On a recent visit to Washington, D.C., I toured our national memorials for the first time since childhood and noticed — now with a musician’s eyes — that the capital’s oldest memorials revert to European models to lend their subjects ancient pedigrees. The Lincoln Memorial, a tomb-like, horizontal slab modeled after a Greek Doric temple, seems to summon the spirit of Beethoven, with its awesome statue of the Great Emancipator and condemnations of slavery incised into the walls. The Jefferson Memorial, inspired by the Roman Pantheon, conjures up the Classical lightness — and emotional complexity — of Mozart; the four texts engraved on its gently curving walls (including a fragment of the Declaration of Independence) contain subtle contradictions. The structure is open to the wind, a force that can carry seductive music, or impassioned argument, to our ears.
When it came time to mourn its war casualties, however, America was left to invent its own designs. Maya Lin’s daringly original Vietnam Memorial is an analogue to Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, a single swerve of melody, or stab of pain, carved into the ground with elegance and force. The Korean War Memorial replicates Lin’s black wall but adds human figures, making the whole design lighter and less foreboding, more approachable — more Aaron Copland. But it was a newer structure, the National World War II Memorial, that immediately made me think of William Schuman. Bigger and more physically impressive than its two predecessors, its design is also repetitive, grandiloquent, bombastic and, despite its genuine patriotic spirit, more than a little empty.
If there is a list of Great American Composers, William Schuman (1910–1992) is unquestionably on it. But he sits, with Walter Piston and Ruth Crawford Seeger, on an intermediate tier, beneath such luminaries as Copland, Barber, Carter, Ives and Varèse but above admirable master craftsmen like Persichetti, Diamond and Menotti. And Schuman, while proud of his accomplishments, knew it. “One of the privileges of my life is being part of the Copland Era, as our time will certainly be known,” Schuman gushed at his older colleague’s seventieth birthday celebration.
But Schuman was also one of the paramount power players in American music, as a dynamic president of the Juilliard School (1945–61) and as the even more assertive inaugural president of Lincoln Center (1962–68). It is the great virtue of Steve Swayne’s biography, Orpheus in Manhattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life (Oxford, $39.95), that we see how the creative and administrative sides of Schuman’s life complemented each other.
The first thing to know about William Schuman is that he was neither a “tortured artist” à la Mahler or Tchaikovsky nor an impecunious child prodigy put to work in the musical salt mines like Mozart or Beethoven. Born to solidly middle-class German Jewish parents, he was an utterly normal American boy who loved baseball and music and girls. Young Billy pursued the first two over several summers at Camp Cobbossee, a Boys’ Own paradise in the Maine woods where he won athletic prizes and put on Gershwin- or Rodgers-and-Hart-style musicals with his buddies; his pursuit of the third was facilitated by a generous monthly allowance that allowed him and his friends to rent a series of Roaring Twenties bachelor pads.
It wasn’t until the early 1930s that Schuman abandoned his attempts at Tin Pan Alley fame and got serious about classical composition. Haunting Carnegie Hall concerts several nights a week while taking lessons in harmony, counterpoint and orchestration, he formed, with astonishing alacrity, a distinctly schematic and muscular neo-classical style that would serve him, with minimal alteration, all his life. He broke through with his Third Symphony — triumphantly premiered by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in 1941 — and went on to win a bushel of honors, including the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for Music. Socially nimble, he transferred his allegiance from his mentor, the domineering Roy Harris (whose star, launched by the sui generis Symphony 1933, was already fading), to more mutually respectful friendships with Koussevitzky, Copland and the young Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein would become Schuman’s next great podium advocate, second in a distinguished line that would continue with Eugene Ormandy, Antal Doráti and Leonard Slatkin.
And yet Schuman devoted only part of his abundant energy to writing new work; according to Swayne, he was so “monstrously efficient” that he could calculate his composition time down to the minute. The rest of his energy went into music administration. This path began at Sarah Lawrence College, where he arrived as an assistant professor in 1935 and proceeded to revolutionize the school’s music program. It continued at Juilliard, where he put American contemporary music at the center of the conservatory’s mission, instituted color-blind admissions, brought in the rising star Robert Shaw to lead choral concerts, and enlisted a young violinist named Robert Mann to found the Juilliard String Quartet. Schuman also founded Juilliard’s dance division — a natural move for a composer who created some of his most impressive scores (including Undertow and Judith) for such choreographers as Antony Tudor and Martha Graham.
Enduring legacy. William Schuman was one of the paramount power players in American music but, like the National World War II Memorial, not without flaws.
All of this time was allocated happily, since Schuman had a unique fear of having nothing to do but compose. “I spent months studying pension plans,” he once remarked of his administrative career. “If you mentioned this to one of my friends in music, they wouldn’t know what you were talking about. I find it just as intriguing as fugue writing.” He met his biggest challenge at Lincoln Center, where he not only supervised the building of the campus but made the center a programming powerhouse unto itself — much to the consternation of such campus tenants as the Metropolitan Opera’s imperious Rudolf Bing.
Schuman’s rise to the top was accompanied by his characteristic assertiveness, super-confidence and occasionally towering bursts of rage. At Lincoln Center he maintained a cavalier attitude toward budget restraints, expecting the board to simply go out and raise more money to fulfill his grand ambitions. Eventually the board, which had expected Schuman to pursue independent programming, found that they had gotten rather too much of what they’d asked for; the “über-administrator” with the rare genius for public speaking was turning out to be spectacularly tone-deaf. (A devoted husband and father, Schuman kept his balance during these years through family life.) But we are the beneficiaries of his bull-headed, far-sighted idealism. New Yorkers who enjoy attending Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center or Mostly Mozart concerts, or Film Society of Lincoln Center screenings, have Bill Schuman to thank.
Swayne, a professor of music at Dartmouth, does not let his diligent scholarship get in the way of a felicitous phrase. (After Bernstein was excused from service in World War II because of asthma, writes Swayne, he “breathed a two-page sigh of relief to Schuman” by letter.) But students of the era will find that American Muse, Joseph Polisi’s 2008 biography of Schuman, adds needed texture to our understanding of the composer. As the current president of Juilliard and a consummate music insider, Polisi knows where the bodies are buried, and he has stories to tell: one of the most startling reveals the naked muscle that Schuman used to oust Peter Mennin (Schuman’s successor as head of Juilliard) from the presidency of the Naumburg Foundation in 1971.
‘The fact that Schuman’s Third and Fifth Symphonies are not regularly performed by our country’s first- and second-rank orchestras is a particularly American disgrace.’
If Mennin — likewise an author of well-crafted, trenchant–lyrical polytonal symphonies — was a poor man’s William Schuman, where does that put Schuman himself? The answer, like the composer’s career, is complex. The fact that Schuman’s Third and Fifth Symphonies are not regularly performed by our country’s first- and second-rank orchestras is a particularly American disgrace, one shared by such native glories as Ives’ Three Places in New England and Barber’s Symphony No. 1. No other American symphony can match the Third’s combination of high musical content and brilliant orchestration: Schuman’s singular technique pits choirs of strings, winds, brass and percussion against one another — when they’re not conversing energetically among themselves. The two movements — Passacaglia and Fugue, Chorale and Toccata — may make up two little Roy Harris Third Symphonies, both in their titles and in the free use of ancient European compositional devices. But this is Harris’s music polished and brought to market, crafted with a ruthless, machine precision that, leaving 1930s sentimentalism behind, made Schuman the “coming man” of the World War II years.
And then there is the Fifth, written for strings alone. No American symphony is as expressively refined, as formally perfect, as this one: with no other instruments to distract him, Schuman weaved out of the string body mellifluous strands of what one critic, in an inspired adjective, called a splendidly “aerated” polyphony. The outer movements are vibrantly, aggressively optimistic, while the elegiac central movement, in which Ives and Vaughan Williams seem to meet, contains the most beautiful melody that Schuman ever wrote.
The strength of Schuman’s melodies could also be a central weakness, as Swayne inadvertently reveals when he writes that the Third Symphony exhibits “a linearity that unfolds as both melody and counterpoint, coupled with a waywardness that often makes the content and contour of [the] lines difficult to remember . . . because of their intervallic content or their range or their length or some combination of these three.” In short, Schuman always seemed to be writing the same tune. (Samuel Barber had a lifelong love affair with the oboe, but the big melodies from “Overture to The School for Scandal,” the First Symphony and the Piano Concerto each inhabit a unique expressive world.) Schuman’s style was fiercely individual, but too often it became a series of stock devices: the brooding, major-minor opening chord and the “wayward” tune over pizzicato cellos; the herky-jerky rhythms enunciated, en masse, by the winds; the big, brassy, timpani-thwacking, polytonal finale. As Swayne admits, sometimes “the music barely avoids falling into aural quicksand.”
There are other gems in Schuman’s catalog, however. The ballets Undertow and Night Journey have an emotional richness and complexity unmatched in the rest of his oeuvre; the Violin Concerto fulfills the lyrical promise of the Symphony for Strings (as well as the Third Symphony’s formal plan); and the Eighth Symphony, influenced by Webern, is a whirling and rhythmically buoyant kaleidoscope of orchestral color. New England Triptych, which has never gone out of style in either its orchestral original or its band adaptation, is a burnished escutcheon of Cold War patriotism. (Its secret twin is the Second Symphony. In 1938 it won first prize from a “Musicians Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy” that included Copland and Harris, but Schuman, who grew up in a liberal Republican family that distrusted radicalism, had already intuited that an attachment to leftist politics could come back to damage one’s career. He officially withdrew it, supposedly because of bad reviews.)
In the end, we are left with an impression of Schuman as an intelligent, driven, fundamentally creative but not particularly introspective artist. Why? Because the composer and the businessman were one. “Self-criticism was not a posture Schuman adopted,” writes Swayne. “He didn’t have time for reflection, so busy was he creating universes ex nihilo.” Copland’s cool, supple style and wider range, and Barber’s sheer melodic genius, have given their works a firmer place in the international repertory.
But let’s not be harsh. As Swayne eloquently puts it, “No man gets to finish everything that he starts in this life. Schuman finished more than most men dream of starting.” His institutional influence, and the best of his music, should echo for generations.
Russell Platt, a former music editor at The New Yorker, is a composer of chamber works, concertos and songs.
Photos: Getty Images, Corbis