William Howard Schuman

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William Howard Schuman

American composer William Howard Schuman (1910-1992) was celebrated for his propulsive and energetic music, a body of work built upon the foundations of both traditional and modern techniques. His early compositions, largely conservative and deliberate, evoked the themes of American folk and straight-ahead jazz, while his later works departed somewhat from key signatures, though without sacrificing a melodic and lyrical quality.

Over the course of his career, composer William Schuman wrote ten symphonies, five ballet scores, four string quartets, concertos for various instruments, band pieces, and several works for voice, most notably the opera The Mighty Casey. Sharing his musical knowledge and organizational skills with others, he taught at Sarah Lawrence College from 1935 through 1945, served as president at New York's prestigious Juilliard School of Music from 1945 through 1961, and served as president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts from 1962 until 1969. Schuman, the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees, won two Pulitzer prizes for his musical achievements, one in 1943 for the secular cantata "A Free Song" and the other in 1985 for his overall contributions to the art.

The son of Samuel Schuman, a businessman, and Rachel "Ray" (Heilbrunn) Schuman, William Howard Schuman—named after President William Howard Taft— was born in New York City on April 4, 1910, and grew up in a household that typified American life in the early decades of the 20th century. His parents, both born in New York City and of German Jewish descent, shared with many Americans a sense of idealism about their country, a pragmatic outlook on life, and a respect for the value of education. According to Schuman, his father probably never expected him to pursue anything but a practical career. Nonetheless, the elder Schuman, an open-minded man, never stood in the way of his son's ultimate artistic goals.

Followed Typical Boyhood Interests

Unlike many accomplished composers, Schuman never pursued music in earnest during his formative years. In fact, music played a relatively minor role in the Schumans's lives, aside from a ritual every Sunday evening when the family gathered around the piano singing light operas, or listening occasionally to the recordings of Enrico Caruso and Efrem Zimbalist on the phonograph or pianola. During his grade-school days, Schuman did take lessons in violin and even performed a few times in public. But for the most part, he found learning the instrument a slow and painstaking process. Sports were Schuman's foremost passion, and he was particularly drawn to baseball. A true team participant, he played every fielding position, caught, pitched, and hit.

As a student at the Speyer Experimental Junior High School, a school for gifted children, Schuman excelled at sports and was seen more as a class prankster than a serious student. Slowly, however, he began to display signs of sensitivity. Favoring English over mathematics and science, Schuman harbored a secret love for poetry he kept from his sports-minded friends. Some of his favorites included Keats, Shelley, and other romantic writers, as well as modern poets such as Carl Sandburg, Robert Frost, and Walt Whitman. In 1925 he was selected, along with other school boys from New York, by the French government to spend a summer in France, his first trip abroad.

From Speyer, Schuman graduated to George Washington High School, where he experienced a new sense of independence. Although he continued to prefer baseball to music and literature, Schuman decided to form a jazz band he called Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra, serving not only as the group's founder and manager, but also as its fiddler, banjo player, solo vocalist, and any other part needed. He could play just about any instrument he picked up, including the clarinet and piano. Still un-schooled in writing scores and arranging, he taught each member their parts note for note. The Alamo Society Orchestra enjoyed a moderate amount of success playing local dances, weddings, bar mitzvahs, and the like. Meanwhile, Schuman took up the contrabass in his high school's orchestra, and at one competition for area high school ensembles he played the Oberon Overture with 19 different orchestras because contrabass players were so few.

During summers off from school, Schuman continued to explore his musical potential. At age 16, while at a camp in Maine that he had attended annually for several years, Schuman wrote his first piece of music, a tango titled "Fate." Additionally, he wrote music to lyrics for friend and fellow camper Edward B. Marks, Jr., the son of a well-known music publisher. Over the years, Schuman and Marks collaborated in writing and performing shows at camp, eventually co-authoring a musical comedy called It's up to Pa, from which two songs were later published. He also collaborated with another childhood friend, Frank Loesser, who later became a successful songwriter. In the case of Loesser's first-published song, "In Love with a Memory of You," Schuman composed the music, while Loesser penned the words.

Despite an obvious preoccupation with music, Schuman, upon graduating from high school in February of 1928, immediately entered New York University's School of Commerce to prepare himself for a career in business or possibly advertising. He worked for a time at Paramount Advertising Agency as a copywriter, took a job as a salesman for a lithographer, and joined and quit a university social fraternity. Throughout these years, Schuman was drawn to popular music and the area near Manhattan's Times Square known as Tin Pan Alley more than ever. While pursuing his business interests, Schuman continued to write tunes for Marks and Loesser and performed in night clubs.

A New Discovery

On April 4, 1940, Schuman witnessed an event that would forever alter the direction of his life. That night, after much persuasion from his mother and sister, he saw Arturo Toscanini conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Schuman had previously resisted attending classical concerts, convinced they would bore him. But to his amazement, he was immediately captivated and realized at that moment he wanted to compose serious music. Schuman abruptly quit his business courses to seek formal musical study at the Malkin Conservatory of Music. Here, he studied harmony with Max Persin, who, in addition to introducing the aspiring composer to the classics, encouraged Schuman not to abandon his interest in popular music. Along the way, Schuman decided that he, too, wanted to teach, and in 1933, he enrolled at the Columbia University Teachers College, earning a bachelor's degree in 1935. Columbia University subsequently awarded Schuman a master's degree in music in 1937.

Schuman spent the summer of 1935 in Salzburg, Austria, working on his first symphony and studying conducting. Upon his return that autumn, he joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, where he taught music appreciation, harmony, and choral singing and conducted a student chorus that became masterful enough to perform with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall under Serge Koussevitsky. During his tenure at Sarah Lawrence, from 1935 until 1945, Schuman instituted a new approach to teaching by supplementing general arts instruction with courses in history and theory. Aside from learning the creative process, Schuman intended to provide students with a knowledge about art that would enrich their lives beyond graduation.

All the while, Schuman found time to further his own composing endeavors. Following years of composition study with Roy Harris, he won a contest with his second symphony in 1938, while his "Symphony No. 3" won the New York Music Critics' Circle Award in 1942. His "Symphony No. 4," completed in 1941, debuted with the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra in January of 1942. In April of that year, Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Symphony presented it in both Philadelphia and New York. Another significant achievement arrived in 1943 when Schuman won the first Pulitzer Prize ever awarded in music for his "secular cantata" for chorus and orchestra titled "A Free Song."

Despite such successes, it was Schuman's "Symphony No. 5"—also known as the "Symphony for Strings"—that solidified the composer's public acceptance. Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and premiering on November 12, 1943, the work received numerous hearings. Compared to his third symphony, regarded for its grandeur and expansiveness, the tight, concise "Symphony No. 5" demonstrated Schuman's ability to appeal to the masses. Representative of his early affirmative and dynamic style, it remained his most popular work. After hearing the composer's latest work, Antony Tudor commissioned Schuman to write a score for his new ballet, "Undertow," which premiered in April of 1945 and remained in the repertoire of the American Ballet Theater for years thereafter.

Back at Sarah Lawrence, Schuman, since the early 1940s, had grown somewhat restless in his teaching position. Increasingly, the school forced him to take on private students, leaving him less time to focus on his own composing. Therefore, when asked to join music publisher G. Scribner as director of publications, he accepted the offer in June of 1945. With Scribner in a position that yielded him greater earnings and more time to explore composing opportunities, Schuman promoted such renowned figures as Samuel Barber, Leonard Bernstein, and Roger Sessions. However, three days after assuming his full-time directorial duties, Schuman left in order to accept another invitation, to serve as the new president of the famous Juilliard School of Music. Before taking on the role, though, Schuman, identifying several of the school's problems, met with the school board to ensure that he would be given sufficient latitude in which to implement certain changes.

Impacted Music Education in the United States

Under Schuman's leadership, Juilliard was essentially transformed into a 20th-century institution. His first area of business was to unify the joint, yet decidedly unequal, wings of the conservative graduate school and the school's Institute of Musical Art as a single entity. Next, he founded the Juilliard String Quartet, an ensemble that soon became one of the school's most famous representatives. Other important implementations included the creation of a bachelor of science program, the revival of Juilliard's opera program, the addition of contemporary music to the school's curriculum, and the introduction of a program of academic studies to produce enlightened, well-rounded musicians. "If the student truly absorbs the concept of free inquiry in the field of music," reasoned Schuman in the Juilliard Report, "unimpeded by blind adherence to doctrine and tradition, he will bring something of this approach not only to other fields of knowledge but to the conduct of his daily life."

While an administrator at Juilliard, Schuman continued to compose. His most recognized work of the late-1940s included ballet scores for modern dance pioneer Martha Graham: her masterpiece "Night Journey" (1947) as well as "Judith" (1949). In 1953 Schuman completed his first opera, "The Mighty Casey," wherein he ably extolled his love for baseball in a style that married operatic conventions with music-hall lightness. That same year, on August 18, also saw the premiere of "Voyage," Schuman's most ambitious piano work. In 1955, for the first time in history, the government of the United States commissioned a musical work, and Schuman responded to the request—from a State Department commission for the U.S. National Committee for UNESCO—with "Credendum," an orchestral work that showed his growing rhythmic sophistication paired with the affirmative tone of his earlier compositions.

In 1962 Schuman became president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, for which the Juilliard School had acted as a constituent. Fittingly, the New York Philharmonic Symphony opened its 1962-1963 season at Philharmonic Hall of Lincoln Center with Schuman's recently completed "Symphony No. 8." During his tenure at the Lincoln Center, lasting until 1969, Schuman encouraged commissions and performances of American music, established a chamber music society and a film society, emphasized services to the urban community, and organized a summer series of special events. Following his resignation, he continued to serve on the boards of several distinguished organizations, among them the Metropolitan Opera Association, the Koussevitzy Music Foundation, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, and the Composers Forum. He was a fellow of the National Institute of Arts and Letters and an honorary member of the Royal Academy of Music in London, England.

In his later years, Schuman returned to his love of poetry, particularly Whitman, and vocal music, evidenced by works such as "Declaration Chorale" (1971), "Time to the Old" (1971), and "Perceptions" (1982). He also composed his second and last opera, "A Question of Taste" (1989). Following hip surgery, on February 15, 1992, Schuman died in New York City. He was survived by his wife, Frances Prince, whom he married in 1936, and the couple's two children, Anthony William and Andrea Frances Weiss.

Schuman will forever be remembered for his significant contributions to music education, his promotion of the arts in America, and his unique style as a composer. "If there is more of one ingredient than another in the rich mixture of William Schuman's music it is the strong-flavored energy that generates a constant boil of movement," concluded biographers Flora Rheta Schreiber and Vincent Persichetti. "There is motion stirred by boldness and intensity, movement that pushes forward resourcefully and seriously, and beneath even the quietest pages a restless current that will eventually surface in a rush."


Contemporary Musicians, Gale, 1993.

Rouse, Christopher, William Schuman, Documentary, Theodore Presser Co., 1980.

Schreiber, Flora Rheta, and Vincent Persichetti, William Schuman, G. Schirmer, 1954.


New York Times, March 8, 1992. □

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