About this Recording
8.559254 - SCHUMAN, W.: Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9 / Circus Overture / Orchestra Song (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
English  German 

William Schuman (1910-1992)
Symphonies Nos. 4 and 9 • Orchestra Song • Circus Overture

Born on 4th August, 1910, in New York City, William Schuman centered his first musical studies 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, he 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 (BA 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, Schuman 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.

Schuman composed his Symphony No. 4 in 1941, entrusting its première to the Cleveland Orchestra under Artur Rodzinski on 22nd January, 1942. A mere month and a half after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the new symphony’s essentially positive emotional climate sounded an optimistic note during a very dark time. The opening movement begins quietly with solo English horn intoning a long-spun melody over solo bass, and is eventually joined by the rest of the wind section. The bass line functions as a Baroque-style ground bass, above which textures change kaleidoscopically, dynamics increase and counter-rhythms contrast with the steadfast gait of the quarter-note-laden bass part. This introduction yields to a rhythmically alive section marked Vigoroso con spirito. Echoes of Copland and Harris impart a distinctly American accent to the music. Schuman’s mastery of polyphony is very much in evidence here. The movement ends with a grand brassfilled climax.

The second movement, marked Tenderly, simply, begins quietly in the violins and violas, underscored by a slow, steady tread generated by pizzicato chords in the cellos. The mood is melancholy yet infused with mediating warmth. A sense of intimacy is enhanced by the violins and violas playing con sordino (with mutes). Eventually winds and brass enter, but the mood remains understated until a concluding section marked Fervente raises the emotional temperature before the solo oboe passage marked dolce initiates the quiet closing moments. The Finale begins with an animated dialogue between strings and winds. The music is energetic, forward and, again, distinctly American. Sonorous brass enter, also strongly insistent, before yielding to renewed conversation, this time between wailing winds and punching brass. Pizzicatos in the lower strings add to the impetus. Overall the music conveys élan and optimism. Section by section more instruments have their say, and while momentum is sustained contrasting densities of texture and a jaunty fugato provide contrast. Timpani punctuate and further animate the music toward the end of the movement, echoed by increasing power and dynamics in the rest of the orchestra.

The 1963 Orchestra Song is a deft arrangement for orchestra of an old Austrian folk-song. André Kostelanetz led the première with the New York Philharmonic on 11th April, 1964. Short and catchy, it is an affectionate take on a very rustic and simple tune in 3/4 time. At times brusque and elsewhere unaffectedly sweet, the little ditty features a nice trumpet solo, colourful timbres from the percussion, biting lower brass, and bow-struck strings. Not inappropriately, it conjures up sonic images of calliope music.

The Circus Overture dates from 1944. Originally bearing the title Side Show, it was intended for use in a musical revue under the title “The Seven Lively Arts” conceived for the Broadway stage; producer Billy Rose changed his mind, and the revue was dropped. Shortly thereafter, Schuman rescored the light-hearted piece for full orchestra from its original pit-band orchestration. With its new title Circus Overture received its first performance in the spring of 1944 under Maurice Abravanel conducting a theater orchestra in Philadelphia. Fritz Reiner led the première of the full orchestral version on 17th December, 1944, with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

The Overture begins with timpani and percussion leading all forces in an exuberant fanfare mode. The whole piece suggests preparation for the arrival of the main event. A very energetic timpani part plays off barking brasses before the winds enter. Typically for the composer, Schuman’s rhythmic verve carries the music forward with relentless drive, even though the mood here is lightly festive. Adding a sense of piquancy and whimsy, there is a colourful and droll Fellini-esque episode in 3/4 time.

In the spring of 1967, Schuman and his wife were in Rome, intending to visit the Ardeatine Caves, the site of a horrific Nazi atrocity in 1944, when 335 innocent Italian men, women and children were murdered in reprisal for an ambush by the underground in which 32 German soldiers had been killed. In an effort to hide the slaughter, the Nazis bombed the bodies. A priest at the nearby Catacombs heard the reverberations from the explosion, and when the Nazis left the city, the citizens visited the caves to see what had transpired. The site eventually became a shrine known in part for its grand architecture.

In notes Schuman provided for the original recording of the Ninth Symphony, subtitled Le Fosse Ardeatine (The Ardeatine Caves), the composer wrote, “The mood of my symphony, especially in its opening and closing sections, is directly related to emotions engendered by this visit. But the middle section, too, with its various moods of fast music, much of it far from somber, stems from the fantasies I had of the variety, promise and aborted lives of the martyrs… The work does not attempt to depict the event realistically…

“The work is in three parts, played without pause and developed as a continuum. The Anteludium begins quietly, with a single melodic line separated by two octaves, played by the muted violins and cellos… The music of the Anteludium leads without pause, but with identifiable transition, to the Offertorium, which forms the bulk of the work. The moods are varied and range from the playful to the dramatic…The climax of the Offertorium is reached with a…faster tempo and a sonorous climax for full orchestra…The music of the Postludium at first echoes, in slow tempo, some elements of the climax just heard. Finally the opening theme of the symphony is again stated, but in an even slower tempo than at first… The symphony draws to a close with a long, freely composed, quiet ending characterized by an emotional climate that sums up the work and eventually leads to a final concluding outburst.”

Eugene Ormandy, long-time music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra, conducted the première on 10th January, 1969. A year later, Leonard Bernstein gave the New York première with the New York Philharmonic.

Steven Lowe
© 2005 Seattle Symphony

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