Skip to page content

Although he played violin and piano in dance bands after graduating from high school, composer Walter Piston joined the U.S. Navy band as a saxophonist (self-taught) during World War I, and taught himself most other wind instruments. In 1920 he entered Harvard, where he subsequently taught for 36 years; his students included Leroy Anderson, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, John Harbison, and Conlon Nancarrow.

After graduation and before returning to Harvard to teach, Piston went to Paris, where he studied composition with Nadia Boulanger and Paul Dukas, and violin with George Enescu. His varied background and multifarious wind skills served him well with the Three Pieces for Flute, Clarinet, and Bassoon he wrote in Paris in 1925. (It became his first published score.) Each of the three pieces is in the A-B-A form typical of traditional character pieces. The first is a sprightly march, over a walking bass line; the bassoon leads into and out of the reflective center section. The slow second piece again sets the upper instruments as a polyphonically involved couple, against a more rhetorically inclined bassoon. The third is a vigorous, virtuoso conversation, ideas spilling over each other in the outer sections, which surround an accompanied cadenza for the flute.

— John Henken