There are doubtless
any number of ways to write a wartime
symphony. The easiest to conceive, if
not to bring to completion, may
be something like the Shostakovich Symphony
No. 7 - an epic sense of battle, probably
with a suggestion of eventual triumph.
The Martinů Symphony No. 3 with
its tone of high drama or tragedy probably
fits in this class, too.
Less obvious as wartime
but perhaps even more common than their
noisier epic or dramatic counterparts
are quiet works such as the Martinů
Symphony No. 2, the Vaughan Williams
Symphony No. 5, or this great American
piece, the Walter Piston Symphony No.
It's one of the good
things Naxos did for Walter Piston in
2003 - issuing at budget price a 1988
recording of the Symphony No. 2. It
is paired with Piston's Symphony No.
6 on this disc, but it's the No. 2 that
is the star of the show.
Along with Paul Hindemith,
Piston is one of two composers I've
heard praised with a sort of unspoken
asterisk as "a composer's composer,"
as though Jack Citizen will never find
anything to love about this music. Too
bad for Jack, if such faint praise convinces
him not to buy and play this disc.
It's easy to accuse
Piston of steely intellectualism because
he was a Harvard professor whose greatest
influence musically is probably not
through his music at all, but through
the textbooks he wrote about music:
Counterpoint, from 1947, Harmony,
from 1941, and Orchestration,
from 1955. Yet that doesn't mean Piston
didn't have plenty to say through music.
Fortunately, Piston has found a great
interpreter in Gerard Schwarz and the
Seattle Symphony. The fine notes by
Steven Lowe put this work in context
by pointing out that Piston wrote his
Symphony No. 2 in 1943, when the events
of World War II had begun to turn in
favor of the Allies. (Oddly enough,
that's the same year in which Martinů
wrote his No. 2 and Vaughan Williams
his No. 5).
It's true that Piston's
three-movement symphony lacks the big
gesture that, say, Howard Hanson might
have given if he had written it. In
fact there's rather more ice than fire.
But to my mind what
Piston has done may be even more difficult
than giving us martial music: He speaks
of the war by not speaking of it at
all, by simply reminding us of what
is important about the life we have.
In that way I think the Symphony No.
2 is a sort of an American pastoral,
something listeners must have craved
at the time. The very next year would
give us the quintessential American
pastoral, also a World War II work,
Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring.
But Copland's ballet suite is set safely
in the past - not so Piston's symphony.
There's no attempt to take listeners
out of the present, Piston is writing
for the people of America in 1943, and
it's inconceivable that he wouldn't
have something to say about what they're
reading every day in their newspapers.
(As an aside, one could
argue that Bohuslav Martinů's
No. 2 is also, perhaps even more than
the Piston No. 2, a wartime pastoral.
Martinů wrote it for Czech refugees
living in Cleveland in summer 1943.
It's in that same year that Martinu
writes his 'Memorial to Lidice'
as a reminder of Nazi atrocities in
his homeland, so of course he's deeply
troubled by the war. But you do not
hear that in the joyous Symphony No.
2. No. 2 is great in the way human nature
is great, by looking beyond the crisis
to celebrate something older and stronger
than ideologies or war - that folk-like
second movement that evokes the rhythm
of seasons and daily life, for example.)
To my mind Piston is doing a similar
thing in his Symphony No. 2. Perhaps
that is - there are some very American-sounding
interludes in the first movement, the
first at about 2 minutes into the movement,
with a jazzy, big band feel such as
you might have heard in a nightclub.
Some people hear in
the Adagio the vast distances of America.
I confess I don't hear plains and big
sky, but painful resolve, worry, perhaps
even fear. Emotionally, that is no doubt
what sweethearts, mothers and fathers
felt, looking out across wheatfields
or down city streets and thinking about
their young men in Europe or the Pacific.
Particularly beautiful in this movement
is the playing of the clarinet, leading
to a flute solo of terrible yearning.
It is like overhearing two generations
of a family talking quietly in words
we can't quite make out, but whose emotional
content is clear. The third movement,
allegro, is the only place where I could
argue that Piston is actually alluding
to the war. It begins with a small explosion
like a shell bursting, then moves on,
propelled by limber playing in the strings,
in tireless, cool energy. It's more
like listening to a war machine than
a battle, the brass and percussion complementing
each other like airgun and rivet. It
might be America saying in its brash
way, that year of 1943, "OK, let's wrap
this thing up, shall we?"
The Piston Symphony
No. 6 is, but for the driving fourth
movement (Allegro energico), a quiet,
meditative work - contemplative in the
way that a Rubbra symphony so often
is. Piston wrote it in 1955 to mark
the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony,
an orchestra that he knew intimately.
I like the Seattle Symphony's account,
but I admit I'm curious to know what
it sounded like in the hands of those
individual musicians whom Piston had
in mind when he crafted each part.
If there's a drawback,
it may be that some passages are rather
subdued. For example, there is some
lovely writing for the harp in the first
movement that momentarily, melts away
the tension that has been building,
but it's easy to miss if you have the
volume too low. So buy the disc, and
turn up the volume.
a message from
Please pass on to Lance
Nixon that Munch's recording of Piston's
available from www.sd-associates.com
in an excellent transfer.
All good wishes
review by Jonathan Woolf