Paul Creston (1906–1985)

Paul Creston was an Italian-American composer. He was born Giuseppe (Joseph) Guttoveggio in New York City. Although he had some piano studies in his youth, he was largely self-taught as a composer. He learned how to write music by studying the scores of other composers, especially Bach, Chopin, and the earlier works of Stravinsky. As a young man, he changed his name to Paul Creston, taking the last name from a nickname that his classmates had given him.

Creston’s music is in a similar style to other American symphonic composers of the mid-20th Century, such as Harris, Barber, and Diamond. His wife was one of the original dancers of Martha Graham’s ballet company. He worked for a time as a rehearsal accompanist for them. As a result, he developed strong beliefs about the importance of rhythm, stating that song and dance were the two main sources of musical composition. He also strongly believed that most students were taught a lot about melody and some about harmony, but that rhythm was essentially neglected. To correct this, he wrote several texts about rhythm. His music is noted for their strong rhythmic drive.

Creston had a deep love of Walt Whitman and wrote many pieces based on his works, including Out Of The Cradle and Walt Whitman, the Three Poems for cello and piano, and Leaves Of Grass for mixed chorus. He was also known for highlighting and writing for “neglected” instruments. He wrote sonatas and concertante works for the viola, trombone, accordion, and the first concerto for the marimba. He is especially noted for his long history with the saxophone and his many works for it. In the late 1930’s, he served as the accompanist for Cecil Leeson, one of America’s first concert saxophonists and college professors. Leeson gave the first recital at New York’s Town Hall with Creston accompanying, where they gave the North American premiere of the Glazunov Concerto and the New York premiere of Debussy’s Rapsodie. Creston wrote three works for alto saxophone for Leeson: a Suite, Sonata, and Concerto. The Sonata is one of his most frequently recorded and performed works and is a staple of the saxophone repertoire. Creston himself recorded the piece with Vincent Abato on saxophone. (Abato played with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and gave the premiere performance of Creston’s Concerto with the New York Philharmonic.)

Creston’s music was championed by several major conductors, including Leopold Stokowski, Eugene Ormandy, and Arturo Toscanini, who performed and recorded his ballet music Two Choric Dances. He was also known for his six symphonies. The Symphony No. 3, “Three Mysteries,” depicts the nativity, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ. Most of the source material for the three movements is drawn from traditional Gregorian chants for Advent, Good Friday, and Easter. It is a deeply moving work, reflecting Creston’s strong faith, and shares much in common with Hindemith‘s more famous Mathis Der Maler Symphony. Much of his output is devoted to sacred music, including the tone poem Corinthians XIII, as well as many psalm settings, masses, and other choral works. He served for almost 30 years as the organist at St. Malachy’s, and was musical director the ABC radio program Hour of Faith, during the 1940’s. He excelled as a pianist and organist and wrote many pieces for the two instruments, including five concertante works for piano and a three movement Suite for organ. Creston wrote a personal creed that summed up his philosophy of music and composition. In it, he stated:

“I consider music, and more specifically the writing of it, as a spiritual practice… To me, musical composition is as vital to my spiritual welfare as prayer and good food and exercise are necessities of physical health…”

From the 1940’s to the early 60’s, he was one of the most frequently performed American composers, even more than  Aaron Copland. However, his conservative style caused him to seem out of step with the avant-garde music of the post-War composers and his music became less popular. Although he became somewhat embittered by this neglect, he continued to compose. His chamber music still received many performances, and he also remained a popular composer for concert bands, for whom he wrote nine works, including Celebration Overture and Zanoni.

Creston was also a successful teacher and held posts at over a dozen colleges and universities during his lifetime. Some of his students include Elliott Schwartz, John Corigliano, jazz composer/arranger Rusty Dedrick, and conductor Gerard Schwarz, who has continued to promote Creston’s music and issued several recordings. Creston received two Guggenheim Fellowships, the New York Music Critics’ Award for his First Symphony, and an Emmy Award. He died in California from cancer. In the liner notes to his recording of Creston’s Symphony No. 3, Gerard Schwarz said:

“If he had lived long enough… he would have been reaping the great success he deserved due to his kind of music being back in favor and accepted for what it is; part of the great American Symphonic tradition.”

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