William Schuman: Symphony no. 3

performed by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein, or below by the Philadelphia Orchestra under Eugene Ormandy

This is no abstract intellectual exercise but an expression of changing moods and emotions, generating excitement and ecstasy at the climactic points.

Neil Butterworth (full quote below)

(cover image by Joshua Newton)

William Howard Schuman only has one N in his surname. His third symphony (the first published) is one of the most masterful ever written. I’d call it Brahmsian, both for the composer’s masterful handling of material as well as its beauty.

William Howard Schuman was born on August 4, 1910 “into a Jewish family in Manhattan, New York City, son of Samuel and Rachel Schuman,” says Wikipedia, and named after President William Howard Taft, for reasons not given.

He played in a band that he started, for bar mitzvahs and weddings, and initially entered New York University to pursue a business degree, but also wrote a number of popular songs in collaboration with a lyricist.

In 1930, at only 20 years old, his sister (thankfully) took him to a concert of the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall under Toscanini’s loving baton. Schuman later said:

I was astounded at seeing the sea of stringed instruments, and everybody bowing together. The visual thing alone was astonishing. But the sound! I was overwhelmed. I had never heard anything like it. The very next day, I decided to become a composer.

And thankful we all should be to his sister, no?

He dropped his current studies and began pursuing music. He studied with Roy Harris for five years, beginning in 1933. Rarely, not just for American composers, but most 20th century music folk, it seems, Schuman was one of the rare few who did not study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, as he discusses at the beginning of the below 20-minute interview.

He describes himself as being a “homegrown product,” never even aware of the existence of the Mythical Musical Madame on Rue Ballu, but says that those who did obviously gained greatly from their studies with her. He had “no musical background at all,” but as we shall see, he’s certainly one of America’s greatest, most notable composers.

Schuman’s first symphony was not a huge success, performed apparently only once before eventually being withdrawn by the composer, a fate that would come to the second also. The second, “even more radical than its predecessor,” as Butterworth says, was completed in 1937, and Sessions and Harris were on a panel of judges for a competition into which the piece was entered, and it must have won some award, because it was to be performed, recorded and published but almost wasn’t, due to financial reasons. Koussevitzky liked it, and it was performed (for the second time) in Boston (Feb 1939) to hisses and criticism. It’s been suggested, not unlikely, that this was the reason this work was withdrawn. Some recordings of a broadcast exist, but they are far from pristine.

In all, Schuman composed (well, published) eight symphonies (no.s 3-10), five string quartets, two operas, five ballets, a piano concerto, violin concerto, vocal works, and quite a bit more. In his distinguished career, he also served as president of the Juilliard School (beginning in 1945), and founded the Juilliard String Quartet. He left in 1961 to succeed Rockefeller as president of Lincoln Center, and also won a special Pulitzer Prize in 1985 for his contribution to American music.

Schuman’s third symphony (his earliest that’s published and recorded) was completed in 1941. Of it, Butterworth says on page 117 of his book:

[It] was the turning point in Schuman’s career, transforming him instantly in the eyes of the musical public from a minor pariah into a much lauded composer.

The piece was premiered by the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky’s baton (he was the dedicatee) on October 17, 1941 (just over 76 years ago). Butterworth emphasizes its power and immediate success by saying that “Not even Roy Harris’s Third Symphony had created such a strong impression at first hearing.”

While the work is often divided into four tracks for recording, it actually only has two movements, each of which is in two sections as follows:

  1. Passacaglia/Fugue
  2. Chorale/Toccata

In Bernstein’s recording with the New York Phil, the piece lasts around 32 minutes. You’ll notice that for such a recent work, the four titles are very Baroque, suggesting very old, very traditional forms, even if the composer doesn’t adhere to them religiously.

You’ll have to go read Butterworth’s analysis (with score excerpts) for a more thorough analysis, but overall, this music typifies what I find so captivating about much 20th century symphonic work I’ve listened to, like Harris, or Simpson, Holmboe, but here with a characteristic Americanness, a lean, muscly, strength, a dynamic intensity, both powerful and expressive.

Butterworth says that the titles “suggest Baroque forms in modern guise,” but at least at the beginning, it’s pretty traditional. Violas introduce the theme for the passacaglia, made up of “wide intervals that can be easily recognized in subsequent thematic material in the ensuing variations and developed in other parts of the symphony.” (p. 117) We may hear something of Harris’s third in this opening, and while I won’t analyze the composer’s development and use of canon and variation, Butterworth mentions four in particular: strings over brass; strings and woodwinds; a quieter variation; and the final variation where trombones play the theme in four-part harmony.

I’ll talk later about the relative importance of this kind of detail, but for now, it’s more than enough to be moved by the gripping, brilliantly crafted narrative of this first movement. Let that first, elegant haunting statement from violas enrapture you, and bask in the exquisite contrapuntal qualities of the opening and listen to it all unfold.

We hear much more of that contrapuntal skill, as one would expect, in the ‘fugue’ half of this first movement, and they are about in equal halves. The tension and building energy from the passacaglia is what precipitates the fugue in all its energy and excitement. Even here, though, after a more angular presentation of the original passacaglia theme, we get a magical, tender slow variation introduced by English horn. Listen for the second variation, which begins with roaring timpani and some superb brass writing. The close of this movement, a long, logical progression of feeling and momentum, is monumentally powerful.

Within a span of just 13 1/2 minutes Schuman has packed an extraordinary amount of material, closely argued development entirely derived from the Passacaglia theme by means of extensive transformation. This is no abstract intellectual exercise but an expression of changing moods and emotions, generating excitement and ecstasy at the climactic points. (Butterworth p. 120)

Butterworth says that the same principles that guided the development and structure of the first half are applied to the Chorale and Toccata. The Chorale is unsurprisingly the slowest section of the symphony, and the longest. There’s the wide-open, broad American sound we might be familiar with from Barber’s adagio or Diamond from earlier in the week. It’s meditative, crystalline, pristinely clear and moving, unmistakably modern, but by no means in a challenging harmonic vocabulary, wholly captivating. The climax of the Chorale is followed by a solemn statement from oboe, practically a whisper, before a resonant pluck of low strings followed by the side drum subtly announcing the arrival of the Toccata.

A music critic and writer I met a few months back described the beginning of the Toccata as ‘the breakthrough moment for bass clarinet solos everywhere‘ or something like that. Interestingly, the side drum has already sneakily introduced us to the rhythm of this solo, tapping it out like Morse code ahead of the bass clarinet’s arrival. This again is related to the Passacaglia theme of the opening, a masterful connection of material. This movement, for me, is the most memorable, the culmination of everything we’ve heard so far, and the most lively. Everything here unfolds from the side drum and bass clarinet, a whirlwind of exceptional activity that brings this magnificent symphony to a gripping, truly breathtaking close.

I must say this has to be one of the greatest symphonies in the series, even if I communicated my enjoyment of it rather poorly. The work quickly nudged its way into the top few most memorable pieces I’ve enjoyed during the writing of this blog (four years now, mind you). It is a remarkable achievement, and a piece from which a listener, musically trained or not, can derive much pleasure. I had intentions to discuss that, the fact that whether you’re listening for motivic development and treatment of themes, or just sheer joy and excitement, the piece offers both. We’ll be seeing lots more of Schuman in the future, hopefully. Thanks very much and stay tuned for more American works.

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