top of page

William Schuman - Rawboned Music: Part 2

“... as long as writers write long and complicated novels, composers are going to write in the symphonic forms, because they give an opportunity that nothing else gives. —William Schuman

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 2.

One particular event in Schuman’s life gives us some insight into the major influences on his compositional work, both negatively and positively. Invited to participate on a jury charged with naming composers that should be represented at the 1952 Pittsburgh International Contemporary Music Festival, Schuman submitted his list with a caveat: “The following list of composers does not pretend in any way to be a complete catalog of contemporary composers of proved merit. It is a suggestion of a group that is fairly representative, but not all inclusive.” In total, Schuman’s list included Barber, Bartok, Berg, Bloch, Britten, Chavez, Copland, Debussy, Hanson, Harris, Hindemith, Honegger, Janacek, Malipiero, Milhaud, Nielsen, Piston, Prokofiev, Ravel, Schöneberg, Schuman, Sessions, Shostakovich, Sibelius (specifically referring to his Symphony No. IV, composed in 1911), Stravinsky, Vaughan Williams, and Villa-Lobos. Just as notable are the omissions: Messiaen, Boulez, Stockhausen, Varèse, Webern, Ives, Elliott Carter, or John Cage. In a 1973 interview, Schuman did remark “I’m an admirer of Ives as a great original. But in my judgment Ives will never have a truly exalted place in the history of music because technically he was an amateur.” In a similarly honest assessment, after attending the 1977 premiere of Elliott Carter’s Symphony for Three Orchestras, Schuman expressed “I feel empty, empty, empty, empty. I don’t feel any soaring need for him to write music. I heard a soaring intellect, not a soaring what?—heart? Whatever you want to call it. It seems to me the highest kind of music that can be produced by intellectuality.”

By far, the greatest influence on Schuman was that of Roy Harris, his teacher and, later, colleague. In Steve Swayne’s book on Schuman, Orpheus in Manhattan, Harris’ particular style is described:

The fundamental formal principle in Harris’s music is autogenesis, by which a melody is generated by a seed motif out of which the first phrase grows, each succeeding phrase either germinating in like fashion or launching itself from a figure in the last bars of the preceding phrase. His aim was to produce an effect of gradual organic growth, and thus the music often unfolds additively in blocks of gradually differing textures. At its core, autogenesis represents an anti-European mode of musical discourse; autogenetic musical material doesn’t so much develop as it unfolds or blossoms.

It seems the teaching was well taken as throughout his symphonies, Schuman uses this autogenesis repeatedly. Melodic and rhythmic generation and regeneration, constantly expanding and contracting.

Schuman's symphonic output is quite varied, ranging from symphonies and concertos to ballet and opera. Schuman got the most mileage out of his symphonies, and he admittedly put most of his focus on their creation. Schuman’s symphonies are most representative of all his compositional work, even by his own statements in an interview with Overtones:

It never occurred to me not to write symphonies... I like every medium in music when I’m working on it… [but] I believe that as long as writers write long and complicated novels, composers are going to write in the symphonic forms, because they give an opportunity that nothing else gives.

Schuman wrote 10 numbered symphonies, though he “withdrew” the first two. This part of his portfolio alone is a lifetime of outstanding work. Beyond that, he taught at Sarah Lawrence College, served as president of the Juilliard School, facilitated it’s move into the newly built Lincoln Center, founded the Juilliard String Quartet, served as president of Lincoln Center itself, and finally won 2 Pulitzer Prizes and the National Medal of Arts. Many people desire to change or effect the world in some way. William Schuman did that and more during his time. As long as we perform or hear his music, he still does.

19 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page