William Schuman

1910 1992

William Schuman



William Schuman was a 20th-century American popular-turned-classical composer based in New York who lived during what he termed ‘the Copland era’. Though his name bears resemblance to that of the Romantic composer Robert Schumann, they have no relation to each other and their music and personalities differ by more than just that extra “n”. His contemporary, Aaron Copland, once claimed shortly after the composition of Schuman’s Fourth String Quartet that it ‘makes one understand why Schuman is generally ranked among the top men in music” Four decades later, Leonard Slatkin claimed, ‘[Schuman is] the man, I think, who may eventually emerge as the great American Symphonist’.

Schuman was born in New York City but lived in Englewood, New Jersey and Queens (borough of New York City) for the first decade of his life before returning to Manhattan, New York City in 1920. By the age of 16, Schuman was already a prolific composer of popular songs, of which completed more than 100 by 1934 (age 24). He collaborated with his childhood friends Edward B. Marks Jr. and Frank Loesser, who were both successful lyricists.

Schuman graduated in 1928 from George Washington High School and went on to study at New York University. However, Schuman was unmotivated and received poor grades due to his true desire to pursue popular music. He withdrew from the university after just a year and instead began composition lessons with Max Persin of the Malkin Conservatory of Music in New York. Though he was determined to become a composer of popular music, Schuman began to appreciate classical music more and more. There was one particular concert in that convinced Schuman to pursue classical music—a concert by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Toscanini on 4 April 1930. Schuman often claimed, dramatically, that he dropped out of college the day after hearing this concert, though this was of course not true as he had already dropped out of NYU in 1929.

During his lessons with Persin, Schuman developed his harmonic language, as evidences inWaitin’ For the Moon (1932). He also followed counterpoint lessons with Charles Haubiel from the winter of 1932 to the spring of 1934. His lessons with Haubiel provided him a much-needed basis in counterpoint, allowing him to develop a mature style. During the summers, Schuman attended coursed at the Julliard Summer School with Adolf Schmid and Bernard Wagenaar in orchestration and conducting and advanced theory, respectively. These studies provided him with the knowledge and skills needed to enroll at the Columbia University’s Teacher College in the fall of 1933, where he quickly earned his Bachelor of Science in Music (1935) and a Master of Arts degree (1937).

During the duration of the orchestra’s collaboration with Schuman, they premiered a number of his works includingThe American Festival Overture, Symphony No. 3 (1941),A Free Song (1943) and the Symphony for Strings (1943). Of these works, two received prestigious prizes including the first New York Music Critics’ Circle Award  (Symphony no. 3) and the first Pulitzer Prize in music (A Free Song). In addition, the Symphony for Strings was the first commission by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation to be given to an American composer. Other awards during this period included three consecutive Guggenheim fellowships (1939-41) and the first Town Hall/League of Composers Award (1939), which resulted in his String Quartet no. 3.

While at Sarah Lawrence College, Schuman was heavily influenced by John Dewey’s progressive education philosophy, leading to his own development of a more progressive and unconventional approach to music education. During his ten years at the school, he was able to experiment with new ideas, while encouraging his colleagues to do this as well. As director of the chorus at the college, Schuman became interested in choral music and composed a number of works for female chorus and SATB chorus. It was also at this time that he developed one of his trademarks of multiple lines moving at different speeds.

In 1945, Schuman was appointed president of the Institute of Musical Art and the Julliard Graduate School, which he successfully merged into one school—the Julliard School of Music. He also became the director of publications at the music publisher giant G. Schirmer. During his time at both Julliard and G. Schirmer, Schuman expanded and founded many new elements such as the Harvard-Radcliffe and Robert Shaw Choral Series, the Julliard String Quartet, the dance division, and a unique curriculum which emphasized “a comprehensive and integrative approach to music history and theory”, as described in in The Julliard Report on Teaching the Literature and Materials of Music (1953). He also took the initiative to expand the school’s faculty to include many accomplished composers such as Bergsma, R.f. Goldman, Mennin, Norman Lloyd, Persichetti, Starer, Ward and Weisgall.

Schuman’s teaching career began in the fall of 1935 as a fine arts teacher at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York. While there, he completed his Symphony no. 1, which displays his more recent influences, including that of Paul Hindemith. The Symphony was premiered in the fall of 1936 just after Schuman had begun lessons with Roy Harris, the composer ofSymphony 1933, a work that left a lasting impression on Schuman. He continued to receive lessons from Harris until 1938, though continued to seek his advice and opinions on works up until theAmerican Festival Overture (1939), which moves drastically away from Harris’ style in its revised ending.

The American Festival Overture is one of Schuman’s first published pieces that has not been withdrawn. The composer destroyed all of his popular music manuscripts and most of the music written before 1938. Only a few early works survive from his earliest years (1926-31); these works show a “Tin Pan Alley style” in regards to his melody, harmony and organization. His works between 1932 and 1935 show the influence of his lessons with Persin and Haubiel, as they are increasingly chromatic and modern in language. This trend continues until 1937 when he became fascinated by the music of Harris, which lasted until 1939. The Symphony no. 2 (1935-7) and the Piano Concerto (1938) both show glimpses of what Schuman was capable of in his mature years. These works feature many long melodies, jazz and rag rhythms and formal integrity. In addition, these works foreshadow Schuman’s use of a single pitch centre rather than standard tonality with a clear tonic. In addition, his use of bitonal cadences appeared at this time.

It was thanks to the encouragement of Schuman’s contemporary, Aaron Copland, that Schuman submitted his Symphony no. 2 (1937) to Serge Koussevitzky, a champion of new music and the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky was impressed by the work and premiered it in 1939, leading to years of collaboration between the orchestra and Schuman. While in Boston, Schuman was given a local guide, who happened to be none other than the great Leonard Bernstein, who was in his third year at Harvard at the time; the two men established a lifelong friendship from this point on.

While at Julliard, Schuman composed primarily during the summers and continued to explore bitonality in works such as hisNight Journey and the Violin Concerto and serialism in the Fugue for Strings. The most exceptional work from this period is certainly his Symphony no. 6 (1948).

Schuman also became the director of the Walter W. Naumburg Music Foundation, where he helped create the Naumburg American Composers’ Recording Prize and saw the works of 36 American composers recorded. Further, he consulted with BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) to establish and serve on the jury of the BMI Student Composers Awards.

The Julliard School’s current location in the iconic Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts is also due to Schuman’s work, which began in 1957, to convince John D. Rockerfeller III (and other important figures in the project) to allow the Julliard School to join both the Metropolitan Opera and New York Philharmonic Orchestra in the future arts complex. Schuman was appointed president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in 1962 and remained until 1968. During his time at Lincoln Center, Schuman ensured that American works were commissioned and performed, founded a summer festival and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, in addition to a summer series that served as the precursor to the Mostly Mozart Festival. He also brought the New York City Opera and the New York City Ballet to Lincoln Center and ensured that the Julliard School would also be able to come to the center, which occurred in 1969, after his resignation. Schuman met much resistance, as he wanted to bring in many new elements to the center, while the already established institutions were not in agreement with his plans, especially as he paid little attention to raising funds.

Schuman shifted his focus to composing after resigning from the Lincoln Center. He also served as director of both the Koussevitzky and Naumburg Foundations and chairman of the MacDowell Colony, where he established fellowships in honour of Copland and helped lead the way to the creation of the Recorded Anthology of American Music.

William Schuman died on 15 February 1992, leaving behind a legacy in not only in the form of his spectacular compositions but also in the modern formation of the Julliard School and Lincoln Center.