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William SCHUMAN (1910–1992)
Orchestral Works
Vol. 1 [60.48]: Symphony No. 7 (1960) [28:33]; Symphony No. 10 American Muse [31.51]
rec. November 2003, September 2004, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Seattle
Vol. 2 [63.25]: Symphony No. 4 (1941) [28.57]; Orchestra Song (1963) [2.59]; Circus Overture (1944) [7.53]; Symphony No. 9 (1967) [27.43]
rec. September 2003, March 2004, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Seattle
Vol. 3 [67:45]: Symphony No. 3 (1941) [27.28]; Symphony No. 5 for strings (1943) [17.55]; Judith (1949) [22.22]
rec. January 1991, September 2005, S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium Seattle [67.45]
Vol. 4 [60.51]: Symphony No. 6 (1948) [29.10]; Prayer the Time of War (1943) [15.35];
New England Triptych - Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings (1956) [16.06]
rec. 10 September 2008, S. Mark Taper Foundation, Benaroya Hall, Seattle
Vol. 5 [65:04]: Symphony No. 8 (1962) [32.28]; Night Journey (1947) [25.28]; Ives. Arr Schuman Variations on ‘America’ (1891/1964) [7.08]
rec. 15 October 1991, Seattle Opera House, 3 October 2007 (Night Journey), S. Mark Taper Foundation Auditorium, Seattle
Seattle Symphony/Gerard Schwarz
NAXOS 8.505228 [5 CDs: 317:46]

Experience Classicsonline

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.

Gary Higginson

see also review by Rob Barnett



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