American Festival Overture

William Schuman

American Festival Overture

About this work

William Schuman's American Festival Overture is not music describing an American festival, but is music for "a very festive occasion," wrote the composer. The festive occasion that occupied Schuman's mind was a program of American works Sergey Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra were presenting in Boston and New York in the fall of 1939, for which the conductor asked Schuman to compose an opening piece. The work quickly became one of Schuman's most popular.

The American Festival Overture begins with a motive based on "a call to play of boyhood days," when he and his chums would yell "the syllables 'Wee-Awk-Eee to get the gang together for a game or festive occasion of some sort." This sounds more civilized but no less exuberant in its orchestral garb of strings and percussion than it must have in its original vocalization. Soon the whole orchestra has gathered, tossing notes around like a baseball in a fast-paced game of catch, moving through motives with quick sequences, and pushing the music forward at a heady speed. Eventually, the energy peters out a bit, which leads to a substantial fugue for the strings on a long, whirling subject derived from the initial motive. After the fugue, the strings settle down enough to play a pastoral melody (with peppery wind commentary) that eventually swells into lumbering, imposing brass chords. The strings lighten the mood with more quicksilver whirling, but the brass returns; for the closing, however, the brass slowly soars over the urgent strings, providing a ceremonial and celebratory ending for this spirited work.