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“An Awful Lot of Notes”—Sketches of Walter Piston

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The following is a guest post by Music Reference Specialist Lisa Shiota.

Aaron Copland, Nadia Boulanger, Walter Piston at the Old France restaurant, Boston, 1945 / Victor Kraft photographs, Aaron Copland Collection, Music Division.

“It always makes me smile when the Library of Congress asks me to keep my sketches for their collection. When I get through I don’t have any sketches—they’re all rubbed out. I write an awful lot of notes that don’t stay.”

~Walter Piston, from Perspectives on American Composers, edited by Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone (New York, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 1971).

Before Walter Piston (1894-1976) became a composer, he studied engineering and art. His prior training shows in his manuscripts, which were so meticulously written that Associated Music Publishers printed many of them as facsimiles. Despite what he had said in his interview with Peter Westergaard, above, many of Piston’s sketches have survived, and some of them are here in the Music Division.

Piston gave many of his manuscripts either as gifts or on deposit to the Library. Of the several we have, I will mention two. One is the notebook of counterpoint exercises he kept when studying with the famed Paris teacher, Nadia Boulanger, in the early 1920s. Pages of species counterpoint fill the notebook, with occasional comments by Boulanger written in the margins. This early manuscript shows a glimpse of his working style in later works.

The second is his autograph manuscript of his book, Orchestration, first published in 1955. Although he had claimed to have given up doing any visual artwork once he started composing, the drafts include his own drawings, most of which would be used for publication. However, he excised one of a hand holding the violin in first position in favor of a drawing of a violin done by his wife, the artist Kathryn Nason.

I will be giving a lecture on Walter Piston and his work, Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet, and Bassoon on Monday, January 31, 2011 at noon in the Whittall Pavilion. The lecture will also include a live performance. Admission is free—no tickets required. Please plan to attend!

Comments (2)

  1. I’m delighted to see that Walter Piston’s music is getting the attention it deserves. I note that American Century Music (Boston) is promoting music from the 20th Century and is helping to keep music by Piston et al alive.

    As I’m working on a documentary about him, I would be very interested in talking with anyone who knew him or was influenced by his work.

    Merrill Hatlen
    Bloomington, Indiana

    • Thanks for the comments, Merrill! I understand that you corresponded with Lisa already — I hope that your documentary work is going well!

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