Creston, Paul [Guttoveggio, Giuseppe]
(b New York, 10 Oct 1906; d San Diego, CA, 24 Aug 1985). American composer of Italian parentage. Born into a poor immigrant family, he had no training in theory or composition although he did take piano and organ lessons with Gaston Dethier and Pietro Yon respectively. He did not decide on a career in composition until 1932. In 1938 he received a Guggenheim Fellowship and in 1941 the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award for his Symphony no.1, propelling him to national prominence.
Creston made rhythm the keystone of his style, his technique depending primarily on constantly shifting subdivisions of a regular meter and on irregular ostinato patterns. He cultivated a lush, robust harmonic language derived from Impressionist techniques, using sequences of expanded dominant-quality chords to avoid the establishment of tonal centres while minimizing the perception of dissonance. His forms are clear, concise and well organized, displaying remarkable ingenuity in thematic development, while the music often conveys an impression of brash, hearty spontaneity.
Creston was at his best in large-scale works in which a formal concept is derived from an extrinsic generative idea. An example is the Second Symphony, probably his most distinctive and most representative composition, which won widespread popularity after its première by the New York PO in 1945. This two-movement work embodies Creston’s principle that all music is at root either song or dance; several other pieces in two-part form also illustrate this idea. In addition to the Second Symphony, his most important compositions include the Fifth, the symphonic poems Walt Whitman, Corinthians: XIII and Chthonic Ode, and Metamorphoses and Three Narratives for solo piano.
While such works find Creston setting and meeting a variety of compositional challenges that stretched the parameters of his style, he tended in other genres to restrict his expressive range to conventional formulae. For example, his many virtuoso pieces display a light-hearted exuberance whose tone at times suggests commercial idioms. The best known are those that highlight unconventional solo instruments. He was one of the first composers to produce serious concert works for the saxophone, and featured the marimba, accordion and trombone in solo pieces as well. His many chamber works exhibit a genial insouciance and warm vitality, combining Baroque forms with Impressionist harmony in a manner suggestive of Ibert or Françaix.
During the 1940s and 50s Creston was among the most widely performed American composers, although his work went into eclipse during the 1960s with the ascendancy of more radically modernist approaches. However, with the revival of interest in the American symphonic school, his music has found a new following. Creston received many awards and commissions; he was president of the National Association for American Composers and Conductors (1956–60) and was a director of ASCAP (1960–68). From 1968 to 1975 he was professor of music and composer-in-residence at Central Washington State College, Ellensburg. He was the author of Principles of Rhythm (New York, 1964), Rational Metric Notation (Hicksville, NY, 1979) and numerous articles. In his writing he analysed four centuries of rhythmic practice, and proposed revisions in notation aimed at eliminating irrationalities and inconsistencies.
EwenD H. Cowell: ‘Paul Creston’, MQ, xxxciv (1948), 553–41 F.A. Tull: ‘Paul Creston: an Interview’, The Instrumentalist, xxvi/3 (1971–2), 42–4 C. Walgren: ‘Paul Creston: Solo Piano Music’, American Music Teacher, xxiv/4 (1975), 6–9 W. Simmons: ‘Paul Creston: a Genial Maverick’, Ovation, ii/9 (1981–2), 29–31 M.J. Slomski: Paul Creston: a Bio-Bibliography (Westport, CT, 1994) N.L. Morris: Development of the Saxophone Compositions of Paul Creston (diss., U. of Missouri, Kansas City, 1996) W.G. Simmons: Voices in the Wilderness: Six American Neo-Romantic Composers (Lanham, MD, 2004), 191–241