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Thursday, June 3, 2010

Paul Creston - Orchestral Works, Vol. 2 (1994)

 This recording combines two things I like: the Seattle Symphony (my home town is Seattle) and Paul Creston. Creston is not one of the better known American composers, but he should be. His music is innovative and modern, but not to the point of discouraging less determined listeners. He was essentially a self-taught composer who won fame the hard way. His compositions are often very rhythmic and always tonal, although with his own distinctive style.

Liner Notes:

“I make no special effort to be American," Paul Creston once declared. "I conscientiously work to be my true self, which is Italian by parentage, American by birth, and cosmopolitan by choice." Despite this disclaimer, there is in fact something very American indeed about Creston, both the music and the man. The music, in large forms like the Fifth Symphony, radiates a breadth and boldness that seem to reflect the robust quality of the American experience. And as for the man, his rise from poverty and his extraordinary tenacity in developing his own Capacities capture the very essence of the American tradition of optimism and opportunity.

He was born Giuseppe Guttoveggio in New York City in 1906, the son of an immigrant housepainter, and was forced to leave high school after two years to go to work. His family had bought him a $10 piano, but a mediocre teacher did little to further his talents at the keyboard, and like so much else in his life, he learned for the most part on his own. In his teens he changed his name, "Creston" suggested by a high school play he took part in, "Paul" picked at random.

He worked as errand boy for a publishing company, then as a bank clerk and an insurance claim examiner. At the end of the working day his real life began. He studied Bach, Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy and Ravel, "assisted by Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Scriabin, and Stravinsky." He practiced the piano until midnight, then spent two or three more hours reading history, literature, and philosophy. To stay awake, he smoked ground coffee beans in his pipe, and later said he decided that if Thomas Edison could get along on four hours' sleep, so could he.

The piano practice paid off when he was able to get work as a theater organist for silent movies and then as a regular church organist in New York, and at 26 he determined to devote his life to composition. He married a young dancer in Martha Graham's company, and she is credited with sharpening his perception of rhythm, which became one of the important keystones in his approach to music—so important, in fact, that he wrote two books on the subject.

Creston's first professional showcase was provided by another self-educated American composer, Henry Cowell, who presented a work by him at a composers' forum at New York's New School for Social Research in October, 1934; after that, honors began to accrue—a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1938 and the New York Music Critics' Circle Award for his Symphony No.1 in 1941—the latter, incidentally, given in preference to works by an impressive roster of young Americans: Roy Harris, William Schuman, Morton Gould, and Aaron Copland (whose "Lincoln Portrait" was the work under consideration).

Henry Cowell described Creston as a man of "sincerity, self-discipline, and earnest reflection," and something of these qualities emerges in Creston's statements about music, which are indeed unfailingly earnest and often just a bit ponderous. But they are worth considering, as they give the flavor of a man who won his laurels by hard work and willpower, and who had found his own way with little help from others. "I look upon music, and more specifically the writing of it, as a spiritual practice," he once wrote. "This may be at complete variance with the speculations of art theorists, but inasmuch as it pertains to my way of life, I have found it the most satisfactory justification of my pursuit of art.. ..To me, musical composition is as vital to my spiritual welfare as prayer and good deeds; just as food and exercise are necessities of physical health and thought and study are requisites of mental well-being."

On the more specific aspects of his music, he had this to say: "My philosophical approach to composition is abstract. I am preoccupied with matters of melodic design, harmonic coloring, rhythmic pulse, and formal progression; not with imitations of nature, or narrations of fairy tales, or propounding of sociological ideologies. Not that the source of inspiration may not be a picture or a story. Only that regardless of the origin of the subject matter, regardless of the school of thought, a musical composition must bear judgement purely on musical criteria. Its intrinsic worth depends on the integration of musical elements toward a unified whole."

Creston spent his life as a teacher imparting these truths to students at Swarthmore, the New York College of Music, and Central Washington State College. In 1975 he moved to San Diego, where he died on August 24, 1985.

The Fifth Symphony was commissioned to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the National Symphony in Washington, and was given its premiere there on April 4, 1956 under the direction of Howard Mitchell. The conductor's enthusiasm for Creston's music dated back at least to the mid-1940s, when he had performed the Symphony No. 2 in Belgium, and later recalled the occasion: "I was in my dressing room after the concert receiving visitors, when one of Belgium's most distinguished citizens came and embraced me, saying 'At last we in Belgium have heard the real strength and greatness of America in the music of Paul Creston.' Paul once said to me that writing music came as naturally to him as breathing."

In 1948, Henry Cowell had written of Creston, "There is no one known to me who handles more expertly the traditional types of development of a musical germ." That characteristic is evident in the Fifth Symphony, of which Creston himself wrote, "The keynote of the emotional basis of this symphony is intensity, and the feeling is generally one of spiritual conflicts which are not resolved until the final movement. All thematic material stems from the series of tones presented at the very beginning by the cellos and basses, evenly measured but irregularly grouped. From these tones, three definite, rhythmically patterned themes evolve: The first, aggressive and defiant, the second lyric and impassioned (an inversion of the first theme); and the third, tender and poignant..." It is helpful to keep in mind that the "germ" theme begins on a rising triad; its inversion, of course, first appearing in oboes and violas, is a descending triad. Despite passages of relative quiet and repose, the tenor of the first movement is indeed one of urgency and pressure, punctuated by explosive outbursts of percussion.

The pressure does not let up entirely, as one might have expected it to do, in the Largo. The movement is built around the solemn and somewhat mysterious opening motif of the strings in unison, with their upward rush of 16th notes; along the way to a pulsing central episode the motif is touched on by solo oboe and solo flute, and following this intense episode both the English horn and later the flute enter with lovely references to the theme. A final prodding climax makes way for the English horn to appear once again, guiding the movement to a serene conclusion.

The finale embraces a variety of moods, from its portentous opening through an expansive, rhapsodic section based on the "germ" theme in its inverted form, to a jubilant march-like segment that seems to capture the optimism of the movement as a whole.

The Choreografic Suite, commissioned by the Rebekah Harkness Foundation in 1965, reveals a quite different aspect of Creston's orchestral imagination. While the rhythmic pulse so innate in his writing is always apparent, as one would expect in a set of dance movements, the orchestration is consistently airy and transparent, with much sunlit writing for woodwinds. Each movement has its own distinct character. The Preamble (I), robust and assertive, allots a solo to each of the upper wind instruments. The Sarabandesque (II), grave and solemn, in keeping with the stately nature of the traditional sarabande, includes a rhapsodic melody for the oboe, followed by a variety of individual wind statements. The Burletta (III) is a sparkling, rather comic essay in which the clarinet is particularly impish. The Cantilena (IV) is led by the flute in a calm and pastoral vein; and the Festive Dance (V), driven by repetitive, off-center motoric rhythms, eventually gives rise to a closing flourish.

"Toccata" was commissioned by the Cleveland Orchestra in celebration of its 40th anniversary in 1957, and was premiered under Georg Sze11 on October 17 of that year. In honor of this virtuoso orchestra—and in keeping with the title, which historically exploited the "touch" and brilliance of the performer—Creston made soloistic demands of almost every instrument. After its propulsive opening, the work moves on to spotlight each wind in turn, starting with the clarinet and leading into a striking passage for the pair of flutes; even the bassoon is brought into the unaccustomed spot of center stage. A slow middle section, marked Andante, continues the soloistic work in a relatively serene atmosphere (and includes the tuba, another orchestral wallflower); the fast tempo returns, making further demands on individual players as well as the rhythm-driven string sections.

Shirley Fleming

Young People’s Notes:

Paul Creston, who was born in New York in 1906, proved one thing very clearly: you can do just about whatever you set your mind to, if you are really determined. He was a poor boy, and because his father was a house painter and never made much money, young Paul left high school after his second year and went to work as an errand boy for a publishing company. He did move on to better-paying jobs, but he was determined to continue his own education—and not only his musical education. So when he came home each evening he practiced the piano and studied music until midnight, and then spent two or three more hours reading on all kinds of subjects. He stayed awake by smoking ground-up coffee beans in a pipe—not recommended for anyone else to try.

He finally succeeded in winning attention to his music, and some of the most famous conductors of the time—Leopold Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini among them—performed hi works. It wasn't long before orchestras were asking for music to be written especially for them. All three pieces on this CD were written on request.

The Fifth Symphony was a celebration of the 25th birthday of the National Symphony Orchestra, which still "lives" in Washington, DC. Creston knew that there was plenty of power and muscle in this orchestra, and he was not in the least afraid to demand a lot of vigor and loud playing, especially from the big drums. The symphony is in three movements, and the composer tells us (in notes he wrote at the time) that he was thinking of conflicts—different clashing ideas—that are finally settled in the third movement. One thing you will notice right away about all of Creston's music are the pulsing rhythms that always drive it along. His wife was a dancer, and she must have reminded him that rhythm is one of the most important things in music as well as in dancing.

And speaking of dancing, the "Choreografic* Suite" was requested by a dance group (not the one his wife had worked with), and each of its five movements requires a different kind of speed and mood. It's easy to hear how different each of these movements is, and also easy to hear how light and airy the instruments sound—mostly because they are woodwinds: flutes, oboes, clarinets, each with its own distinct voice.
"Toccata" comes from an Italian word meaning "touch," and a toccata is supposed to show off the touch and skill of the performer. When he wrote this piece Creston intended to show off the players in the Cleveland Orchestra, one of the country's most famous musical groups, who asked him to write this in honor of the orchestra's 40th anniversary. Again, he calls on the woodwind players to show off a bit, and you can hear them do just that, if you listen carefully. You'll also hear those famous pulsing rhythms, which must have pounded away in Creston's head even in his sleep.

Shirley Fleming

*Creston's own spelling of "Choreographic"

  • Seattle Symphony
  • New York Chamber Symphony
  • Gerard Schwarz, conductor
Track List:
  1. Toccata for orchestra, Op. 68
  2. Choreografic Suite, Op. 86a: No. 1, Preamble
  3. Choreografic Suite, Op. 86a: No. 2, Sarabandesque
  4. Choreografic Suite, Op. 86a: No. 3, Burletta
  5. Choreografic Suite, Op. 86a: No. 4, Cantilena
  6. Choreografic Suite, Op. 86a: No. 5, Festive Dance
  7. Symphony No. 5, Op. 61: No. 1, Con moto
  8. Symphony No. 5, Op. 61: No. 2, Largo
  9. Symphony No. 5, Op. 61: No. 3, Maestoso; Allegro
Download Links: Enjoy the Music.

Other Recordings of music by Paul Creston:

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