MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

What Makes an “American Composer”?

I was just researching an orchestral piece by Walter Piston and wondering why his music is hardly ever programmed nowadays. In the mid- twentieth century he was all over the place, winning TWO Pulitzers and getting prestigious commissions year after year from the Boston Symphony. Merely an adept player at musical politics?

In fact, Mr. hard-to-please Igor Stravinsky singled out Piston and Aaron Copland as exemplary American composers: “They have good musical ideas,” Stravinsky wrote in 1945. “They also have the requisite techniques. They are fine orchestrators, too.”

In the 1930s, Copland, six years younger than the New England-born and -bred Piston, listed a sort of posse of prominent American composers that (along with himself) included Piston, Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and Roger Sessions. (Thomson apparently liked to refer to this as Copland’s “commando unit.”) Yet of this bunch (“Les Six” made such bands fashionable at the time), it’s really only Copland who gets heard with any frequency today.

But Piston’s definition of “American music” may have actually been closer to today’s multicultural sensibilities than Copland’s — in the sense, that is, that there can be no grand “master narrative,” no single identifiable American style. Howard Pollack, who wrote his dissertation on Piston and a very fine bio of Copland, quotes the following from Piston, who, like Copland, had studied at the “Boulangerie” in 1920s Paris with Nadia Boulanger:

Copland and I had a friendly war about American music. Aaron and I were very thick. We practically grew up together. He had hopes of producing an American music that was just as recognizable as French and German music. I told him that America had so many different nationalities that it would be nearly impossible, I felt that the only definition of American music was that written by an American. He had to agree, but he felt there ought to be a vernacular.

(That obviously echoes – or was echoed by – Virgil Thomson’s famous dictum that American music was ““any music written by an American” — I don’t know who said it first.)

Piston certainly left an indelible mark through the students he influenced during more than three decades teaching at Harvard: the likes of Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, etc. (not to mention his many-times-reprinted textbooks on theory and orchestration).

Piston’s stylishly neoclassical Toccata for Orchestra, a curtain raiser for Charles Munch and the Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française (who played it at 41 stops on their 1948 American tour), gives you a good morsel-size sample of the fine craft that musicians like Bernstein valued. Bernstein admired his former teacher’s compositions for showing “the highest standards of craftsmanship and clarity of sonic intention.”

So here is Piston, an American composer, trying to evoke what he describes as “those qualities of clarity and brilliance which are so outstanding in the playing of French musicians.”

Filed under: American music, Bernstein

One Response - Comments are closed.

  1. Brian says:

    I agree Piston is undervalued and underperformed. I can’t say the same for Harris who juggled the same gambits that worked so well in Symphony 3 into each subsequent work.
    I felt fortunate to be living in Seattle when Gerry Schwarz programmed so many works from composers of this generation and just before (e.g. Hanson)


%d bloggers like this: