Paul Creston: A Genial Maverick

by Walter Simmons



Since the Bicentennial in 1976, music lovers have been rediscovering the distinguished generation of composers who appeared on the American scene during the late 1930s and early ’40s. Most of this group tended to align themselves with one or another musical style, usually represented by a strong individual: the American neo-classicism led by Aaron Copland, the more symphonic Americana of Roy Harris, the sensitive, poetic group associated with Virgil Thomson, or the experimentalists led by Henry Cowell. However, some composers of this generation pursued a more independent course, neither connecting themselves with a group, nor encouraging a coterie of followers. One composer who has always been a maverick, in his own moderate, genial way, is Paul Creston, who celebrates his seventy-fifth birthday this October, and, unlike many of his contemporaries, is still active composing music, writing articles and books, and intensely pursuing a wide range of interests.

Creston’s career has been the result of single-minded adherence to an individual path, pursued unswervingly for an entire lifetime. Born in New York City in 1906, the son of a poor Italian. house-painter (the original family name was Guttoveggio), he was attracted to music at an early age. After taking piano lessons for several years from a mediocre local teacher, he soon became dissatisfied, craving a deeper understanding of music as an art, as well as better guidance at the piano. His solution to this problem was to learn on his own. Forced to leave school and work at the age of 15, he used his extraordinary energy and self-discipline to pursue his education by himself. “I taught myself many subjects. I did it through necessity, but in later life I did it by choice because I enjoyed working that way. When one says that he is self-taught, it means that he has been taught by all the great masters of the past and present. I was greatly assisted in my studies by that force which Rameau called `the invisible guide of the musician,’ a force which guided the to the right book or author for the answer to the engrossing question of the day. I did not, however, always accept without question or challenge every dictum of the authorities. The result of such intense scrutiny was to mold me into an iconoclast.”

Although later on he did take piano and organ lessons, Creston learned composition – and the associated theoretical disciplines – on his own, while working at clerical jobs during the day. His experience left him with a skeptical attitude toward traditional ways of teaching composition. “No composer ever learned rules first and composed later. His first urge is to put tones together whether he can notate them or not. Then he is advised tostudy theory and harmony, which means he is to learn the language of his ancestors and ignore what his contemporaries are saying or what he himself wants to say. Most important composers succeed not because of, but in spite of, training. Is it that contemporary music is so complex that no student can begin his studies with it? Not necessarily. In the study of contemporary composition one can proceed from the simple to the complex. One can begin with the major triad in contemporary as well as traditional harmony.”

Creston also decries the emphasis on 17th- and 18th-century choral technique, still the basis of most compositional study. “For the past hundred years or more, choral compositions have constituted a minor portion of creative efforts. Instrumental technique must be the fundamental basis of training and vocal technique a specialization to be delved into thoroughly only if the composer’s needs for expression demand it.”

As Creston was developing his musical style on his own, he was able to do something far more difficult for those who pass through the conventional academic procedures of apprenticeship. Rejecting all received opinion save that which he found personally convincing, he was free to evolve independently of any particular school of thought or teacher’s influence. He consciously formulated a philosophy of music based on those tenets he embraced voluntarily – among them, that music is a language for expression and communication of emotion; that music must achieve coherence through its own internal organization, rather than through extrinsic commentary; that any genre of music has validity to the extent that it accomplishes its purpose effectively; that extremes of all kinds are to be avoided. Thus, he developed a compositional style that embodied these principles as best he could.

In 1927, Creston began playing the organ in movie theatres, and later, in churches. About this time he married Louise Gotto, then a dancer with Martha Graham. Through her he was introduced to the art of physical movement, which awakened in Creston a deep appreciation of the importance of rhythm. This appreciation became the underlying basis of all his music and an endless source of fascination to him.

Although Creston had been composing from the age of eight, a competing interest in literary activities, as well as financial and time pressures, delayed his decision to become a professional composer until 1932. However, over the next ten years he won a Guggenheim fellowship, the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award, and other honors that brought him national prominence virtually overnight. During the 1940s and ’50s, his five symphonies and other orchestral works were performed regularly by the world’s major ensembles and were championed by such conductors as Toscanini, Stokowski, Monteux, Rodzinski, Cantelli, and Szell.

It is not difficult to understand the appeal of Creston’s music, which has been presented enthusiastically by musicians and received enthusiastically by audiences. For despite the independent course of his development, the warmth and exuberance of the composer’s music itself is accessible to the listener even on a first hearing. At the same time, it has a “sound” that is instantly identifiable as Creston’s own, with a highly distinctive approach to harmony and rhythm. A good example is his Symphony No. 2, Op. 35, which created an international sensation, with dozens of performances extending as far as the Soviet Union. To this day, it remains perhaps Creston’s best-known and most representative work. Its two movements exemplify the composer’s belief that the foundation of music lies in Song and Dance. Thus, the first movement is a luxuriantly lyrical unfolding of the work’s main theme; the second movement takes that same theme through a dazzling array of rhythmic permutations, which are ultimately combined simultaneously in a stunning peroration.

Creston’s treatment of the rhythmic element is the fruit of a lifetime of reflection and research, and is probably his chief contribution to the world of music theory and pedagogy. He has written a 10volume series of graded etudes, called Rhythmicon (Belwin-Mills), designed to help the piano student build a solid rhythmic foundation. His Principles of Rhythm Mills, 1964) is regarded as a definitive text on the subject, and the recent Rational Metric Notation (Exposition Press, 1979) pursues and refines some of the more problematical issues. These books present a framework for systematizing and analyzing the rhythmic practices of the past several hundred years, as well as correcting some common fallacies and misconceptions that have plagued music theory for nearly as long. The listener can discern this emphasis in Creston’s own music: the rhythmic aspect is never taken for granted; even in the most sedate moments, there are subtle, unexpected interrelationships. Several different rhythmic patterns are almost always at work, their various accents interacting in delightfully asymmetrical ways. Of course, this technique is most exciting in the dancelike movements (Creston’s music is eminently danceable and has been choreographed Ay a number of major companies), when wild percussion batteries launch cumulative orgiastic climaxes.

Later on in the 1950s, as the academic avant-garde seized control of so many outlets for modern music, Creston, along with many of his contemporaries, began to be ignored by the large performing organizations. Yet he continued working vigorously, following his own convictions. During the 1960s and ’70s his music retained a following among the many bands, choruses, and orchestras in high schools and colleges around the country – an entire subculture that has become the most fertile proving-ground for new music in this country. Additionally, his works for unusual instruments – saxophone, marimba, trombone, accordion – have become established as classics within the repertoires of those instruments.

After retiring from his position as Professor of Composition and Composer in Residence at Central Washington State College in 1975, Creston and his wife moved to an attractive home in Rancho Bernardo, a quiet area on the outskirts of San Diego. In the past several years, with the inevitable fluctuation of musical fashion, Creston’s stature as one of the leading American composers of his generation has been acknowledged anew. In 1980, the Mirecourt Trio introduced his Piano Trio, Op. 112, as part of an all-Creston program at Grinnell College. Iowa Public Television taped the event for a documentary on the composer, which has now been shown on public television stations around the country.

A small, energetic man, with twinkling eyes and an open, disarming grin, Paul Creston exudes the same youthful, exuberant vitality that one hears in his music. His disciplined regimen of diet, exercise, and creative activity, and the careful planning of his time recall the days of his youth when he used to smoke coffee beans to stay awake as he pursued his nocturnal studies. Though he professes adherence to no organized religion, Creston has been a devotee of Vedantic and Rosicrucian philosophy since his teens, and considers these mystical writings to be a fundamental source of his inspiration. He is also a firm believer in naturopathic medicine, and attributes his remarkable vitality and good health to an assortment of herbs and vitamins, as well as to his lifelong devotion to the Pythagorean ideal of moderation.

Today, as he approaches his 75th birthday, Paul Creston is as active as ever. The U.S. Army Band recently premiered his Festive Overture, Op. 116, commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the American Bandmasters Association. This past spring, Lawrence University in Wisconsin presented a Creston festival, featuring a major retrospective of his compositions, culminating in a digital recording of five works for symphonic band (on the Golden Crest label). His latest work is’ Sadhana, inspired by a book of Rabindranath Tagore. Commissioned by the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, it will be performed by that group on October 3. In the future are a work for organ and orchestra, requested by the American Guild of Organists, and a piece for two pianos commissioned for the 1983 convention of the National Federation of Music Clubs.

Beyond these, there is a long list of projects Creston is eager to tackle, including articles on: modern techniques in the music of Bach; the interpretation of Chopin’s music; the duodecimal system of note-values, and the hermetic law of opposites in music. “As long as I have something worthwhile to say, the ability to say it, and excellent health, I shall say it in music and in words.”

As several of our most notable elder statesmen in music have retired from creative work to become living institutions, it is refreshing to find one with the youthful vigor and the appetite for new challenges demonstrated by Paul Creston.