About this Recording
FECD-0011 - SCHUMAN: Symphony No. 4 / Prayer in Time of War / Judith
English 

William Schuman

William Schuman

 

One might call William Schuman the éminence grise of American music in the second half of the twentieth century. Probably no figure was as important in shaping the modern musical scene, but much of his work was carried out away from the spotlight in the relatively unglamorous realm of administrative offices. As a teacher at Sarah Lawrence College (1935-45) he designed an arts curriculum that focused on creativity itself, a concept that would take root at many colleges and universities. As President of The Juilliard School (1945-62) he created a model for up-to-date conservatories everywhere. He revamped the teaching of music history and music theory to underscore their real-life connection to music-making, a conception that surely continued to enrich countless Juilliard students long after their student years. Believing that students would benefit from ongoing proximity to a top-flight, professional performing group, he established the Juilliard String Quartet as a house ensemble for his school. That quartet is still going strong as it approaches its sixtieth birthday (notwithstanding considerable turnover of personnel) and it served as a model for the quartets-in-residence that are all but obligatory at important music schools today.

 

He left Juilliard to become President of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. It was during his watch (1961-69) that the first of the modern arts campuses rose from the ground, not only to prosper on its own but also to serve as a template for similar developments in cities throughout the world. Not content to allow Lincoln Center to emerge as a mere real-estate venture, he championed the idea of a multi-member arts collective in which the constituent organizations might collaborate with one another while maintaining essentially independent identities. At Lincoln Center he lent his muscle to artistic disciplines that lacked the built-in historical support of, say, a great opera company or symphony orchestra—and thus were created the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, both of which inspired analogous endeavors in other cities. By the time Schuman retired from Lincoln Center, in 1969, he had sculpted some of the most enduring landmarks of modern musical culture.

 

He retired in order to compose, and he was fortunate to have another 23 years in which to do mostly that before he died at the age of 81. Some notable works were produced during those final two decades-plus, but the majority of his most enduring compositions date from earlier in his career. He had already been awarded the first-ever Pulitzer Prize in Music back in 1943, not a paltry accomplishment for a non-prodigy baseball hopeful who had not shown the slightest interest in classical music until his sister dragged him to a symphony concert 13 years earlier, when he was 19. As a still-young composer he was hailed as among the finest musical minds of his generation, an opinion that is borne out when we revisit such scores as his brilliantly unrolling Symphony No. 4, his highly personal rumination in Prayer in Time of War, and Judith, one of two emotionally precise ballets he composed for the legendary Martha Graham-this one being a commission from the Louisville Orchestra.

 

Even during his busiest years at Juilliard and Lincoln Center he managed to put pencil to manuscript paper with unfailing regularity. A couple of years after Schuman died, his widow, Frances, ushered me into his study at their Park Avenue apartment to show me some piece of memorabilia. Standing in that orderly room, I couldn’t help asking her where he had found the time to accomplish all that he did. “Well, he was a very organized man,” she responded. “But even so … that is the mystery.”

 

- James M. Keller

 

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the New York Philharmonic and the San Francisco Symphony.

 

 

Symphony No. 4

 

The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release:

 

Notes by Robert McMahan:

 

Two centuries hence historians looking back at the music of our era will probably lump together the vast diversity of contemporary styles and techniques under a single heading in the same fashion that we now reconcile Monteverdi, Bach, and all that went between as part of the musical “baroque.” Perhaps the word chosen to continue the series: Baroque, classical, romantic... will be “existential” thus relating our musical language to the dominant trend in modern philosophical thought while at the same time asserting that in this century more than ever before each composer has had to select out of the vast range of influences and prospects before him the unique musical speech that best suited his own time, place, and point of view. The network of modern communications media has a great deal to do with the almost embarrassing pressure of contemporary influence. (Compare Haydn’s splendid isolation with the Esterhazys.) Add to this the storehouse of music available in recorded form and it is little wonder that our composers have often to go to the greatest extremes to find an original mode of expression.

 

In the career of William Schuman the influence came in the form of two years of intensive study (1936.1938) with the most prominent of American symphonists, Roy Harris. He quickly came to share the latter’s predilection for music in large-scale forms thereby inaugurating the series of symphonies and concertos which form the central core of his musical output. In all of this music there persists a certain amount of the Harris grandeur and Romantic sweep that was so characteristic of our domestic musical language in the thirties and forties, but Schuman has added novel elements especially. in terms of contrapuntal texture. Here one often finds a tautness of line coupled with complex rhythm to drive the conception forward in an energetic fashion more typical of Hindemith’s industry than of Harris’ leisurely sense of pace.

 

The opening of Schuman’s Fourth Symphony is a case in point. No sooner has the stately and expansive introduction given way to a vigorous sonata-form movement, than the composer dissolves the initial fragmentary first subject into a tough and busy fugal development in the strings which eventually combines both the fast and slower parts of the opening material in a simultaneous presentation. Eventually the mysterious bass figure from the introduction is made to reappear in a more lyrical version by the woodwind choir. From this point on, the music moves briskly through what amounts to a development and reprise of the first section, but even the careful listener is apt to be thrown off the track at first by the composer’s constant use of variation. Everything that returns does so with such radical alterations of texture that it sounds more like new material than simply a reworking of old ground. It is in this way, especially, that the Fourth Symphony and Schuman’s music in general impresses with its novelty.

 

In this regard the slow movement casts the material of the opening into yet another form, a quiet cantabile in which the flowing melodic line is exchanged among the various sections of the orchestra (playing for the most part with mutes on). A fervent outbreak takes us back once more into the realm of the first movement, as if to establish more firmly the link between them. Then the opening music returns for a brief reprise to frame the rather violent interruption with a tranquil mood.

 

The finale is quite another story. The composer turns his back on the earlier material, and presents in its stead an ambitious and at times irascible movement which proceeds throughout at a single tempo and is based upon a single thematic idea. Once again the general motive is subjected to every conceivable kind of variation. Separate and distinct at first, these variations are welded into one continuous flow whose momentum never flags. As the music approaches the conclusion, however, the variations begin to overlap; new sections begin in one part of the orchestra before the previous ones have been completed. The resulting effect is a pulling up of a, flood of textures a great wall of sonority that engulfs all which lies before it.

 

 

Prayer in Time of War

 

Notes by Robert McMahan:

 

In 1943 William Schuman, by then one of the foremost among the younger generation of American composers, volunteered for military service but was refused because of a minor physical problem. As had Debussy and Ravel in a similar circumstance a quarter-century before, Schuman turned his thoughts instead to the expression of patriotism in the form of a new composition: Prayer-1943. Later given the more general title Prayer in Time of War, this solemn but quite forceful orchestra piece extends almost a quarter of an hour without a single slackening of dramatic intensity even in the quiet moments that frame the work and return from time to time to interrupt its relentless progress. The opening polychord - D Major over C Major states the central argument. The composer has followed in the directions explored by his friend and mentor the symphonist Roy Harris; for both authors the harmonic tensions generated between the intervals of a complex chord become the carriers of a deeper musical feeling. In this instance the presence of the bright D chord adds an optimistic upward pull to the open sonorities of C that persists even through the austere horn soliloquy that provides the work with the first hint of darker things to come. As the harmonies begin to shift, the oboe echoes the initial statement against a measured tread in the strings. Soon the brass section bursts in with chord structures that are more dissonant still, but this introductory section is broken off suddenly without issue. For an important new idea is at hand.

 

In the score the composer describes the melody for muted cellos which follows upon the long pause as “smooth, even, like plain chant.” Here the sustained writing for solo winds which finally evolves into a counterpoint of the chant material itself seems to touch upon the spirit of another age. Without abandoning totally the inflections of the contemporary idiom, Schuman invokes the profound simplicities of the Gregorian church music of the medieval times - a period in the history of Western civilization when disease, old age, death, and even the terrors and tragedies of war itself were understood as the workings out of a Divine plan however in-comprehensible it seemed

to the eyes of man. Our approach to history and the destiny of Western civilization was hardly so passive in the war against Fascist states. The Battle of Britain, Midway, El Alamein, and Stalingrad had given more than ample proof that the articulation of any such cosmic design depended upon the faith and courage of countless individual human beings, acting out their roles in some unknown corner of the conflict. It is to these brave souls, men and women alike, that the Prayer is addressed.

 

The more agitated writing in the strings comes as a spur to a reinforcement of the chant melodies, now given over to the winds and brass. As this passage reaches upward to a dramatic climax, powerful statements in octaves carry the darkening colloquy to the very brink. It is only at this point the real struggle begins. The chant material in faster notes erupts in savage bursts of sound exchanged between groups of the orchestra. Not until the strong octaves return is there any feeling of a new and more stable musical order, but the ending of the piece makes its reference to the individual spirit as well as the collective. The final pages are given over to the throbbing rhythms of the opening with the addition of a muted and expressive melody for the first violins in which the players are instructed to “bow differently so as to sound a continuous line.” A curious summary in the guise of a performance instruction of how it is that total war comes to a nation and to each of its citizens.

 

 

Judith (Choreographic Poem for Orchestra)

 

The following commentary is reprinted from the original First Edition Records LP release:

 

 

Judith. Choreographic Poem for Orchestra

By William Schuman

 

The story of JUDITH is part of the Apocryphal writings. It tells:

 

of how... “Holofernes took the waters and the fountains of waters of the children of Israel... therefore, their young children were out of heart and their women and young men fainted of thirst... and there was no longer any strength in them... and they were brought very low in the city...”

 

Of how... “Judith fell upon her face... and cried with loud voice and said O Lord God of my father Simeon to whom thou gayest a sword to take vengeance of the strangers... Give into mine hand the... power I have conceived. Smite them by the deceit of my lips. Break down their stateliness by the hand of a woman. Lord God of the Heavens and Earth Creator of the waters... Hear my prayer.”

 

Of how... “Judith put off the garments of her widowhood for the exaltation of those that were oppressed.” and “put on her garments of gladness... her bracelets and her chains and her ornaments...”

 

Of how... “Judith went... down the mountain... to the tent of Holofernes...

 

Of how... “She abode in the camp three days... and she besought the Lord God to direct her way...

 

Of how... “On the fourth day Holofernes made a feast... When Judith came in and sat down, Holofernes his heart was ravished with her... and he drank more wine than he had drank at any one day since he was born...”

 

Of how... “When evening came his servants made haste to depart... and Judith was left alone in the tent and Holofernes lying along his bed for he was filled with wine...

 

Of how... “Judith standing by his bed said in her heart: ‘O Lord God of all power strengthen me this day...’”

 

Of how... “She took his head from him... and went forth up the mountain... and said with a loud voice:

 

'Behold the head of Holofernes... the Lord has smitten him by the hand of a woman... I will sing unto the Lord a new song.'”

 

Of how... “The women... made a dance among them for her... and she took branches in her hand... and she went before all the people in the dance.”

 

This is the story of Judith. But the myth from which the story stems is much older. The story has its foundations in some ancient fertility rite or ritual of re-birth, in which the woman casts off the garments of mourning... symbolic of her isolation, and puts on her garments of gladness... symbolic of her femininity... thereby defeating the enemy... Death.


Close the window