The year 2010 marks the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the birth of the American composer William Schuman (1910 - 1992). Although not as famous as his near namesake, Robert Schumann, who celebrates his 200th anniversary this year (1810- 1856), William Schuman too made a lasting contribution to music and deserves to be remembered. In addition to his work as a composer, Schuman lived a busy life. He served as the president of the Juilliard School of Music and of the Lincoln Center.
In order to keep Schuman's music accessible, Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony have recorded Schuman's eight published symphonies (Schuman withdrew his first two efforts in the form, which are thus not included in the cycle.) together with other orchestral music on the budget-priced Naxos label. The National Endowment for the Arts also deserves a great deal of credit for helping to fund the project. This CD is the final installment of the set, and it includes Schuman's Symphony No. 8 together with two shorter works, "Night Journey: Choreographic Poem for Fifteen Instruments" and "Variations on `America'". The orchestral playing is clear and convincing, even though Schuman composes for a large ensemble with a dense texture, and all the voices come through admirably in the recording. Joseph Polisi, the current president of Juilliard and the author of a biography of Schuman, wrote the lucidly descriptive liner notes. Two of my fellow Amazon reviewers have written excellent reviews of this recording and of earlier CDs of Schuman's eighth. This reading of the eighth was recorded in 2008. The recording of "Night Journey" dates from 2007 and the "America" variations" recording was done in 1991, all in Seattle.
Schuman wrote the eighth symphony for the inaugural concert of the Lincoln Center in 1962. Schuman was the first president of Lincoln Center. Leonard Bernstein conducted the premier and also made a celebrated recording of the work. The symphony is a three-movement work for large orchestra that takes about 32 minutes to perform. It is dense, richly orchestrated, and heavily contrapuntal throughout. It also makes a great use of dissonance, but Schuman did not write atonal music. Each of the three movements makes use of shifting tempos and rhythms. As characteristic of Schuman, there is a great deal of emphasis on percussion, tympani, snare drums, glockenspiels, and more, and on loud brass chorales. The first two movements of the work are serious and tragic. Both these movements move from slow opening sections to a faster middle section and return to a slow conclusion. Both movements include long solo passages for horn, oboe, and strings followed by lengthy intricate passages of counterpoint back and forth between winds and strings. Both movements come to a percussive triple-forte ending. The opening movement begins with a long series of eerie chords before giving way to the main theme of the movement that begins with a horn solo. The finale of the eight symphony is also taut but more upbeat in mood than the two prior movements. Again, Schuman makes great use of long, widely-spaced melodies, interplay between winds and strings, and percussion. This movement is for the most part fast in tempo in contrast to the slow character of much of the prior movements. The symphony ends quietly. The eighth is a tough-minded imposing work that will bear frequent hearings.
Schuman originally composed "Night Journey" in 1947 as a ballet for Martha Graham. The ballet set the "Oedipus" story focusing on the tragedy of Jocasta. In 1981, Schuman revised his score by setting it for 15 instruments and cutting it somewhat. The 1981 version is performed on this CD. This is a deeply emotional, troubling score, as befitting its subject matter. It begins with jagged, discordant chords in the strings which form the basis for much of the 25-minute piece. The string and wind writing is frequently interrupted by a series of harsh chords on the piano. The music shifts in tempo from a slow opening to a furiously intense and quick middle section and back to a slow conclusion. "Night Journeys" is music of introspection and of the thoughts that come to trouble a person when alone.
Schuman's Variations on America, composed in 1964, remains one of his most accessible and popular works. Schuman orchestrated variations that a young Charles Ives composed for organ in 1891. As befitting Ives, Schuman's setting is rambunctious and rowdy, as "America" is set to flamboyant variations, including one with castanets and tambourines. But the point of the fun is to express a sense of patriotism in the familiar "America" theme.
I have enjoyed getting to know Schuman's symphonies in this series by Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony. I hope that their efforts will encourage other listeners to hear Schuman and other American composers of art music.