"Too much of academic pursuit of the arts is concerned with talk or writing about art - talk about form, talk about expression, talk about execution, talk about talk and writing about other writing - but not with art in direct experience, not with performing a great play or symphony, not with making a poem, a dance, a painting. We best come to know the arts not by prodigious feats of reading and talking, but by not so simple acts of trying to create and perform works of art, and by cultivating the techniques of penetrative criticism."
Words of William Schuman at the 1962 Dedication of the Hopkins Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, Dartmouth College
William Howard Schuman was born in New York City on August 4, 1910, the second child of Samuel and Rachel Schuman. He began to study the violin as a young boy and later played a number of other instruments as well. His broad musical interests ranged from his own jazz band and the school orchestra to family evenings singing operettas and musical comedy excerpts as well as "semiclassics." On his own, he wrote some original popular songs. But music definitely took second place to Schuman's all-consuming passion, baseball. Looking back on his youth, he would later claim that baseball was the main focus of his early years.
In 1928 Schuman entered New York University to prepare for a business degree at the School of Commerce, while at the same time working for an advertising agency. He continued to collaborate on pop songs with E. B. Marks, Jr., an old friend from summer camp, and also created some forty songs with lyricist Frank Loesser, a neighbor who was also at the beginning of his career. Loesser's first publication, in fact, was a song with music by Schuman. Together they wrote many songs for radio, vaudeville, and nightclub acts. In April 1930, having attended (albeit unwillingly) his first professional symphony orchestra concert, Schuman suddenly realized that baseball, business, and popular music must be relegated to subsidiary positions (but never forgotten) in favor of composing "classical" or concert music.
Realizing that extensive training would be necessary to reach his goals, Schuman withdrew from New York University to study harmony with Max Persin and to hear as many concerts and operas as he could. He began counterpoint lessons with Charles Haubiel at The Juilliard School and attended summer courses in orchestration with Adolf Schmid and harmony with Bernard Wagenaar. At Teachers College of Columbia University, Schuman earned a B.S. in music education (1935), and set him thinking about the need to reform and improve music education.
In the fall of 1935, Schuman settled into his first teaching position, at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, N.Y., where he remained on the faculty for a decade. Highlights of his life during these years were his marriage to Frances ("Frankie") Prince on March 27, 1936, composition studies with Roy Harris, earning an M.A. from Columbia (1937), and the first successful public performances of his music. Although Schuman had now withdrawn from several of his earliest efforts, it was these orchestral and chamber compositions that generated his first prizes and commissions. His Symphony No. 2 came to the attention of Aaron Copland, who wrote in Modern Music (May 1938): "Schuman is, as far as I am concerned, the musical find of the year. There is nothing puny or miniature about this young man's talent."
In 1944 G. Schirmer, Inc., appointed Schuman Director of Publications. He began work there even before leaving the Sarah Lawrence faculty and continued to serve Schirmer as Special Publications Consultant after moving in 1945 to his next post, the presidency of The Juilliard School. During the 1940s he received his first of many honorary doctorates, became the father of a son and a daughter, and was awarded the first Pulitzer Prize ever given in the field of musical composition. In spite of the heavy demands of his Juilliard presidency into which he threw himself wholeheartedly, making essential and lasting improvements in the school he remained first and foremost a composer.
As Juilliard president, Schuman convinced the planners of Lincoln Center that the School should become one of its constituent organizations. It was not long before the Lincoln Center board of directors named him to preside over the entire complex. Schuman's tenure as president of Lincoln Center began in January 1962, months before the official opening of Philharmonic Hall (as Avery Fisher Hall was then known), the first completed building. He guided the growth of Lincoln Center, establishing both the Chamber Music Society and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. During this time, he continued to add to his own catalogue of compositions. In 1968 Schuman suffered a heart attack and while recuperating took stock of his personal and professional priorities. His ultimate decision was that he would forgo major administrative posts, and resign from Lincoln Center. Effective January 1, 1969, he was named President Emeritus, as he had earlier been designated by The Juilliard School.
This change was far from a retirement, but not having a full-time position allowed Schuman more freedom to compose and still participate in the dozens of organizations he served as consultant, officer, board member or advisor. He provided invaluable direction to the BMI Student Composer Awards. First as founder, then as chairman of the judging panel, and later as chairman emeritus, Schuman was a guiding light and an inspiration for over 350 student composer award winners; his interest in their training, accomplishments, and styles of composition never waned.
Amid all Schuman's awards, honors, prizes, and glowing reviews, perhaps what he treasured most were the strongly supportive opinions of his colleagues. Aaron Copland, when presenting Schuman with the MacDowell Colony Medal in 1971, said
. . . In Schuman's pieces you have the feeling that only an American could have written them. . .. You hear it in his orchestration, which is full of snap and brilliance. You hear it in the kind of American optimism which is at the basis of his music.Schuman's impressive catalogue of works is especially rich in orchestral, band, and choral music. He continued the strong American symphonic tradition of such predecessors as Roy Harris and Walter Piston and had always been particularly recognized for his mastery of orchestration. One of if not the most popular of Schuman's works is the orchestration of Charles Ives's Variations on "America." Created in response to a twentieth-anniversary commission from BMI and first performed in 1964, this brilliant orchestration enjoyed extraordinary popularity during the U.S. Bicentennial year. Along with New England Triptych and American Festival Overture, it remains one of his most frequently performed works.
In his orchestral compositions Schuman was fond of differentiating the various sections of the orchestra by creating distinct blocks of color; he used a large orchestra, but used it wisely and with great clarity. Long spun-out melodies and majestic arcs of sound characterize many of Schuman's orchestral works. The rhythmic style is vital, full of variety, and intense but never nervously so. Whether in simple ostinati, in complex rhythmic counterpoint, or in his characteristic cross rhythms, Schuman revealed his strong rhythmic foundations, undoubtedly gained in part from his early days with jazz and popular music.
In Schuman's works based on pre-existing music, he absorbed elements of the source into his own style, while still maintaining the integrity of the original. In New England Triptych and the Concerto on Old English Rounds, the approach ranges from almost literal quotation to a wide range of juxtapositions and transformations with extensive melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic alterations, as well as wholly new concepts of form and orchestration. The great variety and skill with which he handled his materials are demonstrated particularly well in the group of three works based on the old English round "Amaryllis": the "Amaryllis" Variations for string trio, Concerto on Old English Rounds (using "Amaryllis" as the basis for the first and final movements), and Amaryllis (Variations on an Old English Round), a brief version for string orchestra.
Along with Schuman's re-use of pre-existing music should be mentioned his reworking of several of his own compositions. Among the most performed important works available in more than one version are the Variations on "America," American Hymn, and New England Triptych. Others include The Mighty Casey (opera), Casey at the Bat (cantata), and the separately published Choruses from the Mighty Casey: The Orchestra Song and The Band Song; choral and solo versions of Holiday Song; and In Sweet Music and A Song of Orpheus, both derived from his early song Orpheus with His Lute.
In the world of choral music, Schuman is known as a master of both a cappella and accompanied styles, of both extended cantatas and short pieces, including some written for amateurs. With a special emphasis on American poetry, he was been particularly discriminating in his choice of texts. The poetry of Walt Whitman, Archibald MacLeish, Genevieve Taggard, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Thomas Wolfe, among others, inspired him. It is difficult to imagine anything more American than Casey at the Bat or the Mail Order Madrigals, which are settings of texts from the Sears Roebuck catalog.
After writing many pop songs in his youth (estimated to be a hundred or more, but, alas, not a hit among them), Schuman evinced a marked preference for orchestral and choral music during most of his career. In the late 1970s, he began adding more music with voice to his catalog, including In Sweet Music, The Young Dead Soldiers, and Time to the Old. Significantly, his two major works of the 1980s featured solo voice(s): On Freedom's Ground and A Question of Taste.
On Freedom's Ground, with a text by Richard Wilbur (a Pulitzer Prize winner who was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987), celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The work received some two dozen performances in the two years following its premiere (October 28, 1986, the very day of the statue's rededication). Other works of the 1980's also proved that Schuman's outlook remained young and his creative energies retained their usual vitality. Indeed, he continued to compose new works as he entered his eighties. Schuman received a 1989 Kennedy Center Honor "for an extraordinary lifetime of contributions to American culture." Schuman always enjoyed the highest esteem of his colleagues in the arts. Leonard Bernstein penned an enthusiastic introductory note to the William Schuman Documentary (1980) by Christopher Rouse. Written just before Schuman's seventieth birthday, it is an equally appropriate salute to this master of American music on his eightieth:
. . . I have rarely met a composer who is so faithfully mirrored in his music; the man is the music. We are all familiar with the attributes generally ascribed to his compositions: vitality, optimism, enthusiasm, long lyrical line, rhythmic impetuosity, bristling counterpoint, brilliant textures, dynamic tension. But what is not so often remarked is what I treasure most: the human qualities that flow directly from the man into the works compassion, fidelity, insight, and total honesty . . .
William Schuman died in New York City on February 15, 1992, but his music will long endure.
Revised and used with the permission of Broadcast Music, Inc.
Barbara A. Petersen
Assistant Vice President, Classical Administration