Positive Feedback Online
, July 2010
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 / Judith (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559317
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9 / Circus Overture / Orchestra Song (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559254
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphony No. 6 / Prayer in a Time of War / New England Triptych (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559625
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphonies Nos. 7 and 10 (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559255
SCHUMAN, W.: Symphony No. 8 / Night Journey / IVES, C.: Variations on America (orch. W. Schuman) (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz) 8.559651
Just as many of the twentieth century pastoral English composers take a lot of grief from tough minded modern critics for getting the English dream right, their American romantic counterparts get slammed for getting the American dream comparably right. I have no idea what Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and William Schuman sound like to Europeans. Probably something like what Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and Gerald Finzi sound like to Americans. Meaning it is likely the case that you have to be an American to hear it the way we do. It plays to our national self-confidence and love of simplicity and innocence (in all senses of the word). Unless my personal irony machine is turned on, this music takes me home, home to a place that never was but surely is. Innocent sexuality that is not in the least puritanical; sentiment that is poignant and not sentimental; pathos which is not pathetic; martial and heroic fanfare that spills not a drop of blood; conflict without irony; simplicity that is not reductive; darkness that hides no evil; a rural landscape with no tics (!) All is ultimately well, which is essential to the dream.
To write music that captures this dream for an audience who know it is a dream but who can be moved by it nonetheless, a modern composer must be sure-footed. We are not less romantic than our ancestors but we have been taught to be more defensive about being so. Modern romanticism shares some of the affected sophistication of late adolescence. In modern American romantic music that is successful, the dream comes with chromaticism, dissonant shading, and cross rhythms.
The Naxos series of the symphonic music of William Schuman (1910–1992), five CD’s so far, is a continuation of the Gerard Schwartz’s landmark American symphonies project with his Seattle Symphony begun for the late Dorian label toward the end of the last century. All of these recordings of Schuman’s work were done in the first decade of the twenty-first. Schwartz and his musicians have a way with modern American romantic music that is respectful rather than indulgent, which is much to their credit and our benefit. To overplay this music would kill it dead, which has been done.
Schuman’s romanticism is tougher and less melodic than that of most of his peers, especially in the latter half of his symphonic output. Symphonies 6–10 come out in essentially the same place as the earlier works, but they make us work harder to get there. They must also be more fun to play. Symphony No. 6, for example, is sufficiently bold, brassy, and craggy that its initial audience (in 1948), whose expectations of romanticism grew out of Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss, couldn’t find the romanticism in it at all. And they hadn’t even heard symphonies 7–10 yet. If they heard it now, with a half century more of modernism in the books, they’d likely have a different experience. Schuman’s audiences much preferred his (most popular work) American Triptych (1956), which presents the composer’s romanticism undefended. This work is included (perhaps with a smile) on the disc with Symphony No. 6.
World War II definitely pushed Schuman to the edge of innocence, and while his imagination couldn’t take him over the edge, in Symphony No. 9 it definitely got him as far as anger. Symphony No. 10 (“American Music”) takes the furious anger of No. 9 and first redirects it toward a more positive kind of fury, then diffuses it into a restless but quieter section which seems to be buying time for some kind of concluding resolution or musical statement. When it arrives in the last section, it is far from innocent and less than confident, but it is the least troubled music we’ve heard from him since Symphonies 4 and 5. The twentieth century finally seems to have taken its toll on Schuman’s muse without showing him a new musical place to go. By the time we’ve reached this, his final symphony, it’s hard to call it modern romanticism anymore. The last notes are full of bravado rather than true confidence.
All of Schuman’s symphonic music is worth listening to, both for its own considerable musical appeal and for the story it dramatizes about why other composers found modernism necessary.
He was not unaware of modernist music around him—we can sometimes hear strong hints of Stavinsky-like neo-classicism wander into and out of a Schuman work. And of course Copland, the presiding spirit of modern American romanticism, is also present to be drawn on and resisted both.
I was not a fan of Naxos sonics in the earlier days of the label, especially on orchestral works. They’re very fine on these albums. Success may have increased the recording budget, which is all to the good. Naxos’ American Classics catalog is a rich source of music most of us would not otherwise have access to.