Walter Piston was born in Rockland, Maine. His family moved to Boston when he was eleven. Piston studied at Harvard, then in Paris with Paul Dukas and Nadia Boulanger. He returned to Harvard and became a renowned music theorist and an influential professor of music. The Incredible Flutist (1938) is Piston’s only work for the stage, and gained him a national reputation.
The orchestral suite we hear tonight was arranged by Piston and premiered in 1940 by the Pittsburgh Symphony. It is the most-often recorded of Piston’s works. The suite is arranged into twelve movements that tell the story of a busy marketplace with its sundry characters. In a quiet village, a circus suddenly interrupts just after siesta-time with a parade. The circus boasts The Incredible Flutist, who enchants women, including the local merchant’s daughter. The first movement, Introduction – Siesta in the Marketplace is only a minute long, with an eerie and ominous oboe line over quivering strings and a plaintive wind melody. Entrance of the Vendors does a 180 and marches along, buoyant and chirping like birds. The music builds in texture, then subsides back to the rhythms heard at the movement’s start. At the end of the movement, the oboe returns with the melody from the Introduction. Entrance of the Customers follows, rushing in like the customers themselves. Sequences build, and the movement ends quickly. Tango of the Merchant’s Daughters starts languidly, the music rises and falls, then does an about-face and becomes briefly more rhythmic, adding percussion. The calmer tango melody returns on strings and winds, finishing out the movement. At this point there is the Arrival of the Circus, abruptly and dynamically like the bustling rhythms of the customers’ entrance. The short movement ends with snare drums, moving into the sixth movement, a Circus March. The music is brash and raucous throughout, with sounds of the crowd and a dog barking at its close.
The centerpiece of the circus comes next – a little dance suite for The Flutist. The flute winds around seductively on top of a quiet string background. After the flute finishes its come-hither melody, a Minuet begins, dulcet and delicate until the piano enters low and loud and plays a virtuosic run up to the high region of the keyboard, leading into a Spanish Waltz, complete with castanets and string interludes among the brass and percussion dance turns. The Waltz ends quietly and the clock strikes eight. Shivering strings move to a Siciliana – with a clarinet solo winding around hauntingly and the strings sighing. An oboe enters, replacing the clarinet line. The strings then play alone, shifting from minor to major at the movement’s close. The Polka Finale then bounces along first in strings, then builds through the rest of the orchestra, starts over with the strings and builds again, becoming brasher and more triumphant-sounding. The music speeds up drastically and ends grandly with full orchestra.