Walter Piston Jr. (1894-1976) was recognized in his lifetime as the ultimate musical craftsman, producing a body of orchestral and chamber work distinguished by its quintessential neo-classic qualities of clarity and proportion. He first trained as an engineer at the Mechanical Arts High School in Boston, but was artistically inclined. After graduating in 1912, he enrolled in the Massachusetts Normal Art School, where he completed a four-year program in fine art in 1916. During the 1910s, Piston made a living playing piano and violin in dance bands and later playing violin in orchestras led by Georges Longy. He joined the US Navy during World War I as a band musician where he taught himself to play most wind instruments.
Piston was admitted to Harvard College in 1920, where he studied counterpoint with Archibald Davison, canon and fugue with Clifford Heilman, advanced harmony with Edward Ballantine, and composition and music history with Edward Burlingame Hill. He often worked as an assistant for various music professors there and conducted the student orchestra. Piston later taught at Harvard from 1926 to 1960 and wrote three significant music textbooks: Harmony (1941), Counterpoint (1947), and Orchestration (1955). Among Piston's many noted students were Elliott Carter, Leonard Bernstein, and Arthur Berger.
Among Piston's many awards and honors were three New York Music Critic's Circle Awards for his Symphony No. 2, Viola Concerto, and String Quartet No. 5, two Pulitzers, and eight honorary doctorates. He was elected to the American Institute and Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. A recent series of recordings has precipitated a revival of interest in Piston's work.
Photo courtesy of Harvard News Office