Paul Creston (1906-1985)

Born Giuseppe Guttoveggio in New York City in 1906 of Sicilian parents, Paul Creston was still a child when the family visited Sicily, and the peasant songs and dances which he heard there awakened his love of music. When he returned to the States, he persuaded his parents to let him begin music lessons. By the age of 14 he had advanced beyond the abilities of his teacher. Leaving school at 15 to help support his family first as an errand boy, later as a bank clerk and then as insurance claim examiner, he used to get up early and work late into the night, practicing piano and composing.

Creston’s first employment as a musician was in 1926 when for the next three years he worked as a theatre organist for silent movies. Following the introduction of talkies, Creston was appointed organist of St. Malachy’s Church in New York, a post he continued to occupy for the next thirty-three years. His work began to be published and he won two Guggenheim fellowships. After receiving several awards he began to teach piano and composition at a School of Arts in Massachusetts.

The 1950s were a period of tremendous creativity with premieres of over thirty new compositions. His international fame spread and his music was, along with that of Gershwin, Barber and Roy Harris, the most frequently performed American composer abroad. His work as a teacher provided him with the opportunity to set down his unique theories of music composition, especially rhythm, in his books Principles of Rhythm (1964) and Creative Harmony (1970).

By the late 60s, Creston’s music fell out of favour and although embittered at the atonal direction that music seemed to be taking, he continued to compose in his own natural style. His Symphony No. 6 received its premiere at the Kennedy Center in 1982, and the Prelude and Dance for two pianos was performed at the Convention of the National Federation of Music Clubs in 1983.

In 1984, Creston was diagnosed with a malignant tumor from which he never completely recovered.

As I write I am listening to his second and most popular symphony in a CD performance by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra conducted by Neeme Jarvi. It’s great music, full of vigor and panache, with broad flowing melodies, reminding me of the Scandinavian composer Carl Neilson. The Naxos label – from whose website much of the above information is borrowed – have recorded his first three symphonies. Another American composer whose work I would like to hear more of.