Bleak Inheritance

October 6, 2010

By Kyle Gann

I wrote an article on William Schuman for Symphony magazine, which I'll give you the details on presently. I couldn't really spare the time, but chances to write about Schuman are rare, and I love his music too much to have resisted. I gather that being a huge Schuman fan puts me in somewhat of a minority (what else is new?). There is a prejudice abroad that Schuman's composing career was only propped up by his powerful position as President of first Juilliard and then Lincoln Center. Don't you believe it.

I met Schuman once. He had some piece played in Chicago in 1986, and I reviewed him by phone for the Chicago Reader, then introduced myself at the performance. I wish I had had the chutzpah to insist on getting to know him. I told him that at home, beneath my bed, was a box of compositions I wrote in high school, most of them attempts to plagiarize the bleak opening atmosphere of his Eighth Symphony. In perfect crusty-old-sea-captain character he growled, "Surely you can do better than that!" Here's the passage in question, a reiterating series of succulently grim major-minor triads leading to a long, angularly wandering horn solo:

It's fuzzy, but try to look at those two harps and the piano, with tubular bells playing both thirds of the triad and a grace-note in the glockenspiel. Delicious. There are few passages in the orchestral literature I love so dearly. It's desolate, haunted, almost motionless, yet palpably not despairing; there's a latent energy to the rhythm and even the subtly shifting voice-leading that somehow forecasts the sardonic fireworks that will come in the third movement. It's as Americanly tragic (sorry, "tragically American" just won't do) as The Grapes of Wrath - a novel that coming events may compel us all to reread. I love Schuman's Third, Fifth, Sixth, and Seventh Symphonies too, and his New England Triptych, and I played his less impressive piano piece Voyage which had a little impact on my piano writing, but the Eighth is the one I kept trying to duplicate.

My guilty secret is that before I discovered Cage at 15, I had already lost my creative vriginity to the Harris Third, the Schuman Eighth, and the Bernstein Second (gang-banged, as it were). My high school composing style slithered around among Schuman, Harris, Ruggles, Copland, Bernstein, and - more consciously but a little more distantly as well - Ives. Had I not then fallen in with the Cage crowd, I suppose I'd be writing symphonies today. And I still suspect that my personal take on minimalism, heard through glacially moving microtones, minor-triad obsessions, and even my fetish for the 11/9 interval (347 cents) that's halfway between major and minor, was conditioned by the spellbinding effect Schuman's gloomy chords had on me at a tender age.


DJA says: Jazz musicians love William Schuman. That's a great symphony.

Jay C. Batzner says: Schuman's 6th Symphony is one of the great American masterworks of orchestral literature. I can't believe there aren't more performances and recordings of that work.
Schuman was, to me anyway, the last great American symphonist. You all might disagree, and good for you.
KG replies: If there were no more great ones, then he was certainly the last great one.

Dan Schmidt says: Wow, that is great, thank you for the pointer. And while I'm at it, a belated thanks for directing me to Vermeulen.

kraig Grady says: I won't be too proud to say while i knew the name i had not heard his music. Thank you for sharing. That was wonderful.

richard says: You're not the only one to like Schuman and the other American Symphonists. I still remember the daring it took to admit that you liked this stuff when in grad school.
KG replies: Oh, I remember. You could be on the Cage/minimalism side or the serialist side, but liking the American Symphonists would have been like wearing suspenders and a bow tie and chawing tabacky.

Steve Ledbetter says: Thanks for this, Kyle. I, too, love Schuman, and I'm surprised how seldom he is played today. I hope at least a few conductors will take him up and give him (and us) another chance.

mclaren says: William Schuman and David Diamond and John Alden Carpenter are hugely underrated American composers.
Everyone loves Howard Hanson and Roy Harris and Aaron Copland (deservedly), but for some strange reason, Schuman and Carpenter and Diamond get the back-of-the-hand treatment from American orchestras, so much so that I've never heard any of their major works live. That's a shame.
KG replies: Diamond may have torpedoed his own career by being impossibly selfish and rude and immature - in every story you hear about him he's acting like a big baby or worse. But I've been listening to more of his music lately and finding it charming. Hanson doesn't seem as overrated as he used to be, and I'm still waiting for recordings of Harris's symphonies from 10 on. But yeah, generally you're right as usual.

Walter Simmons says: Glad to read your comments about Schuman. I got to work closely with him around 1980, on an abridged version of his opera The Mighty Casey, which we did for an educational publisher. Although Casey (the full work) is generally deemed a failure, I believe that it is one of his great works, and may one day be viewed as comparable within his output to West Side Story in Bernstein's.
I think that another unrecognized masterpiece of his is the choreographic score, Judith. In many ways, it is the best single introduction to his body of work.
I agree that while the Neo-Romantics like Hanson, Barber, Creston, and Flagello have been enjoying a positive re-appraisal (who would have predicted that 40 years ago?), the "Modern Traditionalists," as I call them, like Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin are lying fallow right now. That fabulous recording of the Persichetti Piano Sonatas may have boosted his current reputation somewhat, and I hope that my soon-to-be completed book on the three of them will draw renewed attention to them-and help to distinguish them in the public mind, as they are all too often treated as carbon copies of each other (TOTALLY inaccurately).
I would also add Piston to the American symphonic pantheon as well. I agree that Diamond probably did himself in by his horrid personality, as have others of his peers. (I don't think his music holds up that well anyway.)
I eagerly look forward to reading your Schuman article.
KG replies: Hi, Walter. I first thought, "Flagello?!" But after half a minute the first name Nicholas floated up from the back of my brain. Never heard anything. I love the first half of Casey, but I have to say I think it starts to flag when the narration comes in. It's interesting that when I was young Piston was known *only* for The Incredible Flutist, and then after awhile that piece disappeared and you couldn't find it. I hope you know Nancarrow had a soft spot for Piston because Piston performed on a Lincoln Brigade benefit concert he was involved with. And I eagerly await your book.

John W. Ehrlich says: Hearing this music again reminds me anew what a heartfelt and desperate cri de coeur the opening of this Symphony is. American tragic," indeed, wholly befitting our times as much today as when it was written.
My earliest exposure to Schuman was in the early sixties when a record reviewer of the Detroit Free Press kindly gifted me with a stack of dusty old Lps he had accumulated over time. In that stack, among many other treasures, was Ormandy's incendiary recording of the Schuman Third Symphony. One hearing, and I was forever hooked. Thereafter, I haunted the Detroit Public Library's Music stacks to ferret out any score or recording of Schuman I could find.
What a gifted and deep-reaching composer. His Carols of Death for a cappella chorus continue to haunt me - so much so that I feel compelled to program them every five years or so, hoping that others, new to Schuman's genius, will join the ranks of the faithful. And, we owe Leonard Slatkin and Gerard Schwartz "big time" for their advocacies of this American treasure. Kudos to you, Kyle, for helping us remember how central this composer's music is to the 20th Century American canon.

Steve Hillyer says: Just received the May-June '09 SYMPHONY with your review of the new Polisi bio of WS. Sorry to learn the book "isn't the definitive, more analytical and psychological biography that such a towering creative figure ultimately deserves," but I'm ordering it anyway and take my hat off to whoever picked you to write the review.

Copyright 2009 by Kyle Gann

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