CRESTON: Three Narratives; Rhythmicon

Three Narratives, Op. 79 (1962) 25:25
Rhythmicon (1971-74): Volumes 7-10 44:49

Myron Silberstein, pianist
Myron Silberstein, Walter Simmons, co-producers
Joseph Patrych, engineer
Recorded at Patrych Recording Studio, Bronx, NY, on 20-22 June 2022
Music available from University of Missouri, Kansas City

Piano Music of Paul Creston

by Walter Simmons

Paul Creston (1906-1985) was one of the most frequently performed American composers of the 1940s and 50s. His orchestral works were championed by Arturo Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, George Szell, Pierre Monteux, and others of that caliber. In fact, most of his works featuring unusual solo instruments, such as the saxophone, trombone, harp, accordion, and marimba, have become classics for their respective media. Yet many of his most serious and ambitious works have fallen into obscurity. The reasons for his meteoric rise to fame and his equivalently precipitous disappearance from the repertoire are part of the appalling plight of more traditionally-inclined American composers of the mid-twentieth century, documented in detail elsewhere.

Giuseppe Guttoveggio was born in New York City into the poor family of a Sicilian house-painter. Despite their poverty, the family did manage to afford a ten-dollar piano on which young Joe (as he was called) could practice, as well as a cheap violin for his brother. He took piano lessons from a mediocre local teacher, while teaching himself the violin by practicing on his brother’s instrument. Almost as soon as he started playing the piano, Joe began to compose, although he attached no particular significance to the activity. He was also interested in literature, and had begun writing poetry, short stories, and essays and had even started a novel by the time he reached his teens.

Entering high school in 1919, he became acquainted with other musical teens and soon realized the inadequacy of his own training. He scraped up the money for piano lessons of a more professional caliber with G. Aldo Randegger. But, unable to afford concert tickets, he spent hours studying scores and reading textbooks in the New York Public Library. Around this time, he played the role of a character named Crespino in a school play. His schoolmates began calling him ‘‘Cress,’’ and the nickname endured.

Forced to leave school at 15 to contribute to the household income, he landed a clerical job, while taking on the task of educating himself. Motivated and ambitious, he mustered the self-discipline to maintain a grueling schedule: Working during the day, he practiced the piano in the evenings until 11 p.m., then concentrated on other studies until the early morning hours. Learning that Thomas Edison had managed on four hours of sleep, he decided that he could do the same, smoking coffee grounds in a pipe to stay awake.

At the company where he worked Cress became friendly with a secretary named Louise Gotto, who also came from a poor Italian-American family. Sharing his artistic aspirations, she was studying modern dance with members of the Martha Graham company. The two began dating, and their friendship developed into a serious romantic relationship.

This period was of great importance in shaping the personality of the determined young man. His independent study whetted his voracious curiosity, as he pursued a variety of subjects that captured his interest—not just music and literature, but foreign languages and linguistics in general. He also explored homeopathic medicine, cryptography, and philosophy, including the occult. Not only did this practice lead to a lifelong passion for independent study, but it also resulted in what was essentially the opposite of a standard basic education: that is, a highly idiosyncratic landscape of erudition that formed the framework of his own philosophy. Questioning conventional and inherited wisdom, he painstakingly and systematically developed his own theories of music, embracing aesthetics, acoustics, harmony, form, notation, and—most of all—rhythm. Not limiting himself to music, however, he also developed his own theories of religion, language, health and nutrition, and what might be called ‘‘proper living.’’ The result was a personal style marked by an idiosyncratic individualism, remarkably coherent and consistent within the parameters of its own postulates but resistant—even impervious—to perspectives derived from other premises. Also—probably as a defense against the sense of inferiority he felt regarding his lack of educational pedigree—he developed an aggressive, pedantic, and somewhat pontifical personal manner. Or, as he put it, ‘‘I did not . . . always accept without question or challenge every dictum of the authorities. The result of such intense scrutiny was to mold me into an iconoclast.’’

Seeking ways to earn a living as a musician, Cress considered working as a church organist and in 1925 undertook a year and a half of organ lessons with Pietro Yon. Not only did he take advantage of every chance to accompany church services, but he also found opportunities to improvise organ accompaniments to silent movies. However, sound entered the movies just a few years later, and live musical accompaniments became obsolete.

In July 1927, Cress and Louise were married. Embarrassed for a long time by his own unwieldy, foreign-sounding name, he then decided to formally change it to Creston, choosing Paul as his first name on a whim. By now Louise was dancing with the Martha Graham company, participating in their New York debut. Her work exposed young Creston to the world of modern dance, while sensitizing him to the importance of rhythm.

Combining his literary and musical interests, Creston began writing articles on musical subjects, from practical advice for the budding pianist and essays on the performance of Bach to a theoretical examination of music therapy. Most of these articles were published promptly in music periodicals of the time, initiating Creston’s lifelong practice of giving written verbal expression to his ideas on music theory and aesthetics.

But it was not until the early 1930s that Creston finally decided to commit himself to a career in musical composition. Many of his early pieces were experimental in nature, exploring a variety of techniques and ideas in search of his own identity and compositional voice. By this time, he had also developed considerable proficiency as a pianist. He designated as his Opus 1 Five Dances for piano, which he had written in 1932. Shortly thereafter, his music came to the attention of Henry Cowell (1897–1965), then an enthusiastic activist on behalf of the avant-garde. Cowell was impressed by the authenticity, integrity, and seriousness of purpose he found in Creston’s early efforts. In October 1934, Cowell arranged an auspicious showcase for him at New York City’s New School for Social Research. There Creston performed his 1933 Seven Theses for piano (available on Phoenix PHCD-149). Cowell published the Theses in his New Music Quarterly the following year and also released a recording of Creston’s Suite for saxophone and piano on his New Music record label. Cowell’s continued support contributed significantly to promoting the younger composer’s reputation. Later Cowell was to write, ‘‘There is no one known to me who handles more expertly the traditional types of development of a musical germ [than Paul Creston].’’

During the economically depressed 1930s, Creston wrote pieces for dancers, worked as an accompanist, and took a position as organist at New York’s St. Malachy’s Church, which he held for more than thirty years. By 1937, he had abandoned his compositional experimentation, having arrived at the musical language that would serve him, essentially unchanged, for the rest of his life. In 1938, he was awarded the first of two Guggenheim Fellowships, and his works began to receive performances, ushering in a period when his reputation spread rapidly.

But what really catapulted Creston to national prominence was his Symphony No. 1. Despite having received no tutelage in composition, he completed the work in 1940—only eight years after his decision to commit himself to life as a composer. The symphony won the New York Music Critics Circle Award as the best new American work, selected over no less than Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait, William Schuman’s Prayer in Time of War, and Morton Gould’s Spirituals. In their comments, the critics praised the symphony’s unpretentious, straightforward directness of intent, its skillful workmanship, and its high-spirited mood.

During the 1940s, with a family that now included two sons, Creston supplemented his income through private teaching of piano and composition and by writing background music for radio, providing music for children’s programs, mystery shows, and a weekly religious program. But the success of his Symphony No. 1 led to further awards, as well as significant commissions and performances. The 1950s continued the trend, with performances overseas and more than thirty premieres as well. In 1956, the year he turned fifty, a national survey found Creston tied with Aaron Copland as America’s most frequently-performed living composer. That same year he was elected president of the National Association of American Composers and Conductors, and shortly thereafter was elected to the Board of Directors of ASCAP. During a visit to the United States in 1959, Dmitri Shostakovich named Creston as one of the American composers whose music was most admired in the Soviet Union.

With the advent of television during the 1950s, Creston was one of the composers who supplied background music for the new medium, especially for news documentaries, such as CBS’s highly regarded Twentieth Century series, for which he composed fourteen scores. His music for the episode ‘‘Revolt in Hungary’’ earned Creston the coveted Christopher Award in 1958.

Then, during the 1960s, almost as precipitously as it had appeared, Creston’s star began to fade. Two distinct shifts were taking place: One was that performances of his music were occurring less in major metropolitan centers and more in the smaller cities of the American heartland. A second shift was that his major works—symphonies and tone poems—were being set aside in favor of the rousing overtures and other festive pieces he had written on commission. He continued to receive commissions during the following years, but the sources were far less auspicious and the projects less grand. It was during this period that Creston composed—without a commission—what proved to be his most compositionally ambitious and pianistically demanding solo piano work: the Three Narratives, completed in 1962. So thoroughly do these pieces exploit the full range of the instrument’s acoustical properties and possibilities that only an experienced pianist could have composed them.

When asked about the composers whom he most valued, Creston would reply without hesitation: J.S. Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, Chopin, Debussy, and Ravel. Although the influence of Scarlatti can be discerned in his early Piano Sonata (available on Phoenix PHCD-143), and that of the others elsewhere, it is probably the influence of Debussy and Ravel that is most apparent, and clearly underlies his Three Narratives, which might be viewed as Creston’s answer to Gaspard de la Nuit. Also during the early 1960s, Creston codified his theories concerning the element of rhythm into the textbook Principles of Rhythm, published in 1964.

For Creston rhythm was the most important element of music, and one on which he wrote voluminously. In Principles of Rhythm he defined his terms and developed his concepts in an orderly, logical progression, applying them to a broad spectrum of the repertoire. But it was in his own music that Creston’s rhythmic theory was most relevant. A key distinction drawn in his textbook is the difference between pulse and beat. Pulse refers to the recurrent oscillation indicated by the numerator of a time signature; beat refers to the actual audible subdivision of the meter. In most traditional classical music pulse and beat are identical. However, in Creston’s music, extrametrical rhythm (i.e., when pulse and beat conflict, producing what is generally meant by the term syncopation) becomes a focal source of interest and delight, as pulses and beats interact and overlap in an array of patterns, all usually subsumed within one constant meter. The centerpiece of Principles of Rhythm is the series of paradigms that Creston called the Five Rhythmic Structures, a concept he had been refining for decades. He traced these patterns of rhythmic organization back to the Renaissance. However, in the twentieth century—especially with the advent of Le Sacre du Printemps—such practices moved to the compositional foreground. But while composers like Stravinsky and Bartok used these techniques in passages where a specifically ‘‘rhythmic’’ effect was desired, Creston integrated them into his music as an intrinsic part of the rhythmic flow. This is true not only in lively, dance-like passages, but in slow, lyrical moments as well. Furthermore, Creston’s maintenance of a regular meter as a superstructure differs from the more frequently encountered practice of changing meters—and this difference is more than a matter of notation: It is the integration of continually-shifting accents and patterns within the framework of a constant underlying pulse that makes Creston’s treatment of rhythm so distinctive.

But Creston’s approach to harmony also warrants comment. His music is tonal, in the general sense of embracing an orientation around a particular key-center, although this key-center may change frequently and be absent during transitional passages. Creston, however, objected vehemently to descriptions of his music as ‘‘tonal,’’preferring the term ‘‘pantonal.’’ He achieved this tonal flexibility through the use of dominant-quality seventh chords as harmonic foundation. Dominant-seventh chords demand resolution, but Creston rarely resolves them to a tonic; he resolves them instead to other dominant-quality chordal foundations, so that the music is constantly in chromatic tonal motion.

Creston dedicated each of the Three Narratives to a pianist who had shown interest in his music: No. 1 to Mildred Victor, No. 2 to Claudette Sorel, and No. 3 to Earl Wild (who had premiered Creston’s Piano Concerto). Each of the first two pianists played “their” respective pieces, but Wild did not perform No. 3. There is no record of any pianist performing all three before Myron Silberstein. In attempting to identify and summarize all the principles of motivic development used in common practice, Creston dubbed one “tangential variation,” which he used to refer to the treatment of a motif by pursuing it in a different direction or with altered intervals each time it re-appears. The Three Narratives are in free sectional form, and utilize “tangential variation” as the primary developmental technique. The predominant use of these formal and developmental principles results in a sense of spontaneity, almost like an improvisation, despite the fact that close examination reveals a remarkable degree of structural cohesion. The use of a single opus number for the Three Narratives suggests that the composer viewed them together as an integral work. Also, although Creston denied the use of tonality as an organizing principle in his work, the fact that the tonal center of No. 1 is F-sharp, that of No. 2 is D-flat (i.e., C-sharp, dominant of F-sharp), and that of No. 3 returns to F-sharp cannot be overlooked. On the other hand, each of these enormously difficult pieces is a substantial, fully integral entity in its own right, and can be—and has been—performed on its own. In the Three Narratives Creston stretched not only the limits of human pianism, but also of his own compositional boundaries, expanding the complexity of his harmonic language beyond its usual limits, while illustrating the use of such concepts as the Five Rhythmic Structures, applied and integrated within a large, complex work.

Narrative No. 1 falls into three large sections. The first section is marked Majestically and establishes a tonality of F-sharp. After a “majestic” introduction characterized by prominent use of dotted-note rhythms, the first main theme appears, accompanied by a low, rumbling ostinato in the bass. This theme is developed tangentially via free chromaticism, surrounded by sweeping figurations that span the full range of the keyboard. The second section is marked allegretto, with a time signature of 6/12. (Creston believed that the usual time signatures of 6/8, 9/8, and 12/8 are based on a misconception that the “denominator” refers to “eighth-notes” [in American nomenclature], while those notes are not “eighths” of anything. Since 12/8 refers to a whole note subdivided into twelve units, those units are “twelfth-notes,” so that the correct time signatures for the three noted above would be 6/12, 9/12, and 12/12.) A transition to the second section slyly hints at a new theme that is soon stated softly but clearly in E major, in a relatively simple figuration. As this section develops, the figurations become increasingly complex and chromatic, building to a triumphant climax in D-flat major. After the climax has run its course, the texture gradually subsides, becoming stark and spare. The final section is marked Allegro ma non troppo, with a time signature of 12/12. This is the most typically Crestonian portion of the piece, based on the Second Rhythmic Structure, called Irregular Subdivision. The bass notes introduce an ostinato that is based on four pulses, which are subdivided into three beats of irregular duration. Despite its hushed entrance, this dance-like section again builds energetically to a thundering conclusion in F-sharp major.

Narrative No. 2 offers a strong contrast with its predecessor. In a clear A-B-A form, it is marked Lento, with a time signature of 9/12, and a key signature (a rarity in Creston) of D-flat major. Soft and gentle in its presentation, the first section again utilizes Irregular Subdivision, with three pulses but four beats of irregular duration. Despite its slow tempo and the simplicity of the initially diatonic main melody, introduced in the left hand, rapid accompanying figurations create a backdrop of sweeping billows suggesting a harp. The tonality shifts to A major (with no key signature) as the gently sweeping textures continue, eventually drawing to a temporary repose. The second section begins in B major but shifts tonal center frequently as the music becomes more active and bold. After a climax is achieved, a gradual transition to the third section—incorporating a wink at the second theme of Narrative No. 1—leads to a return to the thematic material of the first section in D-flat.

Narrative No. 3 is the longest and most complex of the three. It comprises an introduction, three sections, and a coda. The introduction is marked Adagio (misterioso—senza rigore) and is indeed mysterious and largely atonal. The first section proper is marked Più mosso, with a time signature of 9/12. Suggesting a tonal center of B, this section begins pianissimo, continuing the mysterious mood, but soon increases in volume and complexity, as the first main theme is presented, with prominent use of dotted rhythms that recall the introduction to the first Narrative. Dotted-note rhythms continue to play a prominent role throughout the piece, which, though not technically atonal, shifts tonal centers so rapidly that it is atonal in effect. The first section promptly develops considerable textural complexity, with generous use of six-note chords in the right hand alone—partial tone-clusters that almost sound like wrong notes—while the left hand continues to develop the theme when it is not occupied with rapid figurations of hair-raising difficulty. An Andante introduces the second section. The entrance of the main theme is marked tranquillo e molto espressivo, and begins with an ascending step—a “tangential variation” of the main theme of the first section. This section is gently lyrical, with rich, harp-like broken chords. The third section, Con moto, pursues another theme motivically related to the previous themes. This theme is largely developed in the left hand, while the right hand plays an intriguingly irregular ostinato. An extended coda is marked un poco largamente, and begins gradually to assert a tonal center of F-sharp. By the final page, a tonality of F-sharp major is clearly confirmed, bringing this extraordinary work to an end.

In 1968, the lifelong New Yorker—then sixty-two—moved with his wife to Ellensburg, Washington, accepting a position as professor of music and composer-in-residence at Central Washington State College (now Central Washington University). He remained there until his retirement in 1975, when he and his wife moved to a suburb of San Diego. One of Creston’s major projects during the early 1970s was another book, this one an attempt to correct a variety of illogical practices in the conventional notation of rhythm. Rational Metric Notation was completed in 1973, although six years elapsed before it was published. In 1984 Creston was diagnosed with kidney cancer. Despite the removal of one kidney, the cancer returned, and he died in August 1985.

Perhaps Creston’s most ambitious compositional project during his final years was a ten-volume series of 123 rhythmic studies called Rhythmicon. Completed in 1974, these studies further illustrate Creston’s approach to rhythm, while preparing the piano student for the types of usage found in the composer’s mature keyboard works. But, as with many historical precedents from Chopin through Bartok, Creston the composer couldn’t help but create pieces with their own legitimate musical appeal, along with their didactic value. While the first few volumes are very simple, the later volumes inhabit a consistent general level of difficulty. Some are playful and witty, others are energetic and vigorous, and some suggest religious chant melodies. On this recording Myron Silberstein has chosen to play the 25 studies that comprise Volumes 7 through 10. Book 7 includes eight pieces that illustrate Creston’s Third Rhythmic Structure: Overlapping, which he defines as “the extension of a phrase rhythm beyond the barline.” Book 8 offers eight pieces that highlight the Fourth Rhythmic Structure: Regular Subdivision Overlapping, which Creston defines as “the organization of a group of measures into equal beats overlapping the barline.” Book 9 comprises five studies that address the Fifth Rhythmic Structure: Irregular Subdivision Overlapping. This the composer describes as “the organization of a group of measures into unequal beats overlapping the barline.” Book 10 consists of only four pieces and these illustrate multirhythms and polyrhythms. The former use two or more of the rhythmic structures successively; the latter use two or more of the rhythmic structures simultaneously.

Walter Simmons, musicologist, critic, and record producer, has written extensively on American composers who maintained an allegiance to traditional musical values. He is the editor of a series of books, ‘Twentieth-Century Traditionalists’, published by Rowman and Littlefield. He wrote the first two volumes himself (under the Scarecrow Press imprint): Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (2004), which treated the lives and works of Barber, Bloch, Creston, Flagello, Giannini and Hanson, and Voices of Stone and Steel: The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin (2011). As a record producer, he has made available first recordings of almost a hundred works, some of which had never even been performed.