August 26, 2010


American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman. By Joseph W. Polisi. Amadeus Press. $32.95.

Schuman: Symphonies Nos. 3-10; Orchestra Song; Circus Overture; Judith—Choreographic Poem for Orchestra; Prayer in a Time of War; New England Triptych—Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings; Night Journey; Charles Ives, arr. Schuman—Variations on “America.” Seattle Symphony conducted by Gerard Schwarz. Naxos. $39.99 (5 CDs).

     It is practically impossible to overestimate the importance of William Schuman to the performing arts in the United States in the mid-20th century. President of the Juilliard School and later the first president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Schuman (1910-1992) also won the very first Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1943 for his cantata, A Free Song, on poems by Walt Whitman. And he founded the Juilliard String Quartet.

     Add to his tremendous accomplishments as a musical administrator the fact that he was one of the most important American composers of the century, and you have the basis for a fascinating biography – which is what Joseph W. Polisi, sixth president of the Juilliard School, offers in American Muse. The Schuman who emerges from this exhaustive 600-page book is savvy, highly intelligent, often prickly, not afraid to stand up for his rights and those of other composers, and accustomed to butting heads with those in the music business who do not seem to take him, his music or his concerns seriously enough. Schuman’s wit and intellect come through in the many letters and other documents from which Polisi quotes. One small example of the Schuman style, among many, from a letter to Juilliard Dean Mark Schubart, regarding Van Cliburn’s 1958 triumph in the International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow: “The great advantage that you now enjoy over me is that my letters are dictated and typed by an expert, while yours are written in a semi-conspiratorial manner underneath your trenchcoat on bumpy planes.”

     Schuman would do whatever was necessary to gain support for the arts. For instance, believing that the federal government had a proper role in artistic endeavors, he accepted a unique commission to create a work called Credendum in 1955, to honor the Fifth National Conference of the United States National Commission for UNESCO. “I was so naïve,” he later wrote. “I thought UNESCO was going to be one of the saviors of the world.” Interestingly, it was not Schuman’s classical-style music that was first published, but a series of popular songs; and his first “serious” published work was also a song, which came out in 1932. Over time, as his reputation as a composer grew, so did his prominence in other areas: he never earned a doctoral degree but received 27 honorary ones.

     Schuman’s stances on artistic matters did not always endear him to others in the field – Polisi’s clever title for one chapter is “Schuman versus Everybody Else” – but he retained a sense of propriety at almost all times, and resented it when others did not: “It was very unpleasant,” he writes of one major confrontation. “However inept I may have been in the procedures, I should never have been attacked. I should have been protected by all the people that I was protecting.” Schuman could be intensely self-critical, but being criticized by others was quite another matter.

     Because Polisi includes so many Schuman writings and other primary sources in American Muse, the book happily does not become hagiographic – as it might be expected to become when one head of Juilliard writes about another. Still, Polisi very clearly admires his subject, whom he describes as “prone to impetuous decisions, highly talented, a brilliant public speaker, and a bit vain.” Polisi’s biography is about as close to a definitive one as is likely to be written, and the fact that the author spends considerable time analyzing Schuman’s music as well as tracing his career is a major plus. For, as Leonard Bernstein commented in a passage that Polisi quotes, “I have rarely met a composer who is so faithfully mirrored in his music; the man is the music.…I treasure most the human qualities that flow directly from the man into the works – compassion, fidelity, insight, and total honesty.”

     Schuman’s particular focus was orchestral music, and his 10 symphonies, written between 1935 and 1975, neatly encapsulate his entire compositional career. Unfortunately, the self-critical Schuman withdrew the first two symphonies (despite the fact that No. 2 had been not only performed but also recorded), leaving eight available for performance and study – bearing the numbers 3 through 10. All eight are offered in fine performances in a five-CD Naxos box, along with several other works that are of varying importance in Schuman’s oeuvre and that showcase his talents from a variety of angles.

     The Naxos set is a repackaging of five separate CDs released at various times in the last several years, and the recordings by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony were made over nearly two decades, between 1990 and 2008 The arrangement of music on the CDs is therefore puzzling and rather disappointing: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9 on one CD, Nos. 7 and 10 on another, Nos. 3 and 5 on the third, No. 6 on the fourth and No. 8 on the fifth. Given Schuman’s decision to withdraw Nos. 1 and 2, and his clear concern with putting forward only his best compositional style, a more chronological sequence would have been far better and more logical – and would not have been difficult to arrange, since all these CDs run just over an hour and a disc can hold 80 minutes.

     Still, the performances themselves are very fine – Schwarz, who has his weaknesses in more-traditional repertoire, is at his best in conducting modern music, and American music in particular. And he has clearly studied the individual characteristics of each Schuman symphony and decided what to emphasize and deemphasize accordingly. The underlying intellectual current of these symphonies is what ties them together, although as Schuman’s intellect and compositional skill developed, so did the symphonies – Nos. 6-10 are stronger on many levels than Nos. 3-5, even though it is No. 5 (which Schuman himself simply called “Symphony for Strings”) that is most often played. The first three of these symphonies are all wartime works: No. 3 from 1941, No. 4 from 1942 and No. 5 from 1943. No. 6 dates to 1948, No. 7 to 1960, No. 8 to 1962, and No. 9 – whose title, “Le fosse ardeatine,” recalls a World War II Nazi atrocity – is a wartime symphony written from the much later perspective of 1968. Symphony No.10 (1975), “American Muse,” gave Polisi his book title and was created in anticipation of the United States Bicentennial.

     For all their differences, the symphonies have certain things in common. One is Schuman’s expertise in and comfort with older musical forms, handled especially interestingly in No. 3, whose two movements are “Passacaglia and Fugue” and “Chorale and Toccata.” Another is a distinct Schuman touch in the form of rapid sixteenth notes interrupted at irregular intervals by sixteenth rests. A third is a harmonic language that varies from tonal to dissonant but eschews serialism and is free of such fads as aleatoric sections – with the result that the symphonies wear quite well. The dense and difficult No. 6 and the heartfelt No. 9 are especially effective works, but the airiness of No. 5 offers its own pleasures, as does the sophistication of No. 3. In fact, all the symphonies are sophisticated in structure and manner – and this may explain why they are not more often programmed by orchestras. They are not especially “difficult” by modern standards (in terms of listening, that is; playing them is another matter). But they are generally not immediately appealing, either, tending to rely more on elegant construction and finely honed instrumentation than on direct emotional connection to make their points. That is a generalization, and certain movements certainly do connect with immediate effectiveness, but the overall impression of the symphonies is of a fairly academic (if not pedantic) set of works, interesting to hear and analyze but not necessarily compelling for concertgoers.

     Interestingly, the emotional connection of the other works in the Naxos boxed set is more apparent and more direct – showing that Schuman certainly knew how to get through to an audience with considerable immediacy if he so chose; this is, after all, a composer who wrote the music for 40 Frank Loesser songs. The scattershot nature of the Naxos box makes it hard to evaluate Schuman’s non-symphonic output from these CDs alone – the popular and very well-constructed George Washington Bridge for concert band is not included, for example. But there are enough works here in addition to the symphonies to give a fair, if not comprehensive, view of the composer’s way with other forms, and most of these non-symphonies are quite impressive. One, Judith, based on the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, lasts longer than several of the symphonies and is an impressively structured tone poem that sounds nothing like the Lisztian model. Prayer in a Time of War, originally called Prayer, 1943 for its year of composition, is heartfelt and offers some surprising harmonies. The ballet Night Journey – the Oedipus tale told from Jocasta’s perspective – is another highly effective work in longer form (again, exceeding many of the symphonies’ lengths). And then there is New England Triptych, one of Schuman’s most-played works, which is inevitably reminiscent of Ives’ Three Places in New England but handles its old tunes by William Billings in a style that is clearly Schuman’s own. The shorter and lighter works here – Orchestra Song, Circus Overture and the orchestration of Ives’ Variations on “America” – show Schuman in full “popular” mode, with flash and dash and plenty of bubbling good humor, although often (especially in the Ives) with less subtlety than might be expected.

     William Schuman is difficult to sum up as both arts administrator and composer. In the former role, he accomplished a great deal and left a highly impressive legacy for those who followed – but made some unnecessary enemies along the way and certainly did not accomplish all he set out to do. Nor did his naïveté in such areas as the relationship between government and the arts ever fully leave him – for better or worse. As a composer, Schuman developed his own style and voice, but at the same time tended to echo earlier composers, including Aaron Copland and Roy Harris (with whom he studied in the 1930s). A complex and highly interesting man, he is worth both reading about and listening to – and “listening,” in this case, encompasses both the letters and other documents included in Polisi’s book and the music presented in the five-CD Naxos set.

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