Schuman, William Howard
Schuman, William Howard
Schuman was the second child of Samuel Schuman, a bookkeeper who eventually became manager of Oberly and Newell, a large Manhattan printing company, and Rachel Heilbrunn. Both of his parents believed firmly in the attainment of the American dream through hard work and education, and they named their son after William Howard Taft, then the president of the United States. The family enjoyed going to the theater, and they gathered around the piano on Sunday evenings to sing songs from operettas and other popular semiclassics. While in elementary school at Manhattan’s P.S. 165, Schuman requested violin lessons so
he could play in the school orchestra, and his parents arranged for him to study with Blanche Schwarz. Nevertheless, Schuman preferred playing baseball to practicing.
Schuman continued his education at Speyer Experimental Junior High School for Boys, a school for gifted children. At Speyer he developed an interest in theater, and he wrote and produced a play titled College Chums. During the summer of 1925 Schuman was invited to travel to France on a program called the Boys’ Educational Tour of France. He spent other summers of his teenage years happily at Camp Cobbossee in Winthrop, Maine. There he wrote some of his first musical compositions, including a violin tango titled Fate (c. 1926) and numerous popular songs with lyrics by his friend Edward B. Marks, Jr., the son of the music publisher Edward B. Marks.
Attending George Washington High School, Schuman organized a jazz band named Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra. He served as its manager, sang vocal solos, and played violin and banjo. During this time Schuman also learned to play the double bass and performed with the school orchestra. Although he had little formal musical training, he learned quickly and was facile on a number of different instruments.
Following his graduation from high school in February 1928, Schuman enrolled in the New York University School of Commerce. He assumed that he would have a career in business, most likely in advertising. This changed on the evening of 4 April 1930, which Schuman considered the marker of his conversion to a life in classical music. On that evening he reluctantly accompanied his sister to a concert of the New York Philharmonic conducted by Arturo Toscanini at Carnegie Hall. He had never heard a symphony orchestra before and was awestruck by the experience. As Schuman recounted later, “I just left and said I knew I would have to spend my entire life in this type of music.” He quit New York University the following day and enrolled at the Malkin Conservatory of Music in New York City to study harmony with Max Persin.
Persin encouraged Schuman to learn the principles of harmony through the study of the music itself and did not prescribe the use of a specific textbook. This free approach later influenced Schuman’s own pathbreaking initiatives in teaching music theory. Persin also encouraged Schuman’s continued work in popular music genres. Around this time Schuman met the songwriter Frank Loesser. They eventually collaborated on approximately forty popular songs, including Loesser’s first published song “In Love with a Memory of You” (1931).
During the summer of 1931 the entire Schuman family traveled to Europe. Upon his return Schuman began counterpoint studies with Charles Haubiel. He also enrolled in the Juilliard School of Music summer school program, studying harmony with Bernard Wagenaar and orchestration with Adolf Schmid. Aware that he would need some sort of practical degree to support a creative life in music, Schuman enrolled in Columbia University Teacher’s College in 1933. He received a B.S. degree in 1935 and an MA. degree in 1937. During the summer of 1935 he studied conducting at the Mozarteum in Salzburg.
In the fall of 1935 Schuman assumed his first teaching post at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, attracted to the position in part because of the school’s innovative educational philosophy. During his decade at Sarah Lawrence he developed many of the educational principles he later established at Juilliard. Through creative and innovative methods that encouraged individual development, he successfully taught the elements of music to students who had no prior training. Schuman described his theories in a 1938 article, “An Unconventional Case History,” published in the journal Modern Music.
Schuman’s compositional work continued while he pursued his teaching career. He composed his Symphony no. 1 for chamber orchestra in 1935 and entered it into the prestigious Beams Prize competition at Columbia University. The work was not successful, and Schuman decided to seek guidance from the American composer Roy Harris, whose works he admired. From 1936 to 1938 he studied with Harris, first through Juilliard’s summer school and later privately. Schuman married Frances Prince on 27 March 1936. They had two children. In 1937 Schuman composed his Symphony no. 2, String Quartet no. 2, Prelude and Fugue for orchestra, and two choral works. The second symphony won first prize in a 1938 competition sponsored by the Musicians’ Committee to Aid Spanish Democracy. Aaron Copland, one of the judges, was impressed with the young composer. Copland introduced the symphony to the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who performed it with the Boston Symphony in February 1939. Although generally not well received by the critics, this major performance nevertheless sparked interest in Schuman’s music. His first major critical acclaim came in 1939 with the Boston Symphony’s performance of his American Festival Overture, also under the direction of Koussevitzky. Energetic and prolific, Schuman composed both Symphony no. 3 and Symphony no. 4 in 1941. Symphony no. 3, given an acclaimed performance by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony in October 1941, is considered one of Schuman’s finest works. Among the works he composed in 1942 was a cantata for chorus and orchestra, Free Song, which received the first Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1943. By this time the composer was firmly established as a major presence in American artistic life.
In 1944 Schuman was offered the position of the director of publications at G. Schirmer, the company that published most of his music. Since he was committed to his teaching position at Sarah Lawrence until June 1945, he accepted the position on a part-time basis for the first few months. He formally assumed this appointment on 1 June 1945. Three days later Schuman was invited to apply for the position of president of the Juilliard School of Music. Initially Schuman was reluctant to pursue this opportunity. He saw many problems in the school’s educational curriculum and did not think the board would allow him the freedom to make the radical changes he thought necessary. This was not the case, however, and the board unanimously approved his appointment as president beginning 1 October 1945.
Schuman indeed made numerous innovative changes during his seventeen-year tenure as the president of Juilliard. First was the complete amalgamation of the Institute of Musical Art and the Juilliard Graduate School, Juilliard’s two predecessor institutions. He established the Juilliard String Quartet in 1946 and the school’s dance division in 1951, and he negotiated Juilliard’s place as the educational component of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, established as cultural center in the mid-1950s. He fostered the creation and performance of new music through the development of commissioned programs and festivals. His establishment of the pathbreaking Literature and Materials of Music curriculum in 1945 for teaching music theory became a model for similar programs throughout the United States and remained in use at Juilliard into the twenty-first century.
On 1 January 1962 Schuman assumed the presidency of Lincoln Center. As only the second president of the newly created complex, following General Maxwell D. Taylor, Schuman faced numerous challenges, including unfinished architectural plans and funding shortages. Among his important initiatives during his six-year tenure, he established an educational outreach program that eventually became the Lincoln Center Institute, and he developed the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Schuman suffered a heart attack in April 1968, prompting him to resign from the Lincoln Center presidency as of 31 December 1968. He remained active as a composer and served as a consultant to many arts organizations. Schuman died at the age of eighty-one from complications following hip surgery.
Schuman was prolific as a composer throughout his years in demanding administrative posts. His output included ten symphonies, the last of which was commissioned for the American bicentennial celebrations; five string quartets; two operas, The Mighty Casey (1953) and A Question of Taste (1988); choreographic works for Antony Tudor and Martha Graham; as well as numerous solo, chamber, vocal, and choral works. He received many commissions, honors, and awards throughout his lifetime, including more than twenty-three honorary degrees, Guggenheim Fellowships, and the first Brandeis University
Creative Arts Award in Music in 1957. He was honored by the Kennedy Center in 1989 “for an extraordinary lifetime of contributions to American culture through the performing arts.” His children established the William Schuman Music Trust, which encourages dissemination and performances of his music.
Schuman’s music and his artistic and educational innovations have had a profound impact on American musical life. His fellow composer Morton Gould stated: “He used his creative juices not only to write his music, but to stimulate the music of his time and the things around him. . . . He triggered all the things that have become part of our musical way of life.”
Schuman’s papers are at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and his musical manuscripts are at the Library of Congress. Major works about Schuman are Flora Rheta Schreiber and Vincent Persichetti, William Schuman (1954); Christopher Rouse, William Schuman, Documentary (1980); and K. Gary Adams, William Schuman: Bio-bibliography (1998), which includes citations for hundreds of journal articles and dissertations about Schuman and his music published through 1994 as well as a complete list of Schuman’s own writings. An obituary is in the New York Times (16 Feb. 1992). An unpublished oral history was compiled by Sharon Zane for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts Oral History Project (1990).