Symphony No. 8 (Piston)

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The Symphony No. 8 by Walter Piston is a symphony dating from 1965.


The Boston Symphony Orchestra commissioned the Eighth Symphony and gave its first performance on March 5, 1965, conducted by Erich Leinsdorf, to whom the score is dedicated (Archibald 1978, 267). Initially, Piston had preferred to write a flute concerto for the Boston Symphony's principal flautist, Doriot Anthony Dwyer, but Leinsdorf preferred a symphony. The concerto was eventually composed in 1971 (Pollack 1982, 156). According to another account, however, it was Piston himself who expressed a preference for a symphony (Pollack 1982, 141).


The work is in three movements:

  • Moderato mosso (quarter note = 80)
  • Lento assai
  • Allegro marcato

The symphony is 20 minutes in duration (Archibald 1969, 597).

Although Piston had occasionally employed twelve-tone technique from early on, it is much more in evidence in the Eighth Symphony than ever before, and this brings with it a heightened level of impassioned, almost tragic expression. The first movement begins with a melody constructed from a twelve-tone series, C D E F A G F E D A B B, accompanied by two six-note chords consisting of the second and first hexachords of the same row. This series lends the music a dark solemnity because of its emphasis on minor seconds and minor thirds (Archibald 1978, 267). After such a slow, prelude-like opening movement, a slow second movement is somewhat surprising. It is in variation form. The theme is announced in the bassoon followed by the flute, with subsequent variations in the strings, a moderato mosso, and three further variations (Pollack 1982, 143). The concluding Allegro marcato is in a large binary form with a short coda. Like most Piston finales, it is rhythmically propulsive. Inversion of melodic lines is a significant feature of this movement, which concludes with a spirited timpani solo (Archibald 1969, 597).


Reviews of the symphony's premiere were mixed, which had not been the case since the premiere of the First Symphony. Piston's biographer believes the similarity in response was due to similar weaknesses in the two symphonies, including "murky and surreal details that overwhelm the formal design" (Pollack 1982, 141).


  • Archibald, Bruce. 1969. "Walter Piston: Pine Tree Fantasy, for Orchestra; Symphony No. 8." Notes, second series 25, no. 3 (March): 596–97.
  • Archibald, Bruce. 1978. "Reviews of Records: Walter Piston: Symphony No. 7, Symphony No. 8, Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester; Walter Piston: Symphony No. 5, Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney; Walter Piston: Concerto for Viola and Orchestra, Paul Doktor, viola, Louisville Orchestra, Robert Whitney; Walter Piston: The Incredible Flutist, Louisville Orchestra, Jorge Mester". The Musical Quarterly 64, no. 2:263–68.
  • Pollack, Howard. 1982. Walter Piston. Studies in Musicology. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press. ISBN 0-8357-1280-X.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lindenfeld, Harris Nelson. 1975. "Three Symphonies of Walter Piston: An Analysis". DMA thesis, Part 2. Ithaca: Cornell University.