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William Schuman - Rawboned Music: Part 1

Updated: Sep 18, 2020

“The bustle of city streets in daytime and the mystery of empty streets in nighttime emerge from Schuman’s scores.” — Nicholas Tawa

Due to William Schuman’s significance in the subject on which this blog focuses, one single post might be too long to take in. Therefore, I have divided it into 2 parts. Here is part 1.

I first heard music by William Schuman when I was an eager young musician in middle school. I listened to his Symphony No. 5, performed by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic string section, recorded on a vinyl record (I kid you not). The opening bars explode with energy and melodic creativity unlike I had ever heard. It was forceful, bold, full of life. It drew me in and to this day has not let go. From that moment I knew I had to know more about this man and his music. He and his music are a large part of the reason I began this blog, my soon to launch podcast, American Muse (named after Schuman’s 10th Symphony), and my book to be released next year, Secrets of American Orchestral Music. Say tuned!

One of the first things one learns about Schuman is the story of how he came to be a

composer in the first place. He did play bass in a dance band, but never considered it very serious. Then he went to a concert at Carnegie Hall and heard the New York Philharmonic, conducted by the great Arturo Toscanini. He was so blown away by the performance he said "I was overwhelmed. I had never heard anything like it. The very next day, I decided to become a composer." So, he dropped out of New York University, quit his job, enrolled at the Malkin Conservatory of music to study composition, and a short 5 years later he graduated from Columbia University. Who knew it could be so easy? While this anecdotal story is humorous, it accurately shows a key characteristic of Schuman's personality. He is an optimist, endlessly curious, and has a child-like approach to new endeavors. He is also steadfast and resolute in his values, many times refusing to compromise his artistic work or arts administration efforts.

Though not all of William Schuman's biographical history is pertinent here, some key positions and career events as well as insight into his composition process help to contextualize the unique nature of the man and his music. One fortuitous happenstance came at the beginning of his journey to become a composer. In 1930, primed by having just attended his first orchestral concert, Schuman saw a sign for the Malkin Conservatory, walked in, and according to him “registered for a course in harmony because he had heard somewhere that composers begin by studying harmony.” This placed him with Max Persin, a teacher more interested in discovering the intricacies of each individual piece rather than regurgitating from quote “a textbook of dull orthodoxy.” Not long after earning a teaching degree from the Columbia University Teachers College, Schuman carved out a teaching and administrative position at Sarah Lawrence College. The way in which this came about is characteristic of Schuman's free-form thinking and commitment to the highest quality in any endeavor he undertook. Schuman convinced the president and Faculty Advisory Committee on Appointments at Sarah Lawrence to make him the quote "one man... coordinator, working from a single focal point" on a new set of freshman focused courses. Schuman connected with the faculty and administration at Sarah Lawrence on a philosophical level, influenced by the progressive education movement of John Dewey and the concept that "making knowledge one's own was the central goal of education…” This desire for individuality and freedom from convention carried over into Schuman's composing. Keenly aware of contemporary trends, Schuman casts the "emergence of a contemporary tonal language" in the twentieth century as "a musical revolution." Referring to contemporary composers (presumably including himself), Schuman posits “[t]he process of seeking a way of creating fresh sounds is a natural one for a truly creative musician. It may be conscious or subconscious, or both. But whatever the process, the result is innovation in musical speech." Even Copland recognized the boldness of Schuman's work, describing it as "music of tension and power," and expounding on his rhythmic writing as "so skittish and personal, so utterly free and inventive."

Schuman's commitment to his own musical and educational standards resulted in his being tapped as president of Juilliard in 1945. Schuman was reluctant to even consider the post because, as Steve Swayne puts it in his biographic work Orpheus in Manhattan, “[h]e could see no possible marriage between Juilliard’s hidebound, rote education and the progressive, student-oriented approach that he enjoyed at Sarah Lawrence." Partly due to this honesty expressed to Juilliard's board of directors, Schuman was offered and eventually accepted the position. As a sign of the school's desire for change, Schuman immediately made drastic alterations to the Juilliard curriculum and faculty. One program he spearheaded is particularly of note here. Showing his independent thinking and will to move forward, Schuman explains his educational philosophy:

The first requisite for a musician in any branch of the art is that he be a virtuoso listener. It has been a student who is adept at the writing of melodic dictation may be incapable of listening to a symphonic composition with an understanding of its design. In other words, an ability to hear the component parts of the language of music… does not ipso facto mean integrated understanding--an understanding that can only be achieved when the whole work is clearly viewed as the sum of these parts... In an effort to replace conventional theory with more meaningful studies, the Juilliard School has discontinued its Theory Department and added to its curriculum a new department--Literature and Materials of Music.

This is the kind of ideology Schuman applied to his composition and administrative roles. In a 1986 interview, Schuman illustrates the interconnected nature of all his endeavors: "composition has been the continuum of my life's work, but it's been by no matter of means my sole pursuit. I would never be happy just being a composer. I've always wanted and needed to do other things of a general societal nature."

Even through his compositional process, Schuman shows his independent thinking. Intending not to be bound by the limitations of both his piano skill and of the instrument itself, according to a biography written by Vincent Persichetti, Schuman "writes for the instruments of the orchestra directly... sings the parts at the top of his lungs... because his music is essentially melodic... He does, however, use the piano for new vocabulary departures; that is, for experimentation.”

One final quote by Schuman from 1977, helps summarize his philosophy on the balance of artistic honesty and the ambition needed for such a high profile career he had to that point:

I would like to be loved through my music, as anybody would be. But I recognized that this was not necessarily to be the case, and it would be much better to be despised and write what you want than to be loved and write what you didn’t want.… I was asked that question just the other day [in February 1977] … “Why—when you write these difficult symphonies that hardly anybody ever plays, and you can write the New England Triptych or orchestrate Ives’ Variations on America—why don’t you write a holiday overture that would make you a lot of money and would be played a lot?”

Hopefully the continued reverence of Schuman’s music will suffice as an answer to that question.

Part 2 coming next week!

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