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Gary Higginson
MusicWeb International, February 2011

Writing as I am towards the end of 2010 this year has marked the centenary (actually on 4 August 2010) of the birth of William Schuman. You wouldn’t know it in the UK as here the celebrations have been decidedly low-key. As well as being an administrator and teacher Schuman wrote ten symphonies and many other works.

Curiously when this hefty box crunched down on my doormat I was getting quite excited about hearing Schuman’s First Symphony and certainly the Second which caught the attention in 1937 of the musical world. Sadly however these two works are not included and are not to be recorded as Schuman withdrew them. This box represents however a considerable step towards some kind of recognition of this masterful composer.

So we commence with the Third Symphony written for Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, famous especially for their violin tone and quality. It’s the same orchestra for which Stravinsky wrote his Symphony of Psalms, which it so happens does not include scoring for the violins! Schumann however exploits all of the strings and he scores brilliantly for the wind. There is a classical basis to this work. The plan is unusual with a Passacaglia and Fugue first movement and a Chorale and Toccata second. At the start Copland may be brought to mind. Later the slightly earnest counterpoint directed me towards Roy Harris who had taught Schuman for a while at the Juilliard school. There are many moments when wide-open spaces in the orchestral texture—for instance the iconic sound of strings and soaring solo trumpet—seem to picture the prairies and other vast New World landscapes. The first movement rises to a grand climax but the biggest is the reserved for the end of the Toccata. Despite its odd form the whole is most satisfactory and beautifully balanced. It’s a sort of masterwork in many ways, and so gets the set off to a very encouraging start.

Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Orchestra in such fine form for the Third excel in the Fourth Symphony, or perhaps it’s because I have taken quite a shine to it. It is in three movements starting with a portentous slow introduction, a mournful cor anglais over a lamenting ground bass. One is reminded that this too is a wartime symphony written soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. This movement and the symphony as a whole move from doubt to optimism. Once the main Allegro begins one is reminded again of Harris in its powerful counterpoint and of Copland with those typical xylophone interjections. One almost feels at the end of it as if Schuman might have peaked too soon. In the beautiful and sensitive slow movement there is a build-up to a fine climax before dropping back hopelessly onto the oboe solo heard near the start. The finale is almost a mini-concerto for orchestra with everyone making a virtuosic contribution. There is some spectacular writing for the brass and the strings partake in a fine fugue before the brazen coda is unleashed even more exultantly than in the first movement.

The Fifth Symphony is scored for strings only and in some recordings is not given a number; indeed Schumann himself did not do so. Written again for Koussevitzky it is in three movements. I recall a CBS LP (now on CD) of the Symphony with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bernstein which I played a great deal twenty years ago but, just when I need to refer to it, the borrowers are using it! I remember being impressed by the incisiveness of the playing but the Seattle Orchestra is also up for the task. The first movement needs crisp articulation of the syncopations and a clear recording as here. It’s amazing to listen to all of the canons and complex counterpoint almost secretly going on. The movement is in sonata-form but the slow movement is in a more free format and has some wonderfully expressive and quiet ppp playing especially towards the end. The finale is a Rondo and demonstrates a certain optimism that the world may soon be a better place. Truly a fine work on par with Harris’s Third.

According to the Volume 4 booklet notes by Joseph W Polisi (whose new book on Schuman “American Muse” has recently emerged), the Sixth Symphony was found to be “craggy, dark and emotionally impenetrable” at its premiere by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati. Schuman himself said that the audience “found the symphony utterly without appeal”. It’s extraordinary to think that consideration was given to withholding from the composer his full fee. Punters had got so used to the up-front, clean Americanism of the wartime works that this post-war composition was misunderstood. After 1945 and the bombing of the Japanese cities the world would never be the same again as Vaughan Williams reflected (it is often said) in his own Sixth Symphony of the same year. Schuman’s symphony falls into six connected sections. Considering how careful the booklet analysis is, it’s a bit pathetic of Naxos to have allotted just a single track to the entire work. I felt more comfortable with this piece than with the Third or Fourth Symphonies. The mood is indeed dark but it is not unrelenting and the Larghissimo’s is full of a lonely and weeping landscape suitable for post-war reflection. That said there are contrasts including a wispy Scherzo halfway through marked ‘Leggieramente’ and some unique brass writing. The recording is wonderfully spacious and the performance cannot be faulted although I was coming to this work for the first time.

The Seventh Symphony of 1960 feels quite like its date, if you understand me. Lasting almost half-an-hour and in four connected movements it was written to celebrate the seventieth birthday of the Boston Symphony Orchestra who, as you can gather, were regular supporters of Schuman. The opening Largo assai is desolate; Steven Lowe’s notes describe the opening as “stark (with) intensely focused chords”. These are quite dissonant and at times almost atonal. After eleven minutes we emerge into a rough ‘vigoroso’ world, which at under three minutes seems to act as an introduction to another slow section marked ‘cantabile intensamente’: “an endlessly unfolding melody, in an arch-like structure”. The concluding Scherzando is ‘”punchy” and jazz-like with its syncopations. Certainly this would have been a perfect ‘mouthpiece’ for the Bostonians as it most definitely is for the Seattle Orchestra. Whether one can really warm to the piece I am not yet sure although it has many beautiful and exciting passages.

Before saying a word about the Eighth Symphony I must comment on the excellent acoustics of the Benaroya Hall. It offers a pleasing ambience but also every detail is audible and beautifully balanced. Nowhere is this more important than at the beginning of this work when one enters a magical sound-world created by the use of much tuned percussion—as had Vaughan Williams in his Eight of just a few years before—and triple woodwind as well as a bigger section of brass. This world however does not last forever as the movement as a whole is worryingly serious and intense rather like the opening of Prayer for War of almost twenty years earlier. At times when Schuman was using gentle syncopated repeated brass chords under a wide-arching melody in the uppers strings I was reminded of the opening of Rubbra’s war-time Fourth Symphony. If you feel this movement had been mostly slow—although it is not—then the second movement might also feel similar. It is a Lament in all but name being of the same length and with a similar mood of painful resignation. Here Schuman quotes himself in fact his Fourth Quartet (1950), according to Polisi, which is at times simply a verbatim orchestration. In addition he quotes towards the end a line from his little-known opera ‘The Mighty Casey’, “Oh somewhere in the favoured land”, itself a lament. The finale is full of almost Tippett-like angularity. It again quotes the quartet, this time the rhythms of the final movement. He also orchestrates in an extremely colourful and sectioned manner with much use of glockenspiel and xylophone and other intriguing instrumental combinations. The pace is Presto leading into Prestissimo and although the original audience may well not have been impressed by the ‘glass half empty’ mood, in retrospect I can certainly report that this is a gripping work.

The Ninth Symphony is subtitled ‘Le fosse ardeatine’ and it was in the Ardeatine Caves near Rome that one of the worst atrocities of the Second World war was perpetrated by the Nazis when 335 innocent Italians were murdered as a reprisal in response to the deaths of 32 German soldiers in 1944. In April 1967 Schuman and his wife visited the cave and this work was born. It was first performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Ormandy in January 1969. The symphony falls into three sections played without a break. The ‘Anteludium’ begins with widely-spaced string lines that are pierced after a while by woodwind scurries going at a differing tempo. Massive climaxes are reached before the ‘Offertorium’ commences. This is the longest section and is mostly fast and angry with much violent brass counterpoint. The ensuing ‘Postludium’ is calmer but at no point is the ‘milk of human kindness even kindled’ and like Timon of Athens the work rails against “the world and all its doings”. It ends not with an expected whimper but with a bang, in fact a few of them: huge dissonances which leave a deliberate bad taste. The harmony—and we have come such a long way from the Third Symphony—is always atonal but with an ‘anchor’ in a key centre and the recording is shockingly immediate. There is nothing ‘Americana’ about this impressive work and the language is suitably pan-European and, if heard blind, as it were, its composer would be a challenge to guess.

Perhaps it was this lack of American identity or perhaps it was just in the nature of the Bicentennial commission in 1976 but Schuman’s Tenth Symphony (his last) was entitled ‘American Muse’. There are three movements. The first begins with percussion and brass and the work ends in exuberance with predominant brass and percussion. In between the mood is often dark, dissonant and at times nervous and nocturnal; the second movement especially so. This begins almost inaudibly and rises after ten minutes to a climax via all sorts of weird and wonderful orchestration. I especially like the high flute set against steadily moving trumpets. The opening idea is taken from an earlier work ‘Pioneers, O Pioneers!’, which sets a suitably optimistic mood. This, the composer commented, is “an essential ingredient in understanding America’s beginnings” and, dare I add, its present. However I cannot say that this symphony is optimistic throughout and only three minutes from the end one wonders if the world might not end with a crash after all.

Each disc has at least one shorter work on it and these contribute to making up a superb overall picture of this little heard composer.

Prayer in a Time of War is almost contemporaneous with the Fourth Symphony and was the outcome of Schuman being rejected for war duty; he was a very patriotic man as the symphonies often demonstrate. From a solemn opening tread it builds to a despairing and impassioned climax before, in a Piu animato section, the light dawns a little. Here Schuman often writes in the score “like plainchant” which is in keeping with the prayerful mood. The music sinks back and ends exactly as it began. I found it a most moving listen and I’m sure many will agree.

There are, in all, five Schuman ballets and four were choreographed by no less than Martha Graham. Night Journey, written just after the war is one such. It tells the ‘Odysseus’ myth more from the angle of Jocasta with her “dual destiny of mother and lover” (Polisi). What strikes me is how in his ballet scores Schuman inhabits a world far more personal and penetrating than in the more public symphonies. The sound-world is astringent, often dissonant, quite thought-provoking and a little pointillist but not unpleasantly so. Tonality is unclear but not twelve-tone. It plays without a break but can be thought of in four sections—there is just one track allocated). I left the music feeling that I had heard a masterwork and indeed the ballet is still periodically revived.

Two years later, also with Martha Graham, Schuman composed the music for anther ballet Judith. With a story from the Old Testament this tells of the revenge-killing by Judith of Holofernes, the head of Nebuchadnezzar’s attacking army. A woman murdering a man was not quite what a ballet audience expected. Schuman eventually entitled the piece a ‘Choreographic Poem for Orchestra’ after its not all that well-received premiere. There are five sections, again untracked: slow, fast, slow, fast and slow. The penultimate one describes the demise of Holofernes in his own tent. It’s a powerful work and one of long-limbed melody as in its closing almost, regretful final section. It gripped me throughout with its strong contrasts of rhythm especially in its third section. It receives, as throughout this set, a superb and vivid performance.

Schuman could write light music as and when it was demanded. The Circus Overture might appear to be ‘all mouth and trousers’ with its almost Hollywood pictorial excitement but it does what it says on the tin and was meant to open a Broadway revue. Schuman re-scored it and re-named it; good fun it is too. Preceding that work on the same disc is a funny little Orchestra Song written for André Kostelanetz and using an Austrian folk tune with quite diverse and amusing orchestral colourings. Steven Lowe, in his notes for this disc, describes it aptly as “short and catchy”.

When I asked a friend if he had heard of William Schuman he shook his head and then wryly said “Oh yes he’s one who did that ‘America’ thing”. Well he didn’t but he saw the possibilities in Charles Ives’ original and somewhat irreverent set of Variations on America of 1891. It realised a dream of André Kostelanetz who first conducted it and loved this sort of thing. Schuman’s orchestration adds percussion but also ekes out various colours that the organ cannot find. My especial favourite bit is the penultimate Spanish tango in the minor key…with castanets. Good fun!

In fact Schuman had had an even bigger success a few years before with his New England Triptych also for Kostelanetz. This, his most popular work is based on three hymns by William Billings (1746–1800). In Schuman’s hands this becomes a truly American, almost patriarchal, work. The first movement ‘Be Glad Then, America’ begins with a timpani solo before launching into a freewheeling allegro. The middle movement provides a moment of thought. It deploys ‘When Jesus wept’ and is longer than the outer ones put together. Interestingly it is scored for just strings, oboe, bassoon and tenor drum. The finale is quite brusque after a slow introduction. It uses the tune ‘Chester’. The scoring is quite brilliant and at its end would naturally raise a long cheer.

This is a fine box with impressive and oftentimes magnificent music that should be heard more regularly. There’s a whole lifetime of discovery here.

Bill Gowen
Daily Herald (IL), January 2011

One of America’s most admired 20th century composers, William Schuman (1910–1992) deserves the attention Schwarz and his Seattle Orchestra gave him during its long-running series of concerts and recordings devoted to music by Schuman and other American composers dating back to the late 1980s. Many of those earlier CDs have now been folded into Naxos’ American Classics Series with this recently released boxed set a real bargain

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, December 2010

William Schuman’s symphonies have at last met their fulfilment on disc in a complete set from Naxos. While I would still go to Bernstein on Sony for the Third the others here are searingly done and make no mistake, Schwarz’s way with the Third is in no way deficient. It’s all here across eight surviving symphonies and a miscellany of other works. Open sesame for fierce intensity, raging violence, sable-dark melancholy and nervy kinetic euphoria. Let me also put a word of recommendation in for Joseph Polisi’s magisterial Schuman biography.

Walter Simmons
Fanfare, November 2010

The one entry that for me looms above other recent releases is the first complete recording, now issued as a boxed set, of all eight performable symphonies by William Schuman, issued in time to mark the 100th birthday of this distinguished American composer and musical administrator. Rather than quibble over his precise place in the pantheon of American symphonists, I think that few would dispute the claim that he was among the five most important contributors to the American symphonic repertoire of the 20th century—a repertoire sorely in need of revival these days. Spanning the years 1941 through 1975, these eight works document the composer’s evolution from disciple of his teacher Roy Harris through his emergence as American music’s foremost public statesman. His Symphony No. 3 embraced the language and rhetorical approach of Harris, while far exceeding the latter’s capabilities in symphonic composition. His Symphony No. 10, subtitled “American Muse” on the occasion of the American Bicentennial, was a hearty congratulation to his fellow creative artists for the legacy they left, as a source of pride for subsequent generations. In between is a bounty of major works of considerable substance and expressive power, which together form a boldly individual identity—brash, assertive, and exciting. Not every symphony is a masterpiece, and Schuman’s music had its less inspired moments, and even less inspired works. Some of the weaker symphonies have long passages that seem to exert great effort to reach profound insights that finally elude the composer’s grasp. But taken together they document the growing sophistication of an eloquent creative voice. Each listener has his own special favorites among the symphonies; mine are Nos. 3, 6, and 9—a selection that seems to be shared among many of the composer’s admirers, but not by all, by any means. In addition to the eight symphonies, the Naxos set also includes such works as the ballets Judith and Night Journey, Prayer in Time of War, the perennially popular New England Triptych, Circus Overture, and a few other fillers. (Judith, incidentally, is my choice as Schuman’s single most fully consummated work.)

Schuman’s music earned the enthusiastic advocacy of Leonard Bernstein, dating back to the time of the ill-fated Symphony No. 2. Over the years Bernstein proved to be Schuman’s most passionately exuberant interpreter, and his recorded performances of the Symphonies Nos. 3, 5, and 8—and others among his works as well—are generally held to be definitive. Bernstein’s mantle was then passed on to Leonard Slatkin, who has proven to be at least as effective a proponent, although he has not been afforded the opportunity to document so many of his interpretations on recording. For the past 25 years or so, as conductor (until very recently) of the Seattle Symphony, Gerard Schwarz has focused much of his energy on American orchestral music; his contributions in this area have been of inestimable importance, and have contributed greatly to a modest revival of interest in this area of the repertoire among listeners. Generally inclined to favor a rich, opulent sound, and a relaxed sense of rhythmic progression, Schwarz has often seemed at his best in the works of neoromantic composers like Howard Hanson. As I listened to the first release in his Schuman cycle, my expectations were modest. But I was most pleasantly surprised. While Schwarz does not, as Bernstein did, immediately reach for the music’s rhythmic electricity or for its sonic bombast, his readings are cleaner and more precise, with fuller, more carefully balanced sonorities, yet with no lack of energy or excitement.

Naxos’s American Classics series will certainly hold a pre-eminent position in the discographic history of American music. Its contribution has more than equaled such distinguished efforts of the past as Edward Cole’s series on MGM, the Hanson/Eastman/Mercury series, and the Louisville Orchestra series. My fervent hope is that Schwarz’s relationship with Naxos continues despite his departure from Seattle.

Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, September 2010

For me Schuman spells kinetic power, dark-hued massed strings, a tragic weighty expressive charge and a top-dead-centre symphonic momentum. His Violin Concerto and Symphony No. 3 won me round in an instant. OK so the Violin Concerto did take a bit longer. In the 1980s foreign record lists were still exotic...It falls to Naxos to produce this complete cycle of the Schuman symphonies. If you were wondering what happened to symphonies 1 and 2 (1935, 1937) they were withdrawn by the composer—rather like those of Roy Harris although in Harris’s case the Second Symphony has been recorded. Schuman’s Second was performed and there’s even an ancient 1930s air-check of that event by Howard Barlow and the CBS orchestra and it’s by no means negligible.

Naxos picked up the Seattle/Schwarz recordings made by Delos before their first collapse but then picked up the reins making new recordings in Benaroya Hall to take us to a complete run. This box simply and in a very stylish way gathers up the five separately issued CDs (each individually shrink-wrapped) and puts them in a card box. There’s no saving in shelf space. In that sense the set is rather like the also just issued Barber/Alsop series [8.506021].

Schwarz and Seattle have the cojones to grapple with Schuman’s mountainous epic symphonies. His wartime Fourth Symphony blasts along strongly...The Tenderly, simply middle movement has one of those caressing string threnodies so typical of the best of the American 1940s. Roy Harris was surely an influence. It is this gentle vein to which Schuman was to return almost a quarter century later for the Postludium of the Ninth Symphony. The Fourth’s finale is full of gurgling mercurial fantasy—a delightful counter to the composer’s tendency to lean on fugal character.

The Orchestra Song sounds like an updated serenade or Mozartian cassation which would cosy up nicely against the Posthorn Serenade. In the Circus Overture Schwarz really lets his players rip and gives free rein to those canyons and monoliths of raw brass fanfares so typical of this composer.

The Ninth Symphony is a very late work. After this there was to be only more. This is a bleak enough piece inspired by the murder by the Nazis of 335 innocent Italian men women and children in reprisal for the Italian resistance’s killing of 32 German soldiers. Schuman’s long lines and pattering tension, gaunt brass writing and high piping woodwind hallmarks are all there but until we get to the deeply moving finale—postludium—I remained and remain unconvinced. The Ormandy RCA recording issued during the LP era has never been reissued on CD.

The Seventh and Tenth have never sounded as good from an audio viewpoint as they do here...The Tenth was written for the American Centennial in 1976 and was premiered by the National Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. It is dedicated to “our country’s creative artists, past, present and future”. The work owes its existence to the suggestion of the composer’s wife that he should revisit for inspiration his early choral setting of Whitman’s Pioneers! O Pioneers!

While the spirit and sense of flowing inevitability of the interpretations of 7 and 10 do not stand full comparison with previous recordings the issue is largely academic as the alternatives cannot be easily chased down and these readings are by no means unsatisfying.

The recording of the kinetically charged Schuman Third Symphony is projected with tremendous power. I rate this as amongst the most potent works of the mid-20th century. Its war-time origins are consonant with its primal violence and its soulfulness. While it has a steely and irresistibly euphoric joy it does not lack for elegiac substance. We can hear this in the throbbing Tallis-like singing of the strings in the Chorale... it is accorded a natural sounding recording with no shortage of oomph...Schwarz’s is no mere stop-gap as the squat brass, jazzy and ruthless syncopation, gun-shot side-drum ‘rounds’ and hyper-thrumming strings of the final five minutes of the Toccata instantly proclaim. Just superb!

The Symphony for Strings (No. 5) is in an idiom similar to that of the Third and has that same blood-rush. The string choirs are presented here with sonorous power from top to bass. One gains the sense of a nation’s soul at song and of boundless and bounding energy. Alongside this there is always an exciting and yielding humanity.

Schuman wrote Judith for a Martha Graham commission. The ballet was performed by Graham with the Louisville Orchestra conducted by Robert Whitney on 4 January 1950. They recorded it in 1972. What we now hear on this recording amounts to vintage Schuman in the manner of the Third Symphony but discursive and without the unrelenting grip that the earlier work exerts.

The Sixth Symphony was first recorded by Ormandy in the 1960s...It’s a work of nocturnal reclusion but not at all restful. Although Schuman has his lyric heart on display it is not close to his sleeve. The song is sweet but haunted and darkly clouded with Bergian strands—even a touch of Allan Pettersson about it. Barber in his most introspective brown study comes to mind and the tension never lets up. Kinetic fury has usually been part of the Schuman palette and so it is here (try. 20:00 onwards) although occluded lyricism dominates and acts as an indefatigable magnetic pull. The work is presented in a single half hour track. The Sixth was commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra League and the Dallas orchestra premièred it with Antal Doráti conducting on 27 February 1949. It’s an impressive piece if without the compulsive concentration that bowls over listeners to the Third Symphony and the Violin Concerto.

Prayer in a Time of War first saw light of day with Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Orchestra on 26 February 1943. It’s a substantial movement of symphonic bearing and unyielding seriousness as befits the subject. The language is touched with some bleakness but it is less convoluted than that of the Sixth Symphony. This is the Schuman of the Third Symphony admitting and radiating facets that recall Roy Harris and Aaron Copland. The brass writing is gaunt, statuesque and excoriating; the drum-taps and cold fanfares referencing Lincoln and Whitman. It’s is a grand statement to put alongside his works of similar concision: Credendum, In Praise of Shahn and American Hymn...New England Triptych is in three movements: I. Be Glad Then, America [5:05]; II. When Jesus Wept [7:53] III. Chester[3:08]. The outer movements are redolent of Tippett in zest, springiness and riotous exuberance. The Triptych was premièred in Miami on 28 October 1956, with André Kostelanetz conducting the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra. The next month Kostelanetz took it to the New York Phil. It is one of Schuman’s most accessible works despite its date. The three movements are based on hymns by the Revolutionary period figure, William Billings (1746-1800). Schuman refers to “a fusion of styles and musical language”; acidic-epic Schuman meets devout Hanoverian. The middle movement recalls RVW’s Tallis and Bliss’s Blow Meditations.

Schwarz has the conqueror-advocate’s measure of the bell-haunted Eighth Symphony. It was premiered in the Lincoln Center in 1962 with Bernstein conducting and was recorded by Bernstein the same year. That recording is easily and inexpensively accessible on a 1998 Sony CD alongside symphonies 3 and 5 via Amazon. While I still recommend that Sony CD for an unassailably vital and kinetic Third Symphony Schwarz is to be preferred in the often more tensely reflective Eighth Symphony. He takes a minute and a half more than the comparatively opaque Bernstein but the Seattle results positively glow. This is a work that can be difficult to approach but I find it completely accessible in this Schwarz-Naxos version. The lucid and directly engaging recording is a co-conspirator in the results. The prestissimo finale showcases the audio engineering which accommodates solo strands and florid climactic material with a natural ease and without any sense of perspective zooming. Even Schwarz cannot completely transform the rather hollow gestures of the last page or two of this score but overall the Symphony emerges wonderfully well—better than ever.

Night Journey was one of four ballets on which Schuman collaborated with Martha Graham. Its angularity and spareness of utterance is only partly accounted for by the score which specifies fifteen instruments. A diminutive orchestra was not an unusual restriction for Graham ballets of that era. The music has a Bergian astringency whether pensive, charged with nocturnal foreboding or fitfully frenetic. That inward quality echoes Barber’s tense dark-chocolate romanticism but presents in more transparent textures...The Ives/Schuman Variations on ‘America’ is a brilliant showcase built around a song that most Brits will recognise as God Save the Queen. The familiar tune is put through some wheezingly irreverent transformations. This is in no sense a representative Schuman work but is full of left-field fun...Schuman was one of the USA’s most eminent symphonists. He deserves to be counted with Roy Harris, Paul Creston, David Diamond and Howard Hanson. His Third Symphony and Violin Concerto are works of instantly commanding mastery. Like Diamond he was unfairly seen as a bit of a ‘suit’—a denizen of Academe. He may well have been a masterly administrator as Joseph Polisi’s magisterial biography points out but his symphonies are soaked in an uncompromisingly fierce intensity, raging violence, sable-dark melancholy and nervy kinetic euphoria.

My Classical Notes, August 2010

Few people have had a greater impact on the performing arts in America than William Schuman...Schuman was President of The Juilliard School from 1945 to 1961 and of Lincoln Center from 1962 to 1968. He was not only instrumental in shaping how America benefited from the performing arts, but he was also an amazing composer.

Now, Naxos celebrated the 100th anniversary of William Schuman’s birth, by issuing a CD that features his symphonies. Gerard Schwartz directs the Seattle Symphony Orchestra...Schuman’s symphonies date from between 1941 and 1976. Some of the symphonies, such as numbers 3, 5, and 7, have been recorded frequently by conductors including Leonard Bernstein and Eugene Ormandy. Others have been performed and recorded only rarely. His symphonies as a group constitute a major accomplishment. This recording may bring them the attention that they deserve.

Like any composer, Schuman changed as a creative artist over time, but listening to this [5-]CD [Set] shows that his works have some common characteristics. They are strongly rhythmic and have a distinctive orchestration which makes great use of brass and percussion. The music is occasionally dissonant, but it remains tonal for the most part. Most importantly, the symphonies are clearly the work of an American composer in their directness, boldness and basic optimism.

This [5-]CD [Set] also includes several of Schuman’s shorter orchestral compositions, including his famous “New England Triptich: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings” (1956) and his arrangement of Charles Ives’ “Variations on America” (1964).

I find Schuman’s music frequently quite moving. This is particularly the case in his 3rd symphony. Listen to that sad and beautiful opening, as played by the violas in this tragic music..., August 2010

The Naxos set is a repackaging of five separate CDs released at various times in the last several years, and the recordings by Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony were made over nearly two decades, between 1990 and 2008...the performances themselves are very fine— at his best in conducting modern music, and American music in particular. And he has clearly studied the individual characteristics of each Schuman symphony and decided what to emphasize and deemphasize accordingly. The underlying intellectual current of these symphonies is what ties them together, although as Schuman’s intellect and compositional skill developed, so did the symphonies—Nos. 6-10 are stronger on many levels than Nos. 3-5, even though it is No. 5 (which Schuman himself simply called “Symphony for Strings”) that is most often played. The first three of these symphonies are all wartime works: No. 3 from 1941, No. 4 from 1942 and No. 5 from 1943. No. 6 dates to 1948, No. 7 to 1960, No. 8 to 1962, and No. 9—whose title, “Le fosse ardeatine,” recalls a World War II Nazi atrocity—is a wartime symphony written from the much later perspective of 1968. Symphony No.10 (1975), “American Muse,” gave Polisi his book title and was created in anticipation of the United States Bicentennial.

For all their differences, the symphonies have certain things in common. One is Schuman’s expertise in and comfort with older musical forms, handled especially interestingly in No. 3, whose two movements are “Passacaglia and Fugue” and “Chorale and Toccata.” Another is a distinct Schuman touch in the form of rapid sixteenth notes interrupted at irregular intervals by sixteenth rests. A third is a harmonic language that varies from tonal to dissonant but eschews serialism and is free of such fads as aleatoric sections—with the result that the symphonies wear quite well. The dense and difficult No. 6 and the heartfelt No. 9 are especially effective works, but the airiness of No. 5 offers its own pleasures, as does the sophistication of No. 3. In fact, all the symphonies are sophisticated in structure and manner—and this may explain why they are not more often programmed by orchestras. They are not especially “difficult” by modern standards (in terms of listening, that is; playing them is another matter). But they are generally not immediately appealing, either, tending to rely more on elegant construction and finely honed instrumentation than on direct emotional connection to make their points. That is a generalization, and certain movements certainly do connect with immediate effectiveness, but the overall impression of the symphonies is of a fairly academic (if not pedantic) set of works, interesting to hear and analyze but not necessarily compelling for concertgoers.

Interestingly, the emotional connection of the other works in the Naxos boxed set is more apparent and more direct—showing that Schuman certainly knew how to get through to an audience with considerable immediacy if he so chose; this is, after all, a composer who wrote the music for 40 Frank Loesser songs...But there are enough works here in addition to the symphonies to give a fair, if not comprehensive, view of the composer’s way with other forms, and most of these non-symphonies are quite impressive. One, Judith, based on the biblical story of Judith and Holofernes, lasts longer than several of the symphonies and is an impressively structured tone poem that sounds nothing like the Lisztian model. Prayer in a Time of War, originally called Prayer, 1943 for its year of composition, is heartfelt and offers some surprising harmonies. The ballet Night Journey—the Oedipus tale told from Jocasta’s perspective—is another highly effective work in longer form (again, exceeding many of the symphonies’ lengths). And then there is New England Triptych, one of Schuman’s most-played works, which is inevitably reminiscent of Ives’ Three Places in New England but handles its old tunes by William Billings in a style that is clearly Schuman’s own. The shorter and lighter works here—Orchestra Song, Circus Overture and the orchestration of Ives’ Variations on “America”—show Schuman in full “popular” mode, with flash and dash and plenty of bubbling good humor, although often (especially in the Ives) with less subtlety than might be expected.

William Schuman is difficult to sum up as both arts administrator and composer. In the former role, he accomplished a great deal and left a highly impressive legacy for those who followed—but made some unnecessary enemies along the way and certainly did not accomplish all he set out to do. Nor did his naïveté in such areas as the relationship between government and the arts ever fully leave him—for better or worse. As a composer, Schuman developed his own style and voice, but at the same time tended to echo earlier composers, including Aaron Copland and Roy Harris (with whom he studied in the 1930s). A complex and highly interesting man, he is worth both reading about and listening to—and “listening,” in this case, encompasses both the letters and other documents included in Polisi’s book and the music presented in the five-CD Naxos set.

David Hurwitz, August 2010

...these performances maintain a very high standard throughout...Gerard Schwarz, his orchestra, and Naxos deserve a great deal of credit for lavishing such care on these pieces, and for making a strong case for Schuman’s claim to be regarded as a major voice in 20th-century American music.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, August 2010

William Schuman stands as one of the leading composers of the 20th century, his ten symphonies forming milestones in the history of American music. Those who have read my reviews of the individual discs, as they have been released, may recall the comment that ‘nothing is quite straightforward with William Schuman, his music so wide ranging in style and content that you never know what to expect’. Born in 1910, Schuman was taught by Roy Harris at the Juilliard School, and it was Harris who recommended him to the conductor, Serge Koussevitzky, who gave the first performance of his Second Symphony with the Boston Symphony. But it was to be the Third Symphony of 1941 that established him as a major voice in American music. Sharing his time and career over many different roles, he became, during the second half of the 20th century, the most influential person in American music during the second half of the 20th century. His eventual appointment as President of the Juilliard School of Music and President of the Lincoln Centre for Performing Arts, giving him enormous power in New York’s artistic world. His first two symphonies were never published and later withdrawn, so the present release offers his eight numbered works. Though his output became dominated by symphonic music that enjoyed much success in the concert hall, it has been less fortunate on disc, this the first to appear they appear as a complete cycle. For those coming to his music, it is best to start with the Third, its style modern but with melodic strands running through. It is as if he were taking over where Copland had left off. A folksy hymn-like tune is used in the second of the two movements and the work, lasting less than half an hour, has a very commercially noisy conclusion. You will also find the disc’s coupling, the Fifth, very easy to assimilate. Originally described as a Symphony for Strings, there is again the influence of Copland, and even a hint of Vaughan Williams in the slow movement. I don’t intend this to be a blow-by-blow commentary on the cycle, for only by listening will you continue from there to grow into Schuman’s world. I am a strong admirer, though perplexed at times, before eventually arriving at the catchy rhythms and brilliant high octane finale to the Tenth. As the timing of the symphonies did not easily match up to make full discs, there is also a welcome survey of Schuman’s orchestral music including his most famous work, the New England Tryptich; the imposing Choreographic Poem, Judith, and the infamous piece of fun in his orchestration of the Charles Ives organ work, Variations on ‘America’. The first recording dates from 1990—the New England Tryptich—and if memory serves me right, it was originally on the Delos label. The symphonies are of much more recent origin, the latest—the Eighth—from 2007. Not high impact spectaculars, but nicely weighted and well detailed sound. Now in a slipcase, and to be found at a special price, it is a major addition to American discography that will available in the rest of the world next month.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group