WALTER PISTON – Two Early Quartets

American Early Modern Composer Walter Hamor Piston Jr [1894–1976] wrote five string quartets. He was an academic and taught a plethora of Contemporary composers, including Leonard Bernstein. I believe him to be a major influence on the burgeoning American 1950s string quartet revival. Influenced by Schoenberg, his music is often atonal or serial, and for me, somewhat intellectual. This does not hinder his emotional expression however, examples of which can be found in the three slow movements on the review CD. I am going to discuss String Quartets Nos. 1 and 3.

The First Quartet, written in 1937, and in three movements is mainly tonal in character, with some exceptions. The work opens with an allegro tempo and a strong sense of rhythm, a feature that permeates throughout the composer’s quartets. A wistful atonal melody emerges, to thoughtful accompaniment. A dance-like section unfolds, leading to a more tonal passage – however the music is still dissonant and at times, frantic. Slowly the dissonance subsides and a harmonically rich section is established, and a tonal duet between the two violins is intriguing and especially fine. A return to a rhythmic pulse leads to a strong ending.

The next, adagio movement features a lamenting cello introduction, accompanied by a gentle ensemble layer of sound, which gradually rises to the surface, producing a magnificent abstract soundscape. Mutterings continue in the background and the cello begins an ostinato while the violins lead for a time, only to have the poignant cello return – its resonant statement is most beguiling. Now the violins construct a jagged passage and melodic themes are repeated by various solo instruments. Again a solo cello is superb for a time, with intermittent violin lines adding a poignant touch. A hushed chordal passage leads to a quiet termination.

A brief finale is energised from the start as the violins create stabbing melodic patterns, before moving into a passage of string sound effects – the violins persist with their stark interjections. Approaching the end, the violins combine with rhythmic thrusts to bring about a firm conclusion.

The Third Quartet was written in 1947 and has the same structure as the First – a slow movement book-ended by two allegro movements. In fact, the Fifth also has this structure.

The first movement is more assertive than anything in the First Quartet, and more atonal, possibly even serial at times. The mood changes to one of introversion with the violins contributing various random statements. This is followed by a return to the opening feeling which does not last but moves quickly into a marvellous violin duet. Again, the opening theme returns but soon morphs into another thoughtful passage of atonality – the cello is strong here, constantly urging the violins forward. A building sense of chaos leads to an abrupt end.

The slow movement is marked lento and again features a deeply resonant cello part that combines with the violins to create a beautiful sound. The music meanders through a very sensitive emotional soundscape, with atonal melodic lines dominating. An increase in intensity is strong but soon subsides back into a peaceful passage. After a pause, a solo cello sets about slowly rebuilding an earlier mood, before long sustained chords take out the movement.

The finale is again assertive, featuring prominent violins with ensemble string sound effects. Strangely, the mood turns pastoral for a time before returning to a busy, multi-instrument dialogue. The first violin steps in briefly but is overwhelmed by the rhythmic energy of the ensemble. A change brings about a measured passage until a sweeping of violins concludes the work.

The review CD also contains String Quartet No. 5, which has another fine slow movement. This CD, titled Walter Piston: String Quartets 1, 3 and 5 by the Harlem Quartet is on the Naxos label and is available on Amazon US and UK.

The CD is on Spotify, and the three quartets can be found performed by various ensembles on YouTube and earsense.

Listenability: Fascinating, slightly intellectual works with brilliant slow movements.


2 thoughts on “WALTER PISTON – Two Early Quartets”

  1. Thanks, Steve. I must admit when I first heard Piston (and Schuman) many years ago, they didn’t work for me. Now I really appreciate them – they both have a distinctive voice with something to say.


  2. I wish Walter Piston were better known, because I consider him a 20th century composer whose work is totally intelligible but never old-fashioned. He’s a lot like William Schuman, an American who internalized the new language of music but had the creativity to make it meaningful and engaging. And, I’ll admit, at times a little dry.

    In these string quartets, as you mention, he shows his contemplative side in the slow movements. But his writing is always tasteful and impeccably sculpted. Thanks as always for bringing them to my attention. Great essay!

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