Paul Creston: Maintaining a Middle Course

by Walter Simmons



An autodidact by necessity as well as by temperament, Giuseppe Gut­toveggio was born seventy years ago to immigrant parents in New York City and was forced to take a full-time job before finishing high school. Although he had taken piano lessons as a child from a mediocre local teacher, his more advanced instrumental attain­ments as well as his mastery of the techniques of theory and composition were accomplished on his own. In 1927, he assumed the name Paul Creston and married the dancer Louise Gotto. Gradually his menial jobs were replaced by positions as theater and church organist, teacher, and radio musician.

Creston’s career as a composer and teacher has been characterized by a sincere, steadfast, and diligent adher­ence to a carefully evolved set of fun­damental musical and metaphysical principles, formed at the time of his decision to become a composer in 1932. Having resolved to pursue a professional career as a composer, he began to produce a steady flow of works. In 1934, Henry Cowell introduced him and his music at the New School for Social Research, his first important public exposure. There followed a Guggenheim fellowship in 1938, and in 1943 his importance as a composer was established when his First Symphony won the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award. This award proved a turning point after which commissions and performances by major artists and ensembles fol­lowed. Such noted conductors as Toscanini, Stokowski, Rodzinski, and Ormandy performed his music in the 1940s. In 1948, he was the subject of an article in the Musical Quarterly, and by the 1950s Creston was regarded as one of the handful of leading American composers along with Copland, Barber and Gould.

Permeating his teaching, composing, and writing has been the credo which he has followed throughout his career. It is probably best expressed by excerpting from his own words:

 I consider music, and more specifically the writing of it, as a spiritual practice. . . . To me, musical composition is as vital to my spiritual welfare as prayer and good deeds, just as good food and exercise are necessities of physical health, and thought and study are requisites of mental well-being. . . .

I also consider music as a language: a language which begins where words end, a language much more precise, more effective and more indispensable than any verbal tongue of man. Being a language, it consequently has many uses, all equally indigenous. All I ask of any composition is that it fulfill its particular purpose for it to be consid­ered good music, whether it be a cradle-song, a military march or a symphony. I cannot agree with the ultra-purists or snobs who regard only suites, sonatas and symphonies as good music and any other type as an indignity.

Concerning the more specific aspects of composition, I believe all the elements of music — rhythm, melody, counterpoint, harmony, form and tone color — should be given due consideration to attain the perfect balance of a good musical composition. This does not mean that one element may not be pre­dominant in a particular work. It merely means that no element is completely ignored. The element that is consistently disregarded is that of rhythm. A student of composition is taught harmony and counterpoint and form. Sometimes mention is made of melody. But in the matter of rhythm he is left to shift for himself.

My philosophic 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 propoundings of sociological ideologies. Not that the source of inspiration may not be a picture or a story; only that, regardless of the school of thought, a musical composition must bear judgment on purely musical criteria. The intrinsic worth of a composition depends on the integration of musical elements toward a unified whole. . . .

In my music, as in my life, I have striven to abide by the Golden Symbol of Pythagoras, “Go not beyond the balance.” In other words, I have tried to determine and follow the golden mean or happy medium, and to avoid extremes of any kind or nature. It is not surprising, then, that I have been called a radical by conservatives and a conservative by radicals; which .gives me a great sense of justifica­tion and convinces me that I must be on the right track: maintaining the balance. . . .
I utilize in my music all that is good in music from ancient times to the present, so long as it is clothed in 20th-century language. I am not and never have been a revolutionary. I believe that the accomplishments and experience of 400 years should not be discarded: they should be built on and developed; that, in musical developments there has never been revolution but evolution.

I make no special effort to be American in my music. I try to be myself, which is American by birth, Italian by parentage, and cosmopolitan by choice. I do not compose for musicians and musicologists exclu­sively but for intelligent listeners and music lovers. I do not compose to shock or to confound but to com­municate expressions of joy or exhilaration or spirituality. . . .

The manifestations and ramifications of these beliefs may be clearly perceived in Creston’s music, although only a few can be touched on here. The backbone of Creston’s compositional output is undoubtedly his five symphonies, which represent all the dimensions of his unique musical style in their most fully-elaborated forms. Foremost among these characteristics is Creston’s predominating concern with the rhythmic element in his music. Rather than an underlying framework that is felt but not heard, rhythmic manipulations — shifting meters against a regular pulse, a coun­terpoint of accents, of overlapping ostinati — become the focal point of the listener’s attention, creating an inner vitality recognizable instantly as Creston’s own “sound.” One can hear this in almost any of his pieces, but a good place to begin is perhaps his best-known work, the Symphony No. 2, composed to illustrate the duality of song and dance as the basic components of music. Incidentally, Creston explains his theory of rhythm with great clarity in his textbook, Principles of Rhythm; in addition, his 10-volume set, Rhythmicon, presents the subtleties of rhythm to the piano student in a highly attractive, carefully graded format.

Also contributing to the irrepressible vitality of Creston’s music is the special harmonic language that he calls “pantonal,” termed by Henry Cowell as “smooth dissonance.” This is the avoidance of clear tonal centers not by the use of a tone row or by highly dissonant chord structures, but simply by the use of successions of chords built upon the quality of the dominant seventh that never resolve where traditional harmony would dictate. These chains of non-resolving chords, instead of creating a sense of frustration, simply liberate the music from the bonds of tonality, creating a free, restless quality without a sense of harshness or abrasion. His treatment of harmony, with its deliberate  rein­forcement of the upper partials of the overtone series, and bass doubled at the octave, creates a richness of sonority that is highly individualistic as well.

Another facet of Creston’s compositional activity is his enrichment of the repertoires of many instruments suffer­ing from a shortage of solo or concerto works. His virtuoso works for sax­ophone, harp, trombone, marimba and accordion have become classics in their respective media. But Creston has not neglected the more popular concert instruments, having written also two violin concertos, a piano con­certo and a two-piano concerto. In fact, his Three Narratives is a mile­stone in contemporary piano literature.

During this period, when musicians all over the world are finally looking into the works of American com­posers, it has become evident that the twentieth century has seen the emergence of an entire body of concert music that is recognizably, though not self-consciously, American. For too long America’s cultural xenophilia has kept our eyes closed to the wealth of quality, variety, and individuality to be found in our own music. Paul Creston has the rare ability to compose in a manner both appealing to the layman, yet challenging to the professional. For those who wish to delve into our contem­porary musical heritage, Creston’s music is an ideal starting point.

The author has taught at Brooklyn College and is now music editor of Educational Audio Visual in Westchester. His music reviews appear in Music Journal) Fanfare, and the American Record Guide.