The Kennedy Center

Dance Overture for orchestra, Op. 62

About the Work

Paul Creston Composer: Paul Creston
© Thomas May

The organ also played figured significantly in the career of Paul Creston (1906-1985), who was born in New York City to Sicilian immigrants as Giuseppe Guttoveggio. Choosing Paul Creston as his professional name, he was a self-taught musician whose voracious desire for knowledge stamped him from an early age. As one way to make a living in this always financially insecure realm, he became a church organist and also improvised organ accompaniments to silent films in the waning years of the medium (before talkies precluded that method of generating income). In the Depression he started a gig as church organist at St. Malachy's Church in New York, which he continued for more than three decades.

Accompanying ballet from the piano provided another way for a struggling composer to make money. Creston's wife Louise was a dancer with Martha Graham's company, thus bringing her husband into regular contact with a rich source of inspiration. In a group study of American Neo-Romantic composers, Walter Simmons observes that Martha's work "exposed [Creston] to the world of modern dance, while sensitizing him to the importance of rhythm."

While Creston is relatively little known in the concert hall today, in the mid-20th century his stock rose high. Creston's reputation was boosted by several high-profile champions with considerable clout in the music scene, including the likes of Toscanini and Ormandy - and, locally, Howard Mitchell, the NSO's music director from 1949 to 1970, who became a steadfast advocate of Creston's music from the very start of his tenure. In 1954 Mitchell even made a recording with the NSO (on the Westminster label) of two of Creston's symphonies (the Second and Third) that, according to Simmons, was "the first recording ever to contain two symphonies by one American composer."

In an article about what makes a piece of music "great," Mitchell lauded Creston as a prime living example: "If a composer's message is to be considered great by people of other countries, the music but be of such significance in its glorification of the composer's own country that it speaks above and beyond national boundaries in a universal message that people everywhere can understand."

Indeed, Creston's Dance Overture - one of many concert openers and festive occasional pieces he wrote at the height of his fame, in 1954 - exemplifies a border-crossing approach to dance itself by amalgamating several representative national dances in its four sections - all variations on a shared idea: the bolero from Spain, the English country dance, the slow gigue from France, and, from Creston's own native United States, the square dance.