piano and chamber orchestra . The following year Piston wrote his 1st Symphony , which was premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra on April 8, 1938.

Invited by Arthur Fiedler , Piston wrote his most famous ballet music, The Incredible Flutist , for Hans Wiener and the Boston Pops Orchestra .

Piston also studied Arnold Schönberg's twelve-tone technique and wrote an organ that uses this technique, the Chromatic Study of the Name Bach . Otherwise, Piston's work can largely be attributed to neoclassicism.

in World War II Piston served as an air raid warden in Belmont, and wrote patriotic fanfare and the like.

1943 gave Alice M. Ditson Fund of Columbia University Pistons Symphony No. 2 in order that premiered on March 5, 1944, the National Symphony Orchestra experienced, and with a price of New York Music Critics' Circle Award. The 3rd symphony received a Pulitzer Prize , as did the 7th symphony . His Viola Concerto and the 5th String Quartet also later received awards from the Critics' Circle .

Piston wrote the textbooks counterpoint , orchestration and harmony . The latter was published four times during his lifetime, translated into several languages ​​and is still considered useful today (with changes by later authors) for both teachers and students of harmony. So clear was Piston's handwriting that almost all of his orchestral scores were published in facsimile, and he also wrote the musical examples in the textbooks he published himself.

In his final years, Piston suffered from diabetes , and his eyesight and hearing decreased. His wife died in 1976 and he died of a heart attack in Belmont that same year. His body was cremated and the ashes scattered in Mt. Auburn Cemetery .


In 1938 Piston was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters and in 1941 to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences .


Orchestral works

  • 1934 concert for orchestra
  • 1937 Concertino for piano and chamber orchestra
  • 1938 1st symphony
  • 1939 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 1
  • 1941 Sinfonietta
  • 1943 2nd symphony
    1. Moderato
    2. adagio
    3. Allegro
  • 1948 3rd symphony
    1. Andantino
    2. Allegretto
    3. adagio
  • 1950 4th symphony
    1. Energico
    2. Ballando
    3. Contemplativo
  • 1954 5th symphony
  • 1955 6th symphony
    1. Fluando espressivo
    2. Leggierissimo vivace
    3. Adagio sereno
    4. Allegro energico
  • 1957 Serenata for orchestra
  • 1958 viola concert
  • 1960 7th symphony
  • 1960 Concerto for Violin and Orchestra No. 2
  • 1965 8th Symphony
  • 1970 Fantasia for violin and orchestra
  • 1976 concert for string quartet, wind instruments and percussion

Works for wind orchestra

  • 1942 Fanfare for the fighting French
  • 1950 Tunbridge Fair for Symphony. Wind band

Stage works

  • 1938 The Incredible Flutist (also called suite) ballet

Chamber music

  • 1925 3 pieces for flute, clarinet and bassoon
  • 1930 sonata for flute and piano
  • 1931 Suite for oboe and piano
  • 1933 String Quartet No. 1
  • 1935 Piano Trio No. 1
  • 1935 String Quartet No. 2
  • 1939 sonata for violin and piano
  • 1942 interlude for viola and piano
  • 1942 quintet for flute and string quartet
  • 1944 Partita for violin, viola and organ
  • 1945 sonatina for violin and harpsichord
  • 1946 Divertimento for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, string quartet and bass
  • 1947 String Quartet No. 3
  • 1949 Duo for viola and violoncello
  • 1949 piano quintet
  • 1951 String Quartet No. 4
  • 1956 wind quintet
  • 1962 String Quartet No. 5
  • 1964 piano quartet
  • 1964 string sextet
  • 1966 Piano Trio No. 2
  • 1967 souvenir for flute, viola and harp
  • 1972 Duo for violoncello and piano
  • 1973 3 counterpoints for violin, viola and violoncello

Piano works

  • 1926 Sonata , unpublished
  • 1943 Passacaglia

Choral works

  • 1958 Psalm and Prayer of David


Currently available edition of Piston's harmony theory:

  • Walter Piston, Mark Devoto (1987) Harmony . 5th edition. New York: Norton. ISBN 0-393-95480-3 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Composer's Geneologies: A Compendium of Composers, Their Teachers and Their Students . Pfitzinger, Scott. Roman & Littlefield. London & New York USA 2017. P. 522 & 422. ISBN 978-1-4422-7224-8
  2. ^ Scott Pfitzinger: Composer Genealogies . Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, ISBN 978-1-442-27225-5 ( limited preview in Google Book Search).
  4. ^ Members: Walter Piston. American Academy of Arts and Letters, accessed April 20, 2019 .
  5. ^ Members of the American Academy. Listed by election year, 1900-1949 ( PDF ). Retrieved September 27, 2015