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Piston, Walter

Piston, Walter

Born in 1894


Inducted in 2000

When Walter Piston was a child, the family moved to Boston where he studied piano and violin. At the Massachusetts Normal Art School he completed a course of study as an architectural draftsman in 1916. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Piston enlisted in the Navy. A turning point came in 1922 when he went to Harvard to major in music and took two years of postgraduate study in France. On returning from Paris, Piston was offered an instructorship in the small Music Department at Harvard; he remained there until 1960, when he retired as Walter W. Naumburg Professor of Music. It was in 1928 that his long and fruitful association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra began, when, at Serge Koussevitzky’s request, Piston conducted the premiere of his Symphonic Piece. Seven more premieres with the Boston Symphony would follow in later years, conducted by Koussevitzky or his successor Charles Munch. Piston’s main compositional achievement is in orchestral and chamber music, with many works composed on commission. Among the orchestral works are seven symphonies, several individual movements for orchestra, and a variety of works with solo instruments. Piston was revered by his students, and for much the same reasons; he could sense unerringly the essential qualities of student work, of its strengths as well as its weaknesses, and he had a knack for stimulating every young composer to follow his own lights rather than conform. But just as important as his individual instruction is the enduring legacy of his four books, which he regarded as a unified statement of his teaching: Principles of Harmonic Analysis (1933); Harmony (1941, with four subsequent editions up to 1987); Counterpoint (1947); and Orchestration (1955).