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8.559255 - SCHUMAN, W.: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 10 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
William Schuman (1910-1992)
Symphonies Nos. 7 and 10
Born on 4th August, 1910, in New York City, William Schuman’s first musical studies centered on the violin, though a passion for jazz and popular music led him to teach himself a variety of instruments. On hearing Arturo Toscanini conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1930, Schuman withdrew from the School of Commerce at New York University after a two-year stint there and embarked upon private studies in harmony with Max Persin and counterpoint with Charles Haubiel.
Following studies at Columbia University (B.A. from Teachers College, 1935) and at Juilliard with Roy Harris he joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College and in 1943 won the first Pulitzer Prize in music for his cantata, A Free Song. Two years later he left academe to assume dual rôles as director of publications of G. Schirmer, Inc. and president of the Juilliard School of Music. From 1962 to 1969 he served as president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Balancing multiple careers as teacher and administrator, he was able to write a large amount of music. His Second Symphony (1937) caught the collective attention of the musical world when it was performed the following year in New York City. His best-known works are New England Triptych, based on music written by the eighteenth-century American composer William Billings, and his orchestration of Charles Ives’s wittily irreverent Variations on “America.” He died on 15th February, 1992, in New York City.
A dozen years elapsed between the completion of Schuman’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies. The Seventh, dating from 1960, resulted from a commission from the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in the Library of Congress to commemorate both the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzsky. Charles Munch led the première with the Boston Symphony Orchestra on 21st October 1960.
Though laid out in the traditional four-movement classical symphonic format, the work is played without pause as a single continuous entity. Striking contrasts in mood and sonority among the movements ensure a sense of both contrast and continuity. Throughout the Seventh Symphony one notes a balance between the composer’s penchant for relentless energy and ripening Romantic utterance that in retrospect may be seen as a harbinger for the emergence of the post-serialism of the 1970s and onward among a younger generation of composers.
The initial movement, Largo assai, begins with stark, intensely focused chords. The prevailing mood is stern, even threatening. Chordal strings alternate with ominous interjections by winds, darkened further by the bass clarinet. No percussion is used. As in much of Schuman’s music, a strong rhythmic undertow (strongly dotted “packets” of energy) leads us irresistibly forward, creating a state of anxiety reinforced by chromatic and dissonant harmonies. Psychologically dark sonorities are created by dialogue between the bass clarinet and other instruments, especially the movement-ending cadenza for clarinet and bass clarinet that acts as bridge to the second movement. Marked Vigoroso, this begins with a brass fanfare that recalls Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Though the harmonies retain their forceful dissonance, the mood is increasingly festive and bright, providing great contrast with the dark musings of the opening movement. Added contrast comes through the prominent use of timpani and percussion, including piano and xylophone. The aptly termed Cantabile intensamente third movement, for strings only, is quieter and calmer though tinged with mystery. The endlessly unfolding melody, in an arch-like structure, creates an atmosphere of continuous yearning that finally relaxes into a state of serenity. The concluding Scherzando brioso begins with punching energy and uses the full resources of the orchestral palette, in bold contrast to the strings-only sonority of the previous movement. Dance-like, with echoes of jazz, the composer’s earliest love, the movement is bright and festive, reflecting the score’s character as a celebration of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s glorious history.
In anticipation of the nation’s bicentennial celebration in 1976, the National Symphony commissioned Schuman to compose a suitable orchestral work to reflect two centuries of American experience. He accommodated the request with his Symphony No. 10, subtitled “American Muse,” which reflected the composer’s dedication “to the country’s creative artists, past, present and future”. Antal Dorati led the National Symphony in the work’s première on 6th April, 1976.
It was Schuman’s wife who suggested that he revisit the opening music he had written four decades earlier, a choral setting of Walt Whitman’s Pioneers! O Pioneers! The composer reflected: “My wife’s instinct proved fortuitous, for recalling Pioneers and experiencing again its optimism was precisely what I needed to get me started on the Symphony. Optimism is, after all, an essential ingredient in understanding America’s beginnings.”
The first movement, Con fuoco (with fire), gets straight to the point, using drum rolls, percussion and brass instruments to suggest the brash and assertive spirit of the nation’s origins in revolution. Using a tonal vocabulary intensified with pithy dissonance, the music is emphatic, angular, lean-textured and propelled by packets of energizing clipped notes. A long-breathed theme from violins and horns enters and is underpinned by strongly insistent rhythmic prodding from mixed brass, winds and percussion. A highly contrasted Larghissimo second movement begins close to inaudibility with pianississimo muted high strings supported by woodwinds. Out of gently insistent soft, repeated string chords a low melody begins to unfold in cellos augmented by basses. High in the first violins, a Romantic melody unfolds, marked cantabile dolce, quasi parlando. The prevailing harmonies are modestly dissonant. The music has a quiet, haunting, reflective quality that is frequently nocturnal, both beautiful and somewhat anxious. Gradually the dynamic level rises as winds and French horns add punctuating rhythmic figures. Halfway through the movement, a flute melody enters with a scintillating theme floating over trumpets. The flutes continue as dynamics rise and stressful sonorities emerge from brass and strings below. After a portentous climax, the dynamics drop suddenly; anxiety abates immediately, replaced by a return to the spirit and letter of a cantabile indication, ending the movement quietly and with notable consonance. The finale, Presto, begins with pizzicato in strings and a piano in unison. Quirky dialogue evolves between plucked strings and mixed winds. The strings assume a legato articulation in unfolding a long melody surrounded by chirping winds. Xylophone, glockenspiel and other percussion enter in alternating conversation with winds and/or strings. Further contrast in timbre is achieved through dense, dissonant brass chords. About halfway through, the mood and sonority change; light-hearted strings play an animated and syncopated melody against long-held notes in violins. Trumpet and other instruments enter with equal animation and rhythmic playfulness. The symphony ends on an exuberant blast of triple forte energy from stratospheric piccolos to deeply resonant string basses.
Steven Lowe © 2005 Seattle Symphony
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