Walter Piston

Walter Piston

born on 20/1/1894 in Rockland, ME, United States

died on 12/11/1976 in Belmont, MA, United States

Walter Piston

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Walter Hamor Piston Jr., or more simply Walter Piston (January 20, 1894 – November 12, 1976), was a notable American composer of classical music, music theorist and influential professor of music at Harvard University whose many students included Leroy Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, and Elliott Carter.


Piston was born in Rockland, Maine. His paternal grandfather, a sailor named Antonio Pistone, changed his name to Anthony Piston when he came to America from Genoa, Italy. In 1905, the composer's father Walter Piston Sr. moved with his family to Boston.

Walter Jr. first trained as an engineer at the Mechanical Arts High School in Boston, but he was artistically inclined. Upon graduating in 1912, he proceeded to the Massachusetts Normal Arts School, where he completed a course of study in draftsmanship in 1916.[1]

During the 1910s Walter Piston made a living playing piano and violin in dance bands and later playing violin in orchestras led by Georges Longy.[2] During World War I, Piston joined the U.S. Navy as a band musician, after rapidly teaching himself to play the saxophone; he later stated that, when "it became obvious that everybody had to go into the service, I wanted to go in as a musician".[3] Playing in a service band, Piston taught himself to play most of the wind instruments. "They were just lying around" he later observed, "and no one minded if you picked them up and found out what they could do".[4]

Piston was admitted to Harvard in 1920, where he studied counterpoint with Archibald Davison, canon and fugue 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 there, and conducted the student orchestra.[5]

In 1920 Piston married the artist Kathryn Nason (1892-1976), who had been a fellow student at the Normal Arts School.[6] They remained married until her death in February 1976, a few months before his own.[7]

Upon graduating summa cum laude from Harvard, Piston was awarded a John Knowles Paine Traveling Fellowship.[8] He chose to go to Paris, living there from 1924 to 1926.[9] 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 Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon of 1925 was his first published score.[2]

He taught at Harvard from 1926 until retiring in 1960.[2] His students include Samuel Adler, Leroy Anderson, Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, Gordon Binkerd, Elliott Carter, John Davison, Irving Fine, John Harbison, Karl Kohn, Ellis B. Kohs, Gail Kubik, Billy Jim Layton, Noël Lee, Robert Middleton, Robert Moevs, Conlon Nancarrow, William P. Perry, Daniel Pinkham, Frederic Rzewski, Allen Sapp, Harold Shapero, and Claudio Spies.[2]

In 1936, the Columbia Broadcasting System commissioned six American composers (Aaron Copland, Louis Gruenberg, Howard Hanson, Roy Harris, William Grant Still and Piston) to write works for CBS radio stations to broadcast. The following year Piston wrote his Symphony No. 1, and conducted its premiere with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on April 8, 1938.[10]

Piston's only dance work, The Incredible Flutist, was written for the Boston Pops Orchestra, which premiered it with Arthur Fiedler conducting on May 30, 1938. The dancers were Hans Weiner and his company. Soon after, Piston arranged a concert suite including "a selection of the best parts of the ballet." This version was premiered by Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra on November 22, 1940. Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra included the suite in a 1991 RCA Victor CD recording that also featured Piston's Three New England Sketches and Symphony No. 6.[11]

Piston studied the twelve-tone technique of Arnold Schoenberg and wrote works using aspects of it as early as the Sonata for Flute and Piano (1930) and the First Symphony (1937). His first fully twelve-tone work was the Chromatic Study on the Name of Bach for organ (1940), which nonetheless retains a vague feeling of key.[12] Although he employed twelve-tone elements sporadically throughout his career, these become much more pervasive in the Eighth Symphony (1965) and many of the works following it: the Variations for Cello and Orchestra (1966), Clarinet Concerto (1967), Ricercare for Orchestra, Fantasy for Violin and Orchestra (1970), and Flute Concerto (1971).[13]

In 1943, the Alice M. Ditson fund of Columbia University commissioned Piston's Symphony No. 2, which was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra on March 5, 1944 and was awarded a prize by the New York Music Critics' Circle. His next symphony, the Third, earned a Pulitzer Prize, as did his Symphony No. 7. His Viola Concerto and String Quartet No. 5 also later received Critics' Circle awards.[2]

Piston wrote four books on the technical aspects of music theory which are considered to be classics in their respective fields: Principles of Harmonic Analysis, Counterpoint, Orchestration and Harmony. The last of these went through four editions in the author's lifetime, was translated into several languages, and (with changes and additions by Mark DeVoto) was still regarded as recently as 2009 as a standard harmony text.[14]

He died at his home in Belmont, Massachusetts on November 12, 1976.[15]



  • The Incredible Flutist (1938)


  • Symphonies
    • Symphony No. 1 (1937)[10]
    • Symphony No. 2 (1943)
    • Symphony No. 3 (194647) (commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation)[16]
    • Symphony No. 4 (1950) (composed for the 100th anniversary of the University of Minnesota)[17]
    • Symphony No. 5 (1954)
    • Symphony No. 6 (1955) (composed for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra)
    • Symphony No. 7 (1960)
    • Symphony No. 8 (1965)
  • Suite for Orchestra (1929)
  • Concerto for Orchestra (1934)
  • Suite from The Incredible Flutist

(The Suite from "The Incredible Flutist" has been transcribed for symphonic wind ensemble by MSgt Donald Patterson and recorded by Col. Michael Colburn with "The President's Own" United States Marine Band.)[18]

  • Sinfonietta (1941)
  • Suite No. 2 for Orchestra (1948)
  • Serenata for Orchestra (1957)
  • Three New England Sketches (1959)
  • Ricercare for Orchestra (1967)


  • Tunbridge Fair, for symphonic band (1950) (Commissioned by the American Bandmasters Association)[1]


  • Piano
    • Piano Concertino (1937)
    • Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra (1958)
  • Violin
    • Violin Concerto No. 1 (1939)
    • Violin Concerto No. 2 (1960)
    • Fantasia for Violin and Orchestra (1970)
  • Prelude and Allegro for Organ and Strings (1943)[16]
  • Fantasy for English Horn, Harp, and Strings (1954)
  • Viola Concerto (1957)
  • Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra (1963)
  • Variations for Cello and Orchestra (1966)
  • Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra (1967)
  • Concerto for Flute and Orchestra (1971)
  • Concerto for String Quartet, Wind Instruments and Percussion (1976)


  • String quartets
    • String Quartet No. 1 (1933)
    • String Quartet No. 2 (1935)
    • String Quartet No. 3 (1947)
    • String Quartet No. 4 (1951)[19]
    • String Quartet No. 5 (1962)
  • Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet and Bassoon (1926)
  • Flute Sonata (1930)
  • Suite for Oboe and Piano (1931)
  • Piano Trio No. 1 (1935)
  • Violin Sonata (1939)
  • Sonatina for Violin and Harpsichord (1945)[20]
  • Interlude for Viola and Piano (1942)[10]
  • Flute Quintet (1942)
  • Partita for Violin, Viola and Organ (1944)[16]
  • Divertimento, for nine instruments (1946)
  • Duet for Viola and Cello (1949)
  • Piano Quintet (1949)
  • Wind Quintet (1956)
  • Piano Quartet (1964)
  • String Sextet (1964)
  • Piano Trio No. 2 (1966)
  • Duo for Cello and Piano (1972)[21]


  • Piano Sonata (1926)
  • Passacaglia (1943)
  • Improvisation (1945)


  • Chromatic Study on the Name of BACH (1940)[10]


  • Psalm and Prayer of David (1959)


  • Principles of Harmonic Analysis. Boston: E. C. Schirmer, 1933.
  • Harmony. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1941. Reprint edition (as U.S. War Dept. Education Manual EM 601), Madison, Wisc.: Published for the United States Armed Forces Institute by W. Norton & Co., 1944. Revised ed, New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1948. Third ed., 1962. Fourth ed., revised and expanded by Mark DeVoto, 1978. ISBN 0-393-09034-5. 5th edition, revised and expanded by Mark DeVoto ISBN 0-393-95480-3. British editions, London: Victor Gollancz, 1949, rev. ed. 1950 (reprinted 1973), 1959, 3rd ed. 1970, 4th ed. 1982. Spanish translation, as Armonía, rev. y ampliada por Mark DeVoto. Barcelona: Idea Books, 2001. ISBN 8482362240 Chinese version of the 2nd edition, as [He sheng xue], trans. Chenbao Feng and Dunxing Shen.  :  : [Beijing: Ren min yin yue chu ban she : Xin hua shu dian Beijing fa xing suo fa xing], 1956. Revised,  : [Beijing: Ren min yin yue chu ban she], 1978.
  • Counterpoint. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1947.
  • Orchestration. New York: Norton, 1955. Russian translation, as '', translation and notes by Constantine Ivanov. Moscow: Soviet Composer, 1990, ISBN 5-85285-014-4.


  1. DeVoto 1994.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 2.3 2.4 Pollack 2001.
  3. Westergaard 1968, 3.
  4. Hudson 1976.
  5. Pollack 2001; Westergaard 1968, 4.
  6. Oja 2011.
  7. DeVoto 1994.
  8. Westergaard 1968, 4.
  9. Thomson 1962.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 10.3 Carter 1946, 374.
  11. Anon. 1991.
  12. Pollack 1982, 35, 7273.
  13. Archibald 1978, 267.
  14. Firmino, Bueno, and Bigand 2009, 206.
  15. Hudson 1976.
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Carter 1946, 375.
  17. Lowe 2002.
  18. "Family Album," US Marine Band, 2006. Label: Altissimo! Reference: B000QZSTZ2. See Amazon entry, accessed on 03/03/11 at:
  19. Pollack 1982, 108; Pollack 1987.
  20. Stowell 1992, 189.
  21. Anon. 2007.


  • Anon. (1991). Liner notes for RCA Victor recording 60798-2-RC.
  • Anon. (2007). Announcement of Albany Recording of Cello and Piano Duo. Records International. Retrieved on 2007-11-18.
  • Archibald, Bruce (1978). "Reviews of Records: 'Walter Piston: Symphony No. 7, Symphony No. 8, Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester; Walter Piston: Symphony No. 5, Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney; Walter Piston: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Paul Doktor, viola, Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney; Walter Piston: The Incredible Flutist, Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester.'". The Musical Quarterly 64 (2): 2638.
  • Carter, Elliott (1946). "Walter Piston". The Musical Quarterly 32 (3 (July)): 354375, list of works and premieres up to 1946 on pp. 3745.
  • DeVoto, Mark (1994). "Walter Piston, Practical Theorist". (Accessed 03/02/11).
  • Firmino, Érico Artioli, José Lino Oliveira Bueno, and Emmanuel Bigand. 2009. "Travelling Through Pitch Space Speeds up Musical Time". Music Perception: An Interdisciplinary Journal 26, no. 3 (February): 205209.
  • Hudson, Edward (1976). "Walter Piston Dies; Composer Won Two Pulitzers". The New York Times (November 13): 21.
  • Lowe, Steven (2002). Liner notes to Walter Piston: Symphony No. 4, Capriccio for Harp and String Orchestra, Three New England Sketches. Seattle Symphony Orchestra; Gerard Schwarz, conductor. Naxos CD 8.559162.
  • Oja, Carol J. (2011). "Walter Piston (1894-1976)". American Symphony Orchestra Program Notes (March 29). (Accessed 03/02/11).
  • Pollack, Howard (1982). Walter Piston, Ann Arbor, Mich: UMI Research Press.
  • Pollack, Howard (1987). "Review: String Quartets, Nos. 15; Quintet for Flute and String Quartet by Walter Piston". American Music 5 (1 (Spring)): 119.
  • Pollack, Howard (1992). Harvard Composers: Walter Piston and His Students, from Elliott Carter to Frederic Rzewski, Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press.
  • Pollack, Howard (2001). Piston, Walter (Hamor). Grove Music Online., Deane Root, editor in chief. (Subscription access). Previously published in The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, second edition, edited by Stanley Sadie and John Tyrrell. London: Macmillan Publishers, 2001.
  • Stowell, Robin (1992). The Cambridge Companion to the Violin, Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Thomson, Virgil (1962). "'Greatest Music Teacher' at 75". Music Educators Journal 49, no. 1 (Sept.-Oct.): 43.
  • Westergaard, Peter (1968). "Conversation with Walter Piston". Perspectives of New Music 7 (1 (Fall-Winter)): 317.

External links

  • Art of the States: Walter Piston
  • Official Publisher of Walter Piston: Bio, Works List, Discography, Events and more
This page was last modified 20.05.2011 21:30:24

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