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Walter Piston composed music which adhered mostly to the traditional "classical" models: symphony, concerto, string quartet, proving that these long-standing forms were not constricting, but rather vital vehicles of expression. His eight symphonies and five string quartets are all of a uniformly high quality and prove that formal restrictions do not preclude variance of expression; with each new work, he found something uniquely fresh to say. A master orchestrator, he concentrated on clarity of musical lines and leanness of texture. It is not surprising to learn that some of his favorite composers were Stravinsky, Ravel, and Fauré. Like so many other American composers (Copland, Harris, Schuman), Piston profited much from his studies in France under Nadia Boulanger. His music is largely tonal, almost exclusively "absolute" in nature (the noteworthy exception being his magnificent ballet score, The Incredible Flutist), and accessible, although it often requires a high level of concentration on the parts of performers and listeners. The rewards, however, will be evident. Much of his music is available on CD, though there remains a good deal to be rediscovered. In addition to the aforementioned works, Piston wrote several concerti (featuring violin, viola, cello, clarinet, flute, piano, 2 pianos, and string quartet), one religious choral work (Psalm and Prayer of David), and several smaller works for orchestra (Sinfonietta, Pine Tree Fantasy, Ricercare, Three New England Sketches, and Tunbridge Fair to name a few).
Born on January 20, 1894, Walter Piston exhibited musical talent at a young age, performing on the violin and piano (his keyboard proficiency was self-taught), but music remained in the background during his early adult years: performing in cafés and theaters was a source of income while he pursued studies in architecture at the Massachusetts Normal Art School. During the first World War, Piston enlisted with the Navy band as a saxophonist. Afterward, he seems to have had a more focused interest in music, studying at Harvard University under the tutelage of Archibald D. Davison. He was graduated summa cum laude in 1924, the eldest graduate in his class by some nine years. After two years of profitable instruction in France with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas, Piston returned to Boston and accepted a spot on the faculty at his alma mater, a position he kept until 1960. His students over the years included Leonard Bernstein, Elliot Carter, and Harold Shapero. He enjoyed a fabulous relationship with several American orchestras, most notably the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitsky (every American composer’s "best friend"), Charles Munch, and Erich Leinsdorf, and he received many honors throughout his life, including two Pulitzer Prizes (for his Third and Seventh Symphonies). His most popular work remains his only ballet score, The Incredible Flutist, written in 1938 for Arthur Fiedler and Hans Wiener. In addition to his music, Walter Piston wrote several valuable textbooks: Harmony, Principles of Harmonic Analysis, Counterpoint, and Orchestration, which remain in use today. His wife of more than fifty years, the painter Kathryn Nason (whom he met at Harvard in 1920), died in February 1976. Their marriage seems to have been happy, although childless, and Walter Piston died later that year on November 12, shortly after completing his enigmatic yet profound last work, the Concerto for String Quartet, Winds, and Percussion.