A Conversation with Joseph W. Polisi, Author of American Muse
Joseph W. Polisi, President of The Juilliard School, talks about his new book, American Muse, which is a biography of his mentor, composer William Schuman (1910-1992).
[Ed. Note: I found Joseph W. Polisi’s new William Schuman biography, American Muse, compelling and inspiring reading. Schuman was the President of The Juilliard School from 1945 to 1961 and subsequently the first President of Lincoln Center, from 1962 to 1968. While maintaining these extremely high profile administrative jobs, Schuman attempted to devote at least 600 hours per year to writing music—the result is an extremely prodigious oeuvre that includes two operas, ten symphonies, and five string quartets, as well as numerous concertos and choral works, plus over one hundred popular songs. Polisi is the current President of The Juilliard School, and Schuman is a mentor to him, both for his administrative vision as well as for his music—Polisi is also a concert bassoonist and has performed several of Schuman’s works. But William Schuman was also a very complex individual who was not always likeable and the book offers readers the whole story. —FJO]
- PLUS: Read an excerpt from Joseph W. Polisi’s book, American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman.
A Multifaceted Biography of a Multifaceted Individual
Joseph W. Polisi, Author of American Muse;
photo by Christian Steiner, courtesy of The Juilliard School.
FRANK J. OTERI: Your biography of William Schuman presents a very complex personality—it’s clearly written with admiration but it is not at all hero worshipping. It’s extremely well-balanced, even though that you now have his job at Julliard could easily have made you over-identify with him.
JOSEPH W. POLISI: Bill was a good friend and a mentor, so that was my principal fear. When I started doing some of the sample chapters, I was very concerned about how objective I could be. If I found something that was upsetting or negative for Bill, would I have been able to deal with it?
The process started with me trying to work with Frankie, his wife, on finding a biographer. Frankie wanted everything only in Bill’s words, which was based on all those oral histories he gave. But that did not work out. And then Frankie had passed away, so I was on my own. I worked with Bill’s son and daughter, Tony and Andie. Bill saved every scrap of paper that he ever owned, or that anybody else related to him owned. Most of it is over at the Lincoln Center Library. So I just found myself following the trail and corroborating it with written documentation that he had indicated—whether it was an argument about a parking ticket he got while he went to his dentist or the amazing frictions he had in the early 1970s with Peter Mennin and the Naumburg Foundation and with Charles Wadsworth and the Chamber Music Society. It was so out front and so clear, that I just reproduced the evidence, the information, and was able to follow it.
FJO: For those Mennin and Wadsworth frictions, were you able to get their side of the story as well? Or did that ultimately matter to you?
JWP: It certainly mattered. And there was correspondence on the other side, as well. With Peter Mennin, it was so obvious that [what Bill did] was very aggressive and probably inappropriate. I’m sure I could have had that reinforced even further—perhaps by Mrs. Mennin, because Mr. Mennin is no longer with us, of course—but it was clearly an overstepping of bounds, and that’s the way I try to present it in the book.
FJO: It’s ironic, too, because Peter Mennin was a parallel figure to Schuman. He also balanced the lives of administrator and composer; his primary compositional legacy is a cycle of symphonies, too. Given all that, you’d think that Mennin would have been someone that Schuman would have taken under his wing, but it wasn’t that way at all.
JWP: Bill hired Peter Mennin, of course, as one of the first L&M [Literature and Materials of Music] teachers [at Juilliard]—it was a very distinguished group: people like [Norman] Dello Joio and [Vincent] Persichetti. [Yet Peter and Bill] never became friends. Bill always said that he respected Peter’s music and he felt that Peter respected his music. But they weren’t close. Time passed and Peter became the director of the Peabody Conservatory and eventually the president of Juilliard, but Bill did not support Peter’s candidacy. And Bill’s depiction in the oral history of the appointment was an equivocal one. Of course, Peter was a very longstanding president of Juilliard, for twenty-three years. And Peter did so much for Juilliard; it was a great legacy.
Peter Mennin (left) and Schuman at a reception at the Lotos Club, Novfember 5, 1962, on the occasion of Mennin’s appointment as president of Juilliard. (Impact Photos, Inc. Juilliard School Archives)
According to Tony Schuman, Bill’s son, Bill was in some ways ostracized by Juilliard for many years. There was the very famous, or infamous, opening of Tully Hall on October 26, 1969. That special program, where Mennin tells Bernstein, “Don’t really say much about Schuman,” and cuts some of the script. And then Bernstein goes off script at the very end of the show and there’s this great level of applause for Schuman.
So Bill and Peter were separated in so many ways almost until Peter’s death in 1983, and then there was a rapprochement. Of course Bill lived much longer. I didn’t know Peter Mennin at all; I had met him once at a Carnegie Hall concert and shook his hand.
Ironically, [Bill and Peter] both lived in the same apartment building, 888 Park Avenue. I didn’t tell the story in the book, but when I was appointed and I saw that Peter Mennin’s widow and Bill [both] lived in 888, I thought this is where the president of Juilliard lives. But it wasn’t. So anyway, it was only at the end.
FJO: So how prominent was Bill’s legacy while he was still alive in the day to day workings here at Juilliard? And how powerful, without getting too metaphysical, is his ghost?
JWP: When I arrived in September ’84 to Juilliard, his presence was essentially nonexistent, although there were, obviously, many manifestations of his legacy: the dance division, the Literature and Materials of Music program, the Juilliard Quartet. What was not clear to me until I’d done the research is how much work he had done on bringing drama to Juilliard, which was always presented to me and others as the work of Peter Mennin. Of course, Peter was the president who implemented it. But all the planning really took place with Bill’s work.
When I became president in ’84—it was probably a level of naïveté at that point in my life—I didn’t really know that Peter and Bill didn’t get along. I was not privy to these sorts of things. It was only after time, when I was speaking to Bill and others, that I learned that there was friction. So I naturally brought Bill back, in the sense that I’d invite him to concerts and we’d occasionally play a piece of his. In terms of his ghost, his spirit is very much a part of me, and I think a part of Juilliard. The entrepreneurial spirit that he had is something I admire. Every time I start a new program—whether it’s jazz or early music or the music advancement program—I always think of the story of what Mark Schubart said when Bill was still president of Juilliard and the board was getting a little worried that Bill was creating too many new programs: “Don’t worry, he won’t start a medical school.” And it came to roost recently, because I was having discussions with the Cornell Weill Medical School about having an association. So I laugh to myself about that one.
Knowing William Schuman Through His Music
FJO: How did you and Bill first meet each other?
JWP: That’s something I don’t mention in the book. As you’ve probably seen, I don’t really mention my personal association with Bill. I say that I was close to him at the very beginning, but I don’t say anything else. I first met him personally in 1976, but it was only in passing, when I was at Yale as an executive officer. I was putting together a special function that was a panel discussion and concert, and it involved [Aaron] Copland and Schuman, Leon Kirchner, [Krzysztof] Penderecki, and Jacob Druckman.
But I first met Bill [much earlier] through his music. I’m a bassoonist. “When Jesus Wept”—the second movement of Bill’s most played piece, New England Triptych—features a bassoon solo. When I was a sophomore in high school, I was in All-City Orchestra. I was the youngest kid. All the other bassoonists—there were three others—were seniors. And they were all taking the SAT exam on one day, a Saturday. So I was the only bassoonist. And we had to play that second movement. I was just starting out as a bassoonist and the solo is in tenor clef. I wasn’t really super conversant reading tenor clef. But I had to play the solo anyway, and I didn’t do a really very good job. I didn’t [yet] know Bill Schuman. After that I always worked on it; it was actually the quickest way that I learned tenor clef. [In 1986] I premiered Dances [for wind quintet and percussion] at the Chamber Music Society; I was the bassoonist. So Bill was always a part of my life.
FJO: Did you ever play his early Quartettino for four bassoons?
The first page of William Schuman’s 1939 Quartettino for four bassoons; Copyright (c) 1956 by Peer International Corporation. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.
JWP: I had played that as well over the years. For a young musician of my time, Bill was super well known. He’s not known now, which is so sad.
FJO: What do you think is the cause of William Schuman’s music falling off people’s radar?
JWP: I think, first of all, conductors. Conductors tend to champion contemporary composers whom they know personally. And, as I mention in the book, when Bill was composing, it was period of time when serialism was so prevalent—certainly, in the academy. If you didn’t write using that technique, you were perceived of as old-fashioned or intellectually barren or questionable in terms of your motives. So in terms of the mainstreaming of Bill’s music, although it was performed a great deal [when he was alive], it was not exactly linked to the ethos of the time. Now that tonality is embraced by young composers and others, as well, I hope that there will be a resurgence of Bill’s music. But it’s the old story of where do you put a twenty-five minute American symphony that’s not known by most people. We can’t start it at the very beginning; it’s not the overture. And it’s not the concerto part of it. Oh, after intermission. Well, I want to do my Mahler symphony or my Beethoven. So where do you fit it in? It doesn’t fit in.
FJO: But, of course, Bill wrote some amazing concertos. His violin concerto is one of the greatest American violin concertos in the repertoire.
JWP: Absolutely. That is a spectacular concerto. And there’s been a resurgence of performances of that piece which is very encouraging. Bobby McDuffie’s done a great recording of it. And Gil Shaham just did it in New York with the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas. We’re going to do it next year with Leonard Slatkin, as part of an all-Schuman concert. So we’ll get the younger violinists to learn it as well. And Song of Orpheus is beautiful and very engaging; a cellist should have that in his repertoire. From the later period—well, the ’70s, at least—there’s an amusing aside. You know the Concerto on Old English Rounds for Viola and Orchestra and women’s choir? It’s logistically such a challenging piece. But when you start studying it, it’s really a fascinating juxtaposition of the viola lines and the choral lines. That’s a piece that should be performed more, too. But it’s not short; it’s in the forty minute range. And you need a women’s choir to do it, as well as a viola soloist.
FJO: A work like that is so indicative of his output. He really created music on his own terms. And he was in this position where on the one hand one camp looked at him as a throwback, but the other camp found his music difficult, if not incomprehensible. You tell this wonderful story in the book about a guy who listens to Schuman’s music on the radio and sends the station a complaint letter claiming he took aspirin for three days and still couldn’t get rid of his headache. So this music ultimately doesn’t fit into either camp.
JWP: He certainly was not perceived as an innovator. Bill would say that he took his roots from tradition and moved forward. And then he’s got this problem—the New England Triptych. It’s tuneful and engaging and everybody in the world wants to play it. And it happens in ’56, just when serialism and this whole intellectual wave in America, especially out of universities, is coming up. So he’s perceived as being this populist out of Americana. And he’s not a populist in his own mind; he doesn’t want to do that. I often think that he was driven to more chromaticism, to more complexity of rhythm, to more dissonance, because of that. And you really see that from the Sixth Symphony on. There’s a profoundly somber quality to much of his work in the later half of his career. And it’s not audience accessible on first listening. You have to really study it and understand where Bill is going. Then it’s deeply compelling. But for an uninitiated audience to hear his Eighth Symphony is a challenging experience. I contend in the book that his association with [Antony] Tudor and [Martha] Graham really brought him to a different way of thinking about the world and the sounds and impact of music on audiences.
The cover of the vocal score for The Mighty Casey. Image courtesy of G. Schirmer.
FJO: Yet at the same time the piece that he really wished would have been more successful than it was, his one-act opera The Mighty Casey, was a piece of pure Americana and definitely exhibited populist tendencies, although perhaps even more so in his mind than in reality. He even thought Major League Baseball would endorse it.
JWP: The stuff with [G. Schirmer’s director of Publications, Hans W.] Heinsheimer is hysterical. Here’s this classically trained German musicologist type trying to pitch Casey to the commissioner of the National League. And Bill [also] thought Broadway would produce it. The idea of it happening on Broadway was not that unrealistic because there were Menotti operas happening on Broadway exactly same time with some success—The Saint of Bleecker Street and The Consul. And then the very funny idea that it’s going to happen on television and it does and it’s a disaster. He was disappointed about Casey his whole life. He even created a cantata version for the National Symphony that didn’t work because Bob Merrill kept forgetting his lines. And at the very end of his life he writes A Question of Taste as a companion piece, so it’s a full evening. But he just never gets the impetus that is needed. And critics feel it’s not an opera, yet it’s too complex for musical theater types to sing.
The first page of the aria, “Peanuts, Popcorn, Soda, Crackerjacks,” from The Mighty Casey. Music by William Schuman, Lyrics by Jeremy Gury. Copyright (c) 1954 by G. Schirmer, Inc. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.
FJO: What’s interesting is that he was a childhood friend of Frank Loesser’s and they remained in touch throughout their lives. Early on, they even wrote songs together. There’s a recording that came out some years ago of two of those songs.
JWP: I have Bill singing and Frank playing the piano. Both badly, I would add.
FJO: William Schuman actually wrote over a hundred popular songs. What are all those songs like? Have you had a chance to go through them all?
JWP: There’s sheet music of them and I’ve heard Bill singing a few. They’re crooning songs, things that are very metric in terms of both the verse and the music. Very simple, stuff you’d think about it a mid-1930s musical, Fred Astaire crooning to somebody.
FJO: Might it be the kind of thing that people on the cabaret circuit could revive?
JWP: As a period piece, perhaps. Sure. I mean, it would be fun to listen to. Nobody would be harmed by it.
FJO: I gather from what you wrote in the book that Schuman thought quite highly of them; he certainly didn’t ever really forget about them. At some point you described how decades later he even tried to drum up interest in them with his publishers.
JWP: That’s another wonderful example—I guess chutzpah’s not the right word; it’s not adequate to describe this one. He’s already left Lincoln Center at that point. He’s a distinguished person on the scene and he’s pushing this song to have a rock arrangement of it. And then he’s asking for royalties on it.
Maintaining A Balanced Double-Life
FJO: The symphonies that you mentioned earlier were all written during the height of Schuman having other responsibilities in his life. Throughout most of his administrative career, Schuman maintained a schedule of composing at least 600 hours in a year. There’s something I find so fascinating about this, and sort of scary—if we think of him as a mentor and a role model. How can anyone ever measure up to that? To get personal with you on this—you had a career as a concert bassoonist; you even released a solo LP on Crystal Records. And you’ve written another book, The Artist as Citizen, which we’ve previous talked to you about in NewMusicBox, and now this biography. All of these are very time consuming activities, as is running Juilliard. Bill Schuman balanced these two things like no other person in history. How do you balance these activities?
JWP: I was used to practicing two, three hours a day, back when. But the book took over my life. And so I would get up early in the morning, and stay up late at night. Then I did take some time off in the summer and wrote. Towards the end—the last year—I took off Fridays and worked on it half day. I can only write about four hours a day, productively, I’ve found. I did research and editing beyond that, but real writing was only about four hours.
Schuman (left) with Leontyne Price and Robert Merrill at the topping out of the Metropolitan Opera House, January 20, 1964. (Photo by Bob Serating, Juilliard School Archives)
Initially, I thought I’d just do the story of [Schuman’s] administrative life. But then I realized the music was so intertwined. He was a very disciplined guy, and he could never see himself as not being a composer. [However,] when he hits Lincoln Center, on January 1, 1962, the output drops off significantly. In fact, the Eighth Symphony was really completed before he became president. He does write the Ninth Symphony during his tenure at Lincoln Center, and I do suggest that the somber and down nature of the piece—independent of its storyline of the massacre in Rome—is a manifestation of what he was going through. But during the Juilliard years, Bill generally did not get into Juilliard until around noon. He exercised in the morning, and then he would compose for two or three hours. Then he would come in and he would do his work here. And in the summer, he was off a great deal. So the Juilliard years—from ’45 to the end of ’61—were really this tremendously robust environment for him.
A page from William Schuman’s Symphony No. 9; Copyright (c) 1971 by Merion Music, Inc. Theodore Presser Co., Sole Representative. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.
FJO: But what’s so tragic about Schuman is that once he leaves Lincoln Center there’s sort of a falling off. It’s as if he needed to have those other activities in his life in order to goad him artistically. Might not having an important “day job” to distract him from his compositional activities been ultimately detrimental to his inspiration?
JWP: I do think one supported the other. He even says, “I could never be a full-time composer. You know, there’s just too many other things in my head going on.” [In the later years,] he tries this unfortunate videodisc effort that I found a rather very depressing period of his life. (I don’t think Bill saw it as depressing; Bill never admitted to being depressed.) Then he becomes involved in this not very serious consultancy for Puerto Rico and the conservatory.
FJO: Yeah, that was a very sad passage in the book, considering the ideas that he had that he was able to bring everywhere else all of his whole life. It’s as if by that point he was just going through the motions to get a fee.
JWP: That’s right. And of course, he does suffer a heart attack in May of ’68 and it’s a frightening wake-up call. He certainly lives a very active and admired life from the time he leaves, from ’69 to when he dies in ’92. But it’s a different type of life. He says someplace in the book that he loved the daily interaction with the staff and with faculty and he missed that.
FJO: It also seems that in his final decades the impracticalities got the better of his inspiration more and more, both in terms of his own compositions and his failed business ventures. You already talked a little bit about the Concerto on Old English Rounds, the viola concerto with women’s voices.
JWP: We actually did it here many, many years ago. And it was very difficult. We didn’t have a chorus at the time. Nor do we have one now. So to get a women’s choir together was a challenge. Scraping things together, I think we got eighty voices on stage. Bill comes to the performance and he’s sitting in the box and it goes very well. And I said, “Is there anything you wanted to say about it?” And he said, “The only thing I’d say is I wish we could have got a larger chorus.”
FJO: There’s another piece from his later years that I only know from a recording, American Hymn for brass quintet. I’ve never heard it live and I’ve never seen the score, but judging from the recording it sounds a strong work that should have entered the repertoire, but it hasn’t. Now after reading your book, I finally know why. It’s almost impossible to pull off live because of how he wrote for the instruments.
JWP: Yes, it had to be modified for double quintet. You know, he [once] asked Copland why he stopped composing. (They were lifelong friends.)
Schuman in his study at 888 Park Avenue, 1991. (Photo by Nancy Lea Katz, Juilliard School Archives)
And Copland said, “It’s just not there any more, Bill.” With Bill, maybe to some degree, it was the same story, but he wouldn’t admit it. Bill was too determined a person. In his later works that he cannibalizes [earlier] works and gets commissions [for them]. He does a piano piece for the Van Cliburn competition, but it’s really just an arrangement of a movement out of New England Triptych. The Fifth String Quartet is really a reworking of something that he did for clarinet and violin duo. Most of Dances is taken out of On Freedom’s Ground, from 1986. And On Freedom’s Ground is another case where Bill stretches it out way too long for this commemorative idea. But the middle movement is quite moving. He’s running out of ideas and energy, but he wants to keep composing. He never gives up. He’s talking about a violin sonata that he wants to do for Bobby McDuffie, which he never realizes. I don’t think he could admit to himself that he was not a composer until the day that he died.
Advocating for Schuman’s Music on the Eve of the Centenary
The first page of the orchestral score of William Schuman’s Violin Concerto; Copyright (c) 1960 by Merion Music, Inc. Theodore Presser Co., Sole Representative. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.
FJO: At the end of your book you feature in-depth explorations of ten of Schuman’s compositions, each featuring a brief analysis and very generous excerpts from the scores. You’ve also put up a companion website where you can actually hear complete recordings of each of these pieces. I found it extremely helpful because I was never able to track down a recording of the Fourth String Quartet. But what made you choose those ten pieces specifically?
JWP: I let myself go a little bit, instead of trying to be academic. I knew that I only had room for about ten pieces, the way I wanted to do the analysis. What actually happened was that I agreed with my publisher that we would not put a note of music in the text, although I wanted to. They said this really should be about cultural history, so I said, “O.K., I see what you’re saying. I do want to have that larger audience, so we won’t put a note in.” There isn’t one indication—there’s not one note. For “A Quarter Note Equals One-Forty”, which was the name of a movement, I’d have to write out “quarter note.”
But then I went wild in the appendix. And I took ten pieces that really grabbed me: American Festival Overture, O.K., sure; Third Symphony; then the Fifth Symphony. Then I come upon this Fourth Quartet that nobody’s ever heard. And I speak to Bobby Mann [of The Juilliard Quartet]—who was on that recording—and I asked him, “What was it like?” And he said, “It was so difficult.” And it is difficult at the tempos that Bill wanted; he always had extreme tempos, but they were really challenging. And so I thought, this is a quartet that people should know about. So I’m actually talking it up to young quartets and older quartets, as well.
And then it kept evolving. I felt the Ninth Symphony was an extremely important work for Bill and of the later symphonies, was probably the most representative of what he was doing at that time. The Violin Concerto, of course, the Song of Orpheus. And In Sweet Music is just one of the great works. I could have chosen others, like the Amaryllis Variations, for string trio. And I didn’t do any choral work, which I would have liked to have done. It was just a matter of space. Although Bill always felt that the choral music, for the most part, was simpler music.
FJO: I love the Mail Order Madrigals. Those are fun.
JWP: Yeah, they’re adorable.
FJO: Although I guess I could see why they didn’t make the final cut if you could only do ten pieces. But there are some others which seemed like they should have been there. One of them is a piece that actually does get done a lot, George Washington Bridge for symphonic winds. Bands still play that all the time. And then, of course, The Mighty Casey—since you spoke so much about it in the book, it seemed like it ought to have been one of the ten.
JWP: Sometimes people say, “Oh, it could have been another ten.” But I don’t think I could have chosen another ten. Those ten that I chose were, I felt, representative of something that was slightly different in an evolutionary pattern. Casey I almost see as an aberration, as an offshoot, an experiment that he was fascinated with for a whole host of good reasons. I go into a little bit more detail for Casey in the text than I do with other pieces, as to why it perhaps didn’t take flight.
FJO: Another piece that didn’t take flight is his withdrawn Second Symphony which I’m desperate to hear after reading what you wrote about it.
JWP: I’ve thought long and hard about that. I studied the score at the Library of Congress and then heard a recording of it at the University of Texas in Austin; there’s his amazing archive there of recordings from radio broadcasts. There have been requests to the family, who control the rights to perform it publicly, and right now I think they’re not inclined to release it. I don’t think it serves Bill well. I think there are many other great pieces that nobody knows anything about. And so why bring back the Second Symphony, which he viewed as not exactly juvenilia, but certainly there were many mistakes in there that were out of his youth? I would much prefer that people listen to the Sixth Symphony before they start ferreting out the Second Symphony, or the Seventh for that matter, or the Ninth.
FJO: But of course with the Sixth Symphony there are two recordings, now. There’s the old Ormandy recording and then there’s the Naxos recording which is part of a projected symphony cycle, which of course will be incomplete if they’re not allowed to record One and Two.
JWP: Well, those are withdrawn.
FJO: But Two has a history. And it’s quite an interesting history. It got performed quite a bit by top orchestras, and it sparked emotional reactions from people who are still iconic, like Leonard Bernstein and Sergei Koussevitsky. I guess what really got me excited about it was Schuman’s own description of wanting to create something that was the musical equivalent of a painter dealing with applying paint to a blank canvas. So he keeps piling phrases on top of a drone note that never goes away.
JWP: In the description it seems like it’s only the C, but what happens is it gets covered over rather quickly with new and newer layers [though] at this lugubrious tempo—a quarter = 40, maybe even 36; I think he actually went that slow. Just layer after layer of sound, and after a while it’s just aural mud. But the important part of the Second Symphony is that it’s the beginning of a journey for Bill. And a lot of thought went into that symphony. And of course, having it performed by Koussevitsky and the BSO and on national radio when he’s a young guy is historically important within the context. If we had all the symphonies, I’d say, O.K., that’s something to talk about. But if the Second Symphony is just put out on a program, people are going to say, “I don’t want to ever hear another symphony of Bill Schuman, because this doesn’t go anywhere.”
FJO: Either that or they’ll attempt to take aspirin for three days.
FJO: Another piece that seems like it should be more known is Secular Cantata No. 2 – A Free Song. After all, the piece was awarded the very first Pulitzer Prize for music. You’d think someone would be curious about the piece that won the very first Pulitzer. But it’s never done and there’s no recording of it.
JWP: It’s certainly not available anymore. But it’s easy to do; it doesn’t require a large chorus.
FJO: Next year will be William Schuman’s centenary which is usually a time when the classical music world pays attention to someone.
JWP: I have taken on as much of the responsibility as appropriate for a civilian, so to speak. But nevertheless, since I’m so close to Bill and his music and his legacy, we’re dedicating next year’s Focus! at Juilliard to Schuman. It’s going to be called “Schuman and the American Century”; it’s not just Bill. Obviously, Samuel Barber has a centennial then, as well. We’re also going to be exploring the music of Roy Harris, of Virgil Thomson, a whole host of contemporaries of Bill. The Harris Third had a big impact on Bill. And of course, as you know, he worked with Harris. I never say that Harris was his teacher, because it didn’t feel that way to me. It felt more like he was a coach and advisor, but it was a love/hate relationship.
FJO: So what about Peter Mennin?
JWP: We probably will do Mennin, yes. You know, the American symphonists, who they really were. [David] Diamond, too, for that matter. It’s just a matter of how much we can fit in. Then there’ll be a special all-Schuman concert that Leonard Slatkin is conducting in March or early April of 2010, which will have the Circus Overture, the Violin Concerto, and the Third Symphony. And I’ve had discussions with the Lincoln Center Library. We’re going to be doing programs, discussions, and exhibitions. I’m a history buff. You know, to not remember history condemns you to repeat all the mistakes and all. At the fortieth anniversary of Mostly Mozart, nobody mentioned Bill Schuman. And he was the guy that got that rolling. And all the sacrifices he made for the Chamber Music Society and the opening of Alice Tully Hall—he lost his job. He had a heart attack based on creating the Chamber Music Society. Not a mention of Bill Schuman at the re-opening.
FJO: That’s another supreme irony. If people think of William Schuman at all, as a name in a history book without even necessarily knowing the music, they’ll say, “Oh, he was an orchestral composer.” But his two greatest legacies, perhaps, as an administrator—certainly the things around now that still resonate—are chamber music things: the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Juilliard Quartet.
JWP: Well, I would contend his greatest legacy, number one, is bringing Juilliard to Lincoln Center. That made Juilliard. He always said, “Whatever the school, the educational institution that’s going to be at Lincoln Center is going to be at the center of the world.” And to some degree, he was right. He was a very big thinker. He was truly a visionary. And that’s another message I would like to get out: that people can think big in the arts and they can implement things and things can take root. So often now we’re stuck in little compartments. Mostly fiscally, you know. When you think big, you’re knocked down because it’s crazy. To make an analogy to the Obama situation right now, there are these big ideas happening and people are saying these are too big. Well, they’re too big because nobody’s thought this way for several decades. And maybe it is the way to go. I certainly believe it is. And that was Bill’s vision, too. I always contend that if he had been alive today, he’d be the Art Czar of America. Quincy Jones is pushing to have a major person; Bill would have been it.
[Ed. note: Unless otherwise noted, all of the images reproduced here appear in the book, American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman, and are also reprinted with permission.]