Walter Piston, the grandson of an Italian seaman (the original family name was Pistone), was born in Maine in 1894. The family settled in Boston in 1904, and Walter was educated there at the Mechanic Arts High School. He worked as a draftsman for the Boston Elevated Railway, eventually entering the Massachusetts Normal School of Art; meanwhile he had learned enough piano and violin to play pickup engagements. In 1916 he enlisted and spent three years in the Navy, assigned to play the saxophone in a Navy band. He entered Harvard in 1920 as a full-time music student, and was graduated summa cum laude in 1924. As the winner of the John Knowles Paine Fellowship, Piston traveled to Paris for a few lessons with Paul Dukas and, primarily, two years of study with the legendary Nadia Boulanger.
Piston returned to America in 1926 and was appointed to the faculty of Harvard, where he remained until 1960, composing, teaching, and writing. He was an excellent teacher; his students included such American luminaries as Elliott Carter, Irving Fine, Harold Shapero, and Leonard Bernstein. Among his numerous honors, awards, and commissions were a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1934, two Pulitzer prizes for his third (1948) and seventh (1960) symphonies, and in 1951 he became the first recipient of the Walter W. Naumberg Chair of Music. He attained full professorship in 1944, and was named professor emeritus in 1960.
Piston's music is beautifully crafted and technically assured, qualities which, combined with his reputation as a pedagogue, have occasionally given the mistaken impression (as is also true of Hindemith) that he is little more than a conservative, dry, academic composer. As Gerard Schwarz says of him, "…it's clear that he is not dull or academic, but incredibly imaginative and innovative. He was a master, an inspired composer."
Piston's most popular composition now appears to be the clever and delightful suite from his ballet The Incredible Flutist. This music has been so popular and widely performed that it was used by BBC TV as theme music for a 20th c. costume drama about shipping. This popularity, while deserved, has served to overshadow much of the remainder of Piston's music, almost all of which was instrumental (he wrote only two vocal compositions). ~Jane Erb