by Walter Simmons
CRESTON: Symphony No.2; Walt Whitman; Corinthians: XIII. David Amos conducting the Krakow Philharmonic Orchestra. KOCH INTERNATIONAL CLASSICS 3-7036-2Hl [DDDJ; 54:15. Produced by Michael Fine and Karen Chester.
As conductors and record companies–and listeners–continue uncovering neglected masterpieces of American orchestral music composed between 1930 to 1980. it is most appropriate that attention be turned to the major works of Paul Creston. Creston. who died in 1985–one year shy of his 80th birthday–was a unique figure on the American musical scene. The bright. ambitious son of a poor Italian house-painter who had immigrated to New York City. Creston (who was born Giuseppe Guttoveggio) was forced to drop out of high school at the age of 15 in order to earn a living. Attempting to compensate for the premature termination of his formal education by subjecting himself to a rigorous regimen of independent study, he taught himself music theory and composition, in addition to a number of other academic and artistic subjects. Not until he was in his mid-20s did he decide to focus his efforts on composition. Yet he quickly succeeded in impressing enough influential musicians of his talent that in less than a decade his works were appearing regularly in America’s major concert halls. HPractically from the beginning, Creston’s music revealed a language that was thoroughly and unmistakably his own in syntax. structure, and meaning, although its overall sound shared much with the familiar vernacular music of the time. The most distinctive feature of this language is its treatment of rhythm: syncopated polymetric and polyrhythmic patterns and ostinatos are all organized within a continuous, unchanging metrical pulse, creating a lively, swinging vitality that virtually cries out for choreography. This individual treatment of rhythm is combined with an equally idiosyncratic approach to harmony: expanded triadic chordal structures based on the overtone series are used almost exclusively, without resolutions or progressions that might define a tonal center. The result is what Henry Cowell termed “smooth dissonance,” or what Creston himself called “pantonality,” with full, rich sonorities floating in tonal weightlessness.
From about 1940 until the mid-1950s Creston was one of America’s most widely performed composers. In fact, in 1956 a BMI survey reported that he and Aaron Copland shared the lead in frequency of orchestral performances among living American composers. Then the virtual boycott of most of America’s conservative symphonists set in, sending Creston and his music rapidly into eclipse. For the last 25 years of his life, Creston attempted to recover the stature he had lost virtually overnight, repeating the techniques that had brought him success in the past, while attempting to meet whatever demand remained for his work–primarily from college bands in the middle West. As his creative power gradually dwindled–partly the result of bitterness about his neglect and partly the result of his inability to expand or develop the language he had formed during the 1930s–he devoted increasing attention to writing essays and books that attempted to clarify and systematize his particular views on rhythm and rhythmic notation.
Today, most listeners under the age of 50 who are familiar with Creston’s music at all tend to associate him with hearty, exuberant pieces for band or with lively virtuoso showpieces for “odd” instruments, such as the trombone, saxophone, and marimba. Although he was, finally, guilty of mannerism and redundancy, the music that initially defined his individual style and built his reputation is truly unique in its way, though now largely forgotten. Thus this new release is something of a milestone, as it serves to introduce–or to re-.introduce–listeners to what Paul Creston was really all about. HThe Symphony No.2 (there are six) was composed in 1944 and introduced that same year by the New York Philharmonic under the direction of Artur Rodzinski. It is probably the best single introduction to Creston’s aesthetic realm. Attempting to illustrate the proposition that song and dance form the basis of all music, the two-movement work is designed to glorify both melody and rhythm respectively and, in the process, epitomizes Creston’s own approach to handling these elements. The result is a masterpiece of structural unity achieved through ingenious thematic transformations, of stylistic consistency, integrity, and origi.nality, and of robust, spontaneous joie de vivre. The symphony was a tremendous success with audiences right from the start and was soon performed allover the world. It was recorded in 1954–along with the Symphony No. 3–by the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Howard Mitchell (Westminster XWN-18456), who championed many of Creston’s major works. This recording, which featured impressive, committed performances, marred somewhat by dull, opaque sonics, was reissued several times, finally disappearing during the late 1960s, by which time the works had been forgotten by the music world, displaced by the next generation of novelties. Yet to those who remember it, Creston’s Second looms as one of the most personable, fully realized American symphonies of the 1940s.
The two remaining works — Walt Whitman (1952) and Corinthians: XIII (1962) — both exemplify one of Creston’s favorite structural devices: A literary, artistic, or philosophical concept is divided into several component sub-concepts; each is then given musical expression, unified by a single theme that is transformed in various ways according to the different aspects of the extra-musical concept. The 16-minute Walt Whitman captures Creston’s personal reflections on one of his favorite writers (who provided the inspiration for more than half a dozen of his works). The sub-concepts are the poet’s celebration of the Individual, his love of Nature, his glorification of Challenge, and his serene attitude toward Death. Creston evokes these aspects of Whitman’s art with an eloquence that is both sumptuous and virile.
This work was recorded in 1960 by RCA Victor (LM-2426) in an unbelievably execrable performance by the Academy Symphony Orchestra of Rome conducted by Nicola Rescigno, captured in dismal sound quality. The disc was dropped from the catalog in about a year, making this new release almost a premiere recording.
Corinthians: XIII offers the composer’s musical meditations on the famous New Testament verse. Here the concept is love, and the work’s three sections deal with love between mother and child, between man and woman, and between man and mankind. The first section touchingly evokes a tender maternal ardor; the second becomes more lively, with some characteristic rhythmic felicities, and builds up to an appropriately heated climax that leads directly into the final section, a solemn, reverent hymn in which the work’s unifying theme is transformed into the Gregorian melody “Salve Regina,” cloaked in diaphanous, richly harmonized orchestral dress. As in much of Creston’s best work, both these pieces express the extra-musical concepts in logical, coherent, autonomous musical structures that nevertheless reflect the composer’s own personality with genuine warmth and spontaneity.
Corinthians: XIII was recorded during the mid 1960s in a decent performance by Robert Whitney and the Louisville Orchestra. That rendition has been reissued on an Albany CD (TROY021-Z).
Conductor David Amos is a persuasive exponent of Creston’s music (see article elsewhere in this issue) and does an impressive job of presenting his work in an advantageous light. But Creston’s music is American to the core, with technical idiosyncracies that a Polish orchestra — unfamiliar with the composer’s work — would understandably find challenging, at least initially. Realistically, how much can a visiting conductor from America be expected to extract from such an orchestra over the course of a few days of recording sessions? With this reservation in mind, one can be safely assured that these performances serve adequately to bring this long-neglected music to the attention of today’s generation of listeners, enhanced by the virtues of current audio technology.
To record companies interested in further enlarging the Creston discography I would recommend a disc devoted to his solo piano music, especially the Three Narrativesof 1962, a virtuosic work somewhat in the manner of Gaspard de la Nuit, and the Metamorrphoses of 1964, a brilliant set of variations on a 12-tone theme. These are two of Creston’s most ambitious and fully realized works. Such a disc might be sensibly filled out with the early (1936) Piano Sonata and the appealing Six Preludes from 1945.