WILLIAM SCHUMAN: Symphonies (complete); Orchestra Song; Circus Overture; Judith; Prayer in a Time of War; New England Triptych; Night Journey; IVES: Variations on “America” – Seattle Symphony/ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos (5 CDs)

by | Sep 9, 2010 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

WILLIAM SCHUMAN: Symphonies (complete); Orchestra Song; Circus Overture; Judith; Prayer in a Time of War; New England Triptych; Night Journey; IVES: Variations on “America” (orch. Schuman) – Seattle Symphony/ Gerard Schwarz – Naxos 8.505228 (5 CDs), 5+ hours, plus book: American Muse, The Life and Times of William Schuman, Joseph W. Polisi, author [2008 Amadeus Press] *****:

If Roy Harris was the musical prophet of American optimistic pessimism, and Aaron Copland the prophet of the broad sweeping plains, and Leonard Bernstein the epitome of artistic city life, then William Schuman was certainly the maven of the American urban scene in its granite splendor. His music reflects the city everywhere, with its great steel formations, concrete foundations, sprawling bridges, and industrial might. It is angular, imposing, dissonant in its contradictions, sentimental only in ways that are rigidly stoical. Schuman, president of the Juilliard School beginning in 1945, and head of Lincoln Center from 1962-69, was a man whose optimism permeated all of his scores, a contrapuntal genius, and in love with rhythm. All of these are present in his eight symphonies (Nos. 1 & 2 were withdrawn by him, despite success, and are currently under lock and key by the Schuman estate—hopefully this will change) and this collection under review is about the best thing going for those wanting this music in splendid sound.

One disclaimer: the Fifth Symphony (“Symphony for Strings”), New England Triptych, Judith, and Ives’s Variations on “America” are all from a 1992 Delos recording that was very well received at the time, one of the best Schuman editions available then. That disc is now broken up among these five; the other recordings are all from 2003-08.

To start with the symphonies (I am not covering these disc by disc, but as a set), No. 3 is probably his most popular orchestral symphony – though it, like the others, has not been recorded much. In fact, Schuman’s important symphonic output has been neglected compared to other composers, to our shame. But I should state at the beginning that the Third Symphony, along with Nos. 5, 6, and 8 all have definitive recordings by Leonard Bernstein, No. 3 having been done twice in New York (Sony and DGG), each terrific, though I prefer the DGG. 5 and 8 are both Sony (Columbia) while No. 6 is offered on one of the New York Phil’s archive sets. This is not to denigrate this effort by Schwarz and Seattle, who really do yeoman’s work in this music and with much better sound than Bernstein had (with the exception of the DGG). Schwarz has a real feel for this music even though sometimes the high brass seem to be struggling a bit in some of Schuman’s more exuberant passages. Nos. 6 and 8, especially intense to their core, find a masterly hand in Schwarz’s interpretations, and the glorious full orchestra setting in No. 8—calling for a huge number of instruments—sounds magnificent here. The Seattle orchestra also shows great sensitivity in the string playing in No. 5, perhaps Schuman’s most popular symphony in general.

Rodzinsky premiered Symphony No. 4 with Cleveland in 1941, just a month and a half after the Pearl Harbor attack, but that did not stop Schuman from exercising his typically optimistic tone at a time of great anxiety and anticipation. The Seattle players show a lot of skill in negotiating the baroque-style contrapuntal activity while maintaining significant tension even in the more tranquil moments. Years ago Symphony No. 9, “The Ardeatine Caves”, was the first symphony by Schuman I had ever heard; it was the wrong choice for a novice, so if you are such then avoid this one until the last. Eugene Ormandy premiered it and recorded it for RCA, the definitive reading that is no loner available to my knowledge. This is a piece based on the composer’s visit to a place in Rome where 335 people were slaughtered by the Nazis in retaliation for the underground which had killed 32 German soldiers. It is brutally intense and enormously sophisticated in the manner it depicts this martyred scene, and one must be prepared before listening. Schwarz handles this work brilliantly, almost equaling Ormandy’s searing reading—but oh those Philadelphia strings!

The Seventh Symphony was created for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony in 1960 while the Tenth (“American Muse”) celebrated the bicentennial of the United States. Both are forward looking and impetuous in their portrayal of all things musical in America, the former using jazz flavors and imposing the beginning of a new romanticism while the latter borrows Schuman’s earlier choral setting of Whitman’s Pioneers! O Pioneers! The entire work is suitably energetic and celebratory, and the Seattle Symphony plays like champs in one of the more successful performances in the set.   

There are various other scattered works among these discs, some of great importance. Orchestra Song and Circus Overture are interesting pieces of short provenance–one an arrangement of an Austrian folk song and the other conceived for the Broadway stage. Judith is to me as fine a piece as Schuman ever wrote; the biblical story of the Jewish widow who saved her people by seducing and decapitating the horrid despot Holofernes brings out a lot of varied emotion from the composer, a superb tone poem that originated as a ballet. The Prayer in a Time of War may not have held the attention in 1943 like Barber’s Adagio but it is every bit as powerful in its own language. The New England Triptych is arguably the most popular work the composer ever wrote—hundreds of thousands of band students play it every year and it still shows up on concerts all the time. There are some excellent recordings, especially those by Howard Hanson on Mercury and André Kostelanetz on a Sony collection of Americana. But this one of Seattle’s ranks right up there with those, Schwarz is able to capture the blazing sense of patriotism that Schuman put into every bar.

Night Journey is one work I was not familiar with. Like Copland, Schuman was a great fan of Martha Graham, and wrote this ballet for her for 15 instruments (along with three others, including Judith) which is based on Jocasta’s view of the Oedipus story. It is a powerful work full of the typical Schuman nuances, steeped in ambiguous tonality and a jagged somberness that sounds depressing in description but is actually quite moving. Again, Schwarz plays it to the hilt. The one composition that I wondered what was doing here is the ever-popular arrangement the composer made of Ives’s Variations on “America”, originally written for organ. Schumann was sitting with Henry Cowell listening to organist E. Power Biggs play the thing at Lincoln Center in 1962, having never heard it before, and whispered to Cowell that it was perfect for an orchestral arrangement—Cowell agreed. The next day he tried to get his publisher to acquire the rights to arrange the piece but was told that judging from past experience it might be difficult as he had to obtain permission from Ives’s artistic executor—Henry Cowell! Needless to say, the piece is now one of Ives’s most popular.

I can’t recommend this set highly enough, a magnificent achievement for Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony, with performances never less than very good, and some superb. It will no doubt stand (unfortunately) as a milestone for some time, as Schuman’s work remains so neglected.

But perhaps there is hope. There has also been released a book on Schuman called American Muse—the Life and Times of William Schuman, and this is the book we have been waiting for. Perhaps it could only have been done by a Juilliard president, and author and bassoonist Joseph W. Polosi became the sixth president of that venerable institution in 1984. This is a beautifully written 616-page tome that amply captures the composer’s world and worldview while providing us with a relatively gentle read that is light and user-friendly in an easily discursive manner. There is a 150-page appendix of descriptive analysis and musical examples of ten of Schuman’s most important compositions. Perhaps this will help novices enter into Schuman’s complex but rewarding world—I simply cannot imagine a better book about this composer. Everything here gets the highest recommendation!

— Steven Ritter

Related Reviews