Category: In Print

Getting Inside The Listen

Listen to an interview with The Listen authors Christopher Jon Honett and Peter Gilbert.

Read a Chapter from The Listen on Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians

Order from Caminantes Press


The Big Question in new music is how to attract new audiences. While many composers have become gifted at marketing themselves to select groups—their peers, classical music aficionados, &c.—the real undiscovered wealth undoubtedly lies with the more agnostic members of the public. It might be supposed that, say, a punk rocker could totally dig Xenakis, but there’s no traveled path of communication between the two camps, no established way of providing that person with a means of real access.

The Listen, out now from Caminantes Press, offers a new way to confront this problem. Superficially, authors Christopher Jon Honett and Peter Gilbert have selected nine pieces to evaluate for prospective listeners: Worker’s Union by Louis Andriessen; Tre Notturni Brillanti by Salvatore Sciarrino; Synchronisms No. 10 by Mario Davidovsky; Music for 18 Musicians by Steve Reich; La Lontananza Nostalgica Utopica Futura by Luigi Nono; Musica Ricercata by György Ligeti; Black Angels by George Crumb; Anahit by Giacinto Scelsi; and Sinfonia III. In ruhig fliessender Bewegung by Luciano Berio. Although they demonstrate a disposition towards the European avant-garde (including, curiously, four Italians), the range if not the weight is fairly inclusive, accounting for electronics, minimalism, indeterminacy, and George Crumb.

But past the straightforward (and Italianate) veneer, what Honett and Gilbert are really engaging in here is a new type of criticism. And it’s actually kind of subversive. They’ve removed from the discussion the analytic conceits that usually surround these works, while completely avoiding turning the book into some sort of New Music for Dummies. The book outright doesn’t accept the rarely spoken but widely held assumption that a high-ish level of musical training is needed to appreciate these works. But why it’s subversive is that this completely undercuts the just-as-widely held and far-more-frequently spoken accusations that new music is abstrusely elitist, forever trapped in some sort of academic iron lung. Not that (one assumes) Honett and Gilbert see no value in the academic institutions that are, after all, the authors’ own progenitors—but they understand the importance of de-institutionalizing and democratizing the listening process.

Such philosophical conceits don’t mean much if originators can’t make it efficacious, however, and the ways that Honett and Gilbert do this can actually be pretty refreshing. One of the reasons for the success of the text is the way it frames the discussion within the context of the various works’ own cultural environment. There isn’t the typical presupposition of knowledge concerning music history, but instead merely a requirement of a rudimentary engagement with Western culture as a whole. The authors make myriad references of cultural landmarks literary, filmic, political, &c., but none of these serve as barriers to interaction with the reader, i.e. knowing Samuel Beckett’s work isn’t required for understanding the spare prose used to describe Berio’s Sinfonia, but it can augment. But what’s cool is that this approach is congruous with the expectations of the music: Berio’s piece, which lifts its libretto from Beckett’s The Unnameable, doesn’t require you to be familiar with the original context of the text to like the music either. This opus supra creator tailoring is actually one of the fundamental principles of the book; Honett and Gilbert ultimately don’t care much about a composer’s biography, but care greatly about what the work itself communicates. Which, while not a revolutionary idea, is likely the appropriate approach for engaging a new listener who probably won’t care much about the life story of an artist whose work they are totally unfamiliar with.

But while these literary affinities make a few appearances in the book (another notable example being the pairing of Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘s second person narrative with Sciarrino), the bulk of musical similitudes are with the text itself. Take the first lines of the versed discussion of Worker’s Union, where the verbal rhythm aligns with the musical ta-ta ta! ta-ta ta! opening motif:

We can hit.
We can push.
We can pound.
We can drum.

But rather than sticking with this exacting writing technique—which would quickly become both impractical and tiresome—the piece veers slightly from its sonic source to be a more apt reflection of the visceral and emotional content:

We can feel volume.
We can feel good and alive.
We can sing and dance and pound.
We can insist, and we can want and shout.

The solidarity and desires of the nominal workers who inspired Andriessen sing out from the text as well as the music. It’s functioning as a program note of sorts, but what it gains over a program note is immediacy. It’s not an ancillary waiting to furnish informationally relevant but experientially inconsequential facts, but a concrete accompaniment to the goals of the piece, supplementing its aims rather than describing them. (Admittedly, this is difficult to capture in excerpts. Read the entire piece.) The effectiveness of these literary tricks is shown in several other pieces as well: the fractured and direct narrative for Synchronisms No. 10, the unbroken and breathless paragraph accompanying the monolithic Anahit, the compartmentalized entries standing for the carefully distributed moments in Black Angels, et al. And these tricks are totally forgivable because what’s ultimately being explored here isn’t actually the piece of music in its totality, but the actual act of listening, which is also why the writings themselves are as linear and chronological as the music itself prescribes.

But what these tricks are also doing is making explicit the performative aspect of listening, the activity and involvement of it, not only on an intellectual level but also a more visceral one. The book does not excuse or explain even the most vertiginous aspects of these works, but rather relishes them. It guides the listener towards the realization that the purpose of the bewildering techniques this music employs isn’t aloof obfuscation of material and intent but rather an expression of something that couldn’t be done any other way, something that can be as to the point as you make it to be. And this idea of listening-as-performance is yet another central aspect to why Honett and Gilbert are ultimately being subversive here, because while they deemphasize the importance of pre-existing and specific knowledge to understanding this music they are at the same time stressing the importance of the listener’s total involvement—not because that involvement is “good for you”, but because it will lead to greater enjoyment and love of the experience.

And this point, this constant positive affirmation of just how great the music is that underlies everything in this book is the biggest reason why they’re successful. Honett and Gilbert, whose own appreciation of music seems so enhanced by their friendship, understand that a strong community is fostered not only by common purpose but by a total love of that purpose, and they’re advocating for that love even more so than comprehension. They understand the fallacy of assuming that comprehension leads inevitably to appreciation; just because you get something doesn’t mean you’re going to like it. They understand that the reason people truly do love something is because they feel like they’re a part of it, intertwined together beyond anything that makes rational sense, and it’s that intertwining that they think they understand. The Listen is about teaching you how to embrace the experience, so that you can become so tangled up and complicit in the experience that you can’t get out of it, and then you realize you don’t want to get out of it, and then it’s over.

A Conversation with Eric Salzman, Co-Author of The New Music Theater

  • PLUS: Read an excerpt from Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s book, The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body.


    Frank J. Oteri: Tracing the lineage of both opera and musical theatre and everything in between in a book that’s less than 400 pages, as you’ve attempted to do, seems like an impossible task. And it seems even more impossible given your geographic inclusivity as well as how broadly you have defined this idiom. What ultimately prompted your decisions about what to include and what not to include? E.g. You describe the Steve Reich-Beryl Korot collaborations at length which I find fascinating given Reich’s statements prior to these works in which he said he had absolutely no interest in music theatre of any kind.

    Eric Salzman

    Eric Salzman: It was never our intention to write a ‘historical’ or musicological study so we had the luxury of being able to pick and choose what interested us or what we thought was important. Our geographic range was basically Western Europe and the active creative centers in North America. And, although we occasionally indulged in time travel to earlier periods (and other places), we mostly restricted ourselves to the past half century. This range was decided by the authors’ own experience—the times and places and works that we know best—but also because we thought that would give us what we needed to give a sense of what the new music theater is and where it might be going. Some of the decisions were made on a case to case basis. Steve Reich is a striking example for me because, in the 1980s, I tried to interest him in creating something for the American Music Theater Festival and he said he was not interested in working in this field. But then later he developed his own interpretation of the old multi-media or mixed-media genre.

    FJO: Part of me wishes that you would have had more space to be able to address Asian music theatre traditions as well as other non-Western forms (African, Middle Eastern, even Native American) since these seem to have had a profound impact on many people who have worked in new music theater idioms in the West including some key figures that you do write about, like Harry Partch.

    ES: I understand that desire, but then it would have been an entirely different book and one that would undoubtedly have been better entrusted to some other authors. Our decision was to give a single example of a traditional form of Asian music theater in an ‘Entr’acte’ (the ‘Entr’actes’ perform the function of touching on some areas that we otherwise neglect).

    FJO: Also, since the question of auteur-ship has played such an important role in the history of these idioms, as you’ve addressed them, bouncing back and forth through the ages between the composer, the librettist, the stage director and the performers, it might have been interesting to address the rise in popularity of the “juke box musical” on the commercial Broadway stage in recent decades. Of course, the idea of creating a new storyline out of a pastiche of pre-existing music has its antecedents in a libretto-driven work like The Beggar’s Opera (which you do write about and which has been called the very first musical) and works like Oscar Hammerstein II’s Carmen Jones (a trope on the Bizet opera), or Song of Norway (in which lyricists Wright and Forrest turned pre-existing classical melodies by Edvard Grieg into pop songs). I can’t really think of parallels to this phenomenon in Western opera (which is interesting given that this very question was raised re opera in the Q&A period following the panel discussion at this year’s NY City Opera VOX showcase). However, this way of constructing a score has been the traditional practice throughout the history of opera in China (music used in Peking opera, Cantonese opera, etc. is all music that has been recontextualized from other sources).

    ES: Again, we made a decision that the ‘music theater’ we wanted to deal with was drawn from the wide area between (but not including) opera and the popular musical. There are gray areas on each end of this spectrum and we ended up touching on opera (particularly where there seemed to be a music-theater connection) and on the post-Sondheim musical. But I’m afraid we let the jukebox musical, MTV, rock concerts and other notable phenomena fall outside our already crowded agenda. However, the idea of using pre-existing material does pop up in a few places, especially since some of Thomas Desi’s work falls into this category.

    FJO: It’s interesting that once upon a time many important American operas debuted on Broadway (Four Saints in Three Acts, several Menotti works, etc.) but almost never has anyone from Broadway invaded the “sacred high art space” of the opera house. Nowadays, it seems like the reverse is true. Musicals are frequently on operatic stages and music theatre composers also get commissioned to write operas (the most recent example I can think of being Stephen Schwartz). But no one from an operatic compositional background is doing stuff on Broadway. Your book talks quite a bit about Kurt Weill who was able to float in both of these works and created work that is consistent in being ultimately defiantly neither. Could such a composer exist in today’s climate?

    ES: There have been many examples over the years of composers from both sides who tried to cross over and we began to at least touch on this phenomenon in the book. Many, if not most, successful theater composers have classical backgrounds and some of them have tried to write operas with varying success in what you (rightly) call the sacred high art space. Jazz and pop composers—who tend to create music about themselves and their own feelings—have always had problems putting characters “up there” on the stage in both the theater and the opera. Ironically, the same is true of the many “classical” composers who have tried their hand at writing musicals, almost always with very limited success. I could give many examples (some are in the book). A recent case in point is the Sellars/Adams/Jordan I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky. The small list of “classical” composers who wrote successful concert works, musicals, and operas would include Mozart, Weill and Gershwin but hardly anyone since. The current climate in Europe is not particularly conducive to the crossover (see the discussion about Black Rider, a “serious” musical which had a big success in Europe but was created by three Americans). In theory, there are more possibilities in this country (where Weill’s influence is still around and composers still write tonal music) but most “classical” composers anywhere have limited experience in the theater. In my opinion, the revival of the off- or off-off-Broadway theater would offer the best chance (as it did in the earlier Depression)!

    FJO: Another thing that you address quite a bit in the book is how technology has changed not only the way music theatre is created and presented, but also how it is disseminated. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on how recent and emerging technologies (e.g. virtual reality, the internet, YouTube, social networking, etc.) might reshape and redefine music theatre in the coming decades.

    ES: I personally believe that the most interesting uses of new technology in music theater will be in live performance. While it is true that various forms of media can be used to disseminate new works, this has not proven until now to be much of a substitute for the social activity of live performance. However new music and new music theater have always been open to technological developments since the invention of the bone flute and this will, no doubt, continue to be the case—always depending, of course, on the invention and ingenuity of composers, directors, etc. (Some of these issues are discussed in the book in various places, notably Chapter 18).

    FJO: You have been an extremely important figure in the development of new music theater possibilities for decades in a variety of role, composer, arranger, librettist, producer, etc. I’ve long treasured the Nonesuch LP recording of your own Nude Paper Sermon and I was completely in awe of the Center for Contemporary Opera’s American premiere stage production of the Morton Feldman-Samuel Beckett opera Neither which you and your co-author Thomas Desi were both involved with earlier this month. One of the things that is always extremely complicated for people who write about subjects who also have a significant role as practitioners in those subjects is how to talk about their own contributions: Do you leave your work out entirely? Do you write about them in first person? Or do you write about yourself in the third person to give it more of an air of objectivity? I know that for this book you chose the third option. I’m curious to know how you came to decide to do it that way.

    ES: The fact that there are two authors to this book made it imperative to distinguish between us and that led naturally to the third-party reference style. I don’t want to speak for the publisher, but we had the impression that Oxford preferred this approach as well. I believe that in most scholarly work, the third person style is used when authors refer to their own work so it seemed appropriate to use it here. I should point out that the hesitation of authors to refer to their own work is quaintly American and essentially non-operative in Europe where creators are expected to intellectualize about themselves and their work!

    FJO: One of the things I find most remarkable about this book is how naturally the whole narrative flows together despite how disparate the history is and the fact that you co-wrote it with someone else, Thomas Desi, an Austrian composer/director who is also a part of this history. How did you carve up the assignment? How did you maintain a consistent voice throughout?

    ES: In a very rough way, the European parts were written by Desi and the American bits by me while the general and theoretical sections were created by both of us in a back-and-forth process. Thomas wrote in English, I did any necessary revisions and we tried hard to avoid formulations that sounded too much like translations from the German. We worked together in the same city (Paris as it happened) for a couple of fairly intense months. For the rest of the time, everything was passed back and forth by e-mail so that both of us had a crack at commenting on or re-writing the other’s work. At this point, I probably couldn’t tell you whose work was by whom in half the book or more.

Is Anyone Listening? (from The New Music Theater)

The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body by Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)


The following chapter is reprinted with permission from the authors and the publisher from The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body by Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 360-375).

  • PLUS: Read a conversation with New Music Theater co-author Eric Salzman.If it goes on like that I will get tinnitus!
    an elderly lady overheard during the intermission of a contemporary music concert


    Who is the audience?

    Looking at photographs taken at performances we can sometimes catch a glimpse of the audience. Happenings, performances in galleries or on streets, on canals, and in natural settings often show performers mixing with the audience, creating a special form of street theater. Galleries that host performances are typically rather small so the public ends up standing or sitting on the fl oor with the performer or performers in the middle. Sometimes it is not easy to differentiate performers from audience purely by dress, but in other cases the distinction is clear. The audience photographed during an “action” by Yves Klein in 1960 Paris shows elegantly dressed members of society watching two nudes covered with blue color dragging themselves around on paper.

    A picture that shows the grand staircase during intermission at the New York Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s gives us a good idea of the dress code of the day. In contrast, more recent audiences, dressed informally, have been willing, even anxious, to get involved as participants or at the very least as documentarians of public performances.

    In the traditional theater, the audience completely disappears into the black of the auditorium as the theater lights go down and stage lights come up and seal the distinction between the performers and the performed-to. The proscenium arch, the “missing fourth wall” of realistic theater, the bright lights of the stage, and the unreal costumes all create a picture—a picture in motion to be sure—that stands out in opposition to the invisibility of the audience, huddled and immobilized in the auditorium.

    At another extreme, we might have a work in which the performers disappear into the audience. In Dick Raijmaakers’ The Fall of Mussolini, the audience is put on a scaffold or catwalk above and around the performance space. Many new theaters today have multipurpose or modular stages in which the floor or parts of it can be moved so that the audience/performance relationship can be changed as needed. Ironically, these once-utopian possibilities are more widely available but much less used or appreciated than they once were. The Italian architect and librettist Valerio Ferrari1 presented a concept for an opera house in which audiences would be placed alongside a stage in the form of a huge descending spiral. Stockhausen had a truly utopian vision for a hall with the public suspended in midair and the music diffused in 360 degrees and three dimensions. Audiences today seem to divide into those who prefer very conventional situations in the traditional proscenium theater and those who patronize the type of event that reinvents everything anew with each piece.

    Dealing with the audience in a new piece or production is not only a philosophical or ideological issue but also has its practical limitations. Fire laws or other security regulations apply in almost every theater in Western countries and this often becomes a subject of dispute between artist and producer. Switch off the emergency lights? Place objects in the emergency or fire lanes? Block the exits? Are there specific materials, actions, or sounds that could harm, injure, or discombobulate the audience? Break the law and the police or fire department may come and close down the theater!

    Some companies, like the Catalonian La Fura dels Baus, are specialized in performance actions for which the audience is actually warned to wear waterproof clothing. This is certainly one form of the breakdown between performance space and audience space. Blue Man Group sells certain seats with a warning attached and also issues protective gear against flying paint.2 More recently the audience has started to become part of the performance, both participating in and documenting the event on digital and mobile phone cameras. In general, however, the rules and regulations of public gatherings, intended to be protective of public security and wellbeing, are limiting. As everywhere, it is hard to say where security ends and overprotection starts. The problem is complicated by the enormous differences in audiences with respect to what they will tolerate. In some cases, a quiet whisper will evoke protests whereas thousands of people at pop concerts pass the time socializing, eating, drinking, screaming, and so forth. A case of serious injury at, say, an interactive performance could lead to major problems for the responsible producer or artist. It has happened at pop concerts with very negative aftereffects. There are no special art exemptions in civil law.

    All this has been said to demonstrate that a work of performance art of any kind does not exist in a vacuum. It takes place in a specific time and place. Although the piece itself might remain the same, a given performance in a certain place with a certain audience may totally change its reality.


    What brings audiences into the theater?

    Opera in its heyday was the top of the market, but nowadays opera houses, although still working with big budgets, have a lot of competition from cinema, pop concerts, dance clubs, and home media. The once-popular theater in the round and thrust stages were intended to give a more vivid immediacy to the performances—the updated version of the old bourgeois theater whose aim was to overwhelm rather than to partner with the public. Ironically, some once-progressive theater companies are now stuck with these thrust stages and no-longer fashionable theater-in-the-round theaters.

    In many—perhaps most—of those cases, the audience is treated as if it were something fl uid and easy to manipulate, easily timed and programmed, docile and willing to be led by the nose. But like the reality of the performance itself, the reality of audiences is actually complex, paradoxical, and constantly changing. In a series of performances of the same piece, it is a commonplace that different audiences react very differently.

    The group psychology of audiences is not very well understood. The public sometimes behaves as a “stupid mass” and sometimes as a distinct intelligent individual. Performers commonly talk about this after a show, noting whether the audience was noisy or quiet, in a good mood, responsive, inspiring or slow, heavy, and unresponsive. Sometimes they will even note specific individuals who behave in unexpected ways. “You have been a wonderful audience” is a common remark from pop performers that causes the audience to cheer and increases the public’s regard for the performer. Opera divas go even further than this, blowing kisses to their fans, bowing and kneeling, retrieving bouquets, and so forth. This is all part of the highly differentiated and complex art form of classical opera that also has a highly structured public and a set of rituals that controls the relationship between performer and audience. This begins when people buy their tickets (sometimes sleeping overnight in sleeping bags outside the opera house) and continues on the inside through the very structure of the opera house interior. Parquet, parterre, loges, ranks, and standing places all create a stratified temporary society inside the theater, inversely reflecting the society outside (the lower seats are the most expensive).

    Other elements of operatic ritual are the socializing at intermission; the applause, which is counted in curtain calls (or, in modern theaters without a curtain, by the number of times that the stage lights are brought down and up); and the post-performance stage door lineup for autographs and glimpses of the stars. The collecting of recordings, photos, souvenirs, and memorabilia also provides a way the public can participate in this performing arts culture.

    This traditional culture of theater and opera does not depend on specific works and seems naive and easily penetrable. Not surprisingly, there have been many attempts to change it, but the system has proved to be more resilient and audiences more adaptable than expected. In some cases, audiences have come to acknowledge and accept the challenge in a very passive way. As a result, a situation has developed in which an opera house will play an extremely difficult avant-garde piece in front of an accepting opera audience, which simply goes through its normal pre-programmed reactions. There is not only no scandal but all the components of audience behavior are now identical to those at any opera performance!

    As the costs of live performance go up and the public turns more and more to mass media, the situation for all the performance arts becomes more and more diffi cult. Unless there are big names involved, producers are willing to take fewer and fewer risks. The only questions that are asked are those that concern self-preservation, and in fact, the operatic system itself has become—with built-in redundancies and safeguards—a method for self-preservation.

    In music criticism and musicology, it has become a habit to speak about music as if it were some kind of product. But music, of all the arts, is the least like a product and the most like a social action based on a process of transmitting and giving something. It is only in the smaller and more flexible music theater that these questions can be asked openly: What is given and to whom? What does the creative artist have to offer?

    The historical past of music making shows a mixture of functionality (masses, cantatas) and entertainment (concertos, court opera, shows, pop music). One defi nition of a classical period in music would be a time when Mozart could write La Clemenza di Tito and Die Zauberflöte almost simultaneously; in short, when usefulness, entertainment value, and artistic quality were in some kind of balance. In all cases, there is always an addressee, someone to whom the work or the performance is dedicated. It might be a god or a royal patron. It might be all of humanity or just the customers drinking at the bar before or after the performance.

    Who is watching whom? The audience is watching the performers but the performers are also watching the audience. Performers are always dealing with the public in ways that the creators or producers of the work they are performing do not necessarily appreciate or understand. What contact do performers have with their audience? In the archaic spectacles, described by Christopher Small in his book Musicking, the answer is, quite a lot. Small shows how strongly the audience in African culture is (or was) connected to the performers and musicians. Performances in most of the great ancient or traditional theaters may continue for many hours—even days—and take the form of a huge party in which everyone, even children, participate. In Indonesian and Balinese theater—at least before performances became tourist attractions—the line between public and participants was not always so well defined, and the inhabitants of entire villages may take part in certain events. John Cage used to note that in Bali there was no word for “art.” Another characteristic of this kind of “musicking” is that the repertoire can, has, and does change over time, a fact not always taken into account by musicological purists.

    Individualization and specialization in European theater has produced specific art forms for specific publics; at the same time, it has annihilated forms of expression without an audience and, on the flip side, it has not permitted or it has inhibited specific audiences to generate their own forms of expression. There are exceptions to this. One is children’s theater, which is mostly music theater, mostly educational, and likely to be funny and playful, reflecting the way adults imagine children’s minds. Unfortunately, children nowadays, even at the earliest ages, discover television as well as computer and video games and tend to regard them as being much more fun than theater or music. There is not yet, in a society where the image of the young, beautiful, and dynamic is everywhere, much of a concept of theater for the old.

    In the Americas, other exceptions are made for the urban poor and for immigrant audiences. What was once called “race music” turned out to be jazz, blues, gospel, and its progeny (up to and including hip-hop). Black and Hispanic theater is important in New York and California and has always been open to musical theater forms. There is even a movement to create hip-hop opera and music theater. Bobos (American Music Theater Festival in 1993) by Ed Shockley and James McBride is an early example, and there is now a Hip-Hop Theater Festival.

    There are many paradoxes here. The stressed young urban professional dresses up for a couple of hours to go to a performance of a classical opera. But why? It is much easier for her not to dress up (or to dress down) and go to a nearby auditorium where there are plenty of seats and where, often at a lower price, she can meet her peers and see or hear something new in pop music. But perhaps this does not match the social aspirations of her peers or the unconscious desire to affi rm traditional culture and the status quo.


    Local or/and global

    Many questions about audiences need to be asked. To whom is contemporary opera/music theater addressed? What might a potential audience for new music theater be interested in? Nineteenth-century society, originally addicted to amusements and escapes, turned to various forms of realism with the work of Zola, Ibsen, Strindberg, Verga, Dreiser, and others, work that reflected “real” problems and “real” tragedies. Verismo in opera was not far behind. Nowadays, however, theater presents itself in laboratory costume—in vitro so to speak—as a series of proposal for discussion. This attitude is connected to our vaunted knowledge explosion. Some spectacular remote events are now transmitted immediately into our homes and form pieces of a large puzzle. The result is that our knowledge of the world is as much global as it is local even though most of this is useless ballast in our minds, a mixture of curiosity and voyeurism. The commercial possibility of live, local performance, as contrasted to global media transmissions, is limited and tends to be ignored by the media. What claims can be made for live theater (let alone live music theater)? Does it really help promote a better understanding of the world or is this merely the kind of educational approach that audiences dislike?

    It is very characteristic of music theater to be local but widespread. When NewOp was founded in 1992, it brought together composers, writers, and producers of new music theater from different parts of the world who did not necessarily even know each other or each other’s work. The globalization of music theater was, perhaps, an inevitability in a movement that had popped up in many places but had deep roots only in few. Increasingly, electronic (or, more correctly, digital) media have begun to dominate a mass music scene that absorbs and fuses everything available for sale on the global market. National trends and characteristics are losing their profile as European Community policy promotes quick exchange, artistic discussions, and cross-national projects. The trend is towards the application of free-market policies, which ensure that even the arts have to follow the economic rules, a very problematic path at best. The issue then becomes—for free-marketeers and arts bureaucrats alike—what art organizations and art works can be sold across the widest markets, a principle that tends to put at a disadvantage, or ignore entirely, small local institutions and local cultural conditions. These rules have put control into the hands of a few managers who tour one production or a selection of artists within the carousel of festivals that are often the only way to get in touch with nonmainstream performance art. The globalization represented by NewOp or by the Munich Biennale resulted in a music theater that is necessarily a form of Zeitoper and has an audience that is widespread in the Western world and in Westernized cultures although not necessarily numerous anywhere in particular.


    Audiences, media, and performance space

    When we talk about media, a distinction has to be made between media that is part of the work under discussion and media that functions as the performance space by acting as the conveyor of the performance itself. Performance space in this latter sense includes theater as well as radio, television, and film. Performance media within a performance might include video, cassette tape, computers and mini-computers, even CD-ROMs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs, computer games, mobile phones, headphones, and mini-computers. Some of these are already well-known components of music theater and other performance arts; others might seem more peripheral. Nevertheless, it is perfectly feasible to introduce music theater to such media or vice versa. Joshua Fried, a New York composer, has a series of “headphone-driven” pieces involving performers who respond not to written-out music but to what they hear on their headphones. In his Headphone Follies, not so much a performance as an installation, it is hard to tell who are the performers and who is the audience. In International Cloud Atlas, Mikel Rouse’s score for Merce Cunningham’s eyeSpace (2006), each member of the audience has an individual Ipod and listens to a different random shuffl ing of the tracks (there are 3,628,800 possible permutations).

    The computer game Lara Croft, in a series called Tomb Raider 2, is placed in and around the Venetian opera house La Fenice and the dramaturgy of the game, which lies between cinema and theater and depends on the ambience of this traditional opera building (where many contemporary pieces have been premiered), pushes us to think about future possibilities. In this last example, the social aspect of live theater is essentially nonexistent although the interactive functionality of the game transmits the feeling of a live performance. King Ludwig II of Bavaria or on occasion the Pope might have constituted the entire audience for an operatic performance, but the proverbial command performance is available only to such exalted personages. Now, however, the transmission techniques of electronic media have made performance-on-demand for an audience of one perfectly feasible and there can also be performances without performers or in which the spectator is the only actual performer. Interactivity and interactive media put a question mark on a lot of traditional assumptions. Is interactive game playing creative in any meaningful sense or is it merely “interpretation” (the creative role presumably belonging to the developer of the game)? This leads to the question of whether an audience can be (or can be made to be) creative at all. This question was posed in the 1960s and early 1970s in the so-called Wandelkonzerte (“wandering audience concerts”) of Ladislav Kupkovic in which groups of performers and audiences were organized to move inside compounds or even throughout a city. This differs from those public art performances, happenings, and installations in which the art activity merges into the fl ux of everyday urban bustle and becomes nearly indiscernible from real life. The audiences at such events do not deliberately gather at a certain time in the expectation of a performance but are simply passers-by who happen on some action or performance and have either a fragmented idea of what is going on or no idea at all.

    The public space, where the performance is free of charge, can draw in people who otherwise never would enter a theater. The street or subway (underground or metro) musician, the clown, the break dancer, and the living statue are performing theater literally without the theater building. Most outdoor performance venues are places where people gather and such places are often chosen for their qualities of landscape or architecture. What is missing is the frame and the dedicated audience; after all, anybody can be on the street and nobody is excluded. Perhaps these can be viewed as positive aspects of street performance. On the negative side, there is the likelihood that such performances will be simply overlooked by the very people who might be most interested. And, although street musicians are common enough, elaborate ensemble musical theater performances on the street or in the subway are, for many reasons, rare and difficult to carry off effectively.

    Performances in the ancient open-air theaters of Greece and Rome took place in daylight.6 Renaissance theaters were brought indoors but they used permanent sets that represented the street—as if the outside were being brought inside and plays were still being played in daylight. Curiously, many modern open-air performances in Italy, often played in antique ruins, reverse this situation and bring the proscenium and set design of the closed theater back out into the open, generally competing with, disregarding, or even blocking out the surrounding landscape (and most often, with the aid of modern outdoor stadium lighting, performing at night). The ancient theaters were built to integrate nature and landscape into the theater performance. These performances had to conquer and hold their audience’s attention by being surprising or suspenseful. Otherwise the audience would prefer to eat, drink, and chat (as it still does—or did until recently—in provincial performances of ultra-familiar operas in Italy). The baroque and rococo court theaters of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries developed the art of the changeable set within the picture opening provided by the proscenium stage. The public was separated from the stage by the orchestra placed at ground level. However the relatively small size of the theaters and the horseshoe design of the théâtre à l’italienne meant that no one was very far from the stage, and sightlines and acoustics were generally good for everyone. The bourgeois opera houses that followed, although on a much larger scale, carefully imitated the court theaters in such matters. The rigidity and hierarchy of the seating arrangements and the ritual of theatrical procedures was preserved along with the increasingly traditional repertoire. Curiously enough, although most concert music and classical opera is quite profane in its nature, a religious aura is preserved in these performance rituals, perhaps a relic of the time when such events actually had a religious significance. Performances in lofts, galleries, and abandoned industrial buildings can be said to lie in between the rigid traditions and rituals of formal theaters and the unspecific float and rush of street theater.8 In all these situations, there are different expectations and different limitations.

    To a certain degree, audience response is based on expectation, which is, in turn, based on prior knowledge. How does an audience get to know something about what they are going to see and hear? In this secondary and preliminary layer of communication lies the biggest problem of all art forms that do not have the consecration of institutionalization. Before the performance and its actual unfolding in time, there is a kind of pre-performance, a background event that prepares, publicizes, helps, and even promotes the understanding of the art work or the performance that has yet to appear. This may take the form of press releases, journalism, public relations, advertising, promotion, media coverage, or any number of other methods of binding a new work or performance to its potential public. Without the older coherence of a society where certain agreed-on languages, codes, and rituals are a well-established habit, the traditions for understanding may be blurred or missing and the activity of public relations9 has to take their place. It represents a deep difference between those who claim that a new piece should be understandable at first sight without pre-information and those who say the opposite.

    Berio said that his pieces for the opera needed the opera house and the opera public and he even went so far as to seat provocateurs in their midst. At the time—the 1960s—opera audiences were still coherent entities with predictable behavior, which made scandals easy to program. When the social and intellectual background of the theater- or operagoer is calculable, the assumption can be made that certain notions, themes, and texts will be recognized and understood. When those assumptions are no longer valid or when theater happens outside its protected areas (protected in the sense that there is a certain understanding and behavior to be taken for granted), problems of intelligibility arise.

    There was a major discussion in the avant-garde as to whether there could be any kind of musical underpinning to new work without some connection to history. For Scriabin there was a metaphysical message in the concept of synesthesia; the audience became humankind itself, which had to be saved by listening to and watching his compositions. Twentieth century artists and authors, particularly in Europe, have often employed a language that feeds directly into that “second layer,” the explanatory bytext, the row of footnotes. Does this actually win over the audience or, on the contrary, does it create resistance? Such ideas can be stimulating, surprising, and inspiring, but it is not always the case that a great idea makes for a great musical or theater evening.

    Why can’t a work be self-explanatory? Why should a piece of music or a play need to be explained in simple words when the work itself is so highly complex or disturbing? Has the common denominator of theater consumers been lowered so much that the public cannot understand anything but the simplest discourse any more? Is the discourse of contemporary art too specific? Are new art, music, theater, and opera destined only for a specially trained audience?

    When art and music represented the wealth of governments, they aimed at universality. Haydn said, “The whole world understands my language,” and by and large that was true (of course, “the whole world” was a much smaller place back then). In most of the arts, universality was closely connected to mimesis but in music it depended on something else. Perhaps there is something innate or “hard-wired” in human beings when it comes to music. Or perhaps it was the connection to folk art and to a popular culture that has always favored music. We all react to the sound of the human voice, and in most cultures, vocal music is dominant. Where instrumental music comes to the fore, there is rhythm, perhaps equally hard-wired. Rhythm is connected to dance, and like the structure of the instruments themselves, rhythm has both a physical component and mathematically defi nable characteristics that make for hard-fact realities. Even with all the variety that twentieth- and twenty-first-century music has shown, the psycho-physiological meanings of distinct intervals and kinetic rhythms continue to exist and have not yet been by any means replaced by other compositional concepts.

    By the late nineteenth century, the leading masters of musical composition, many of them opera composers, developed different strategies to avoid or postpone the tonal cadence. We might well ask if this had anything to do with the social-political evolutions or revolutions of the same period. A cr for freedom was coming from colonialized peoples, subjugated minorities, Afro-American slaves, workers in heavy industry, prisoners, Jews in the European ghettos, and so forth. But who was crying to be liberated from the tonal cadence?

    The cadence might be considered as the mimetic element in music. This harmonic-melodic and rhythmic pattern has a double importance to musical composition. It defines formal sections as well as whole pieces by setting the basic tonality and creating movement away from the center and back again. The play of tonalities and associated rhythmic movements create movement through expectation and, increasingly, by defeating expectation. Whole forms, notably the famous sonata form, are based on this. So are theatrical structures although we are less likely to be concerned about the tonalities of operatic scenes. Die Zauberflöte is, in a larger sense, indubitably in E-fl at major, but unless the overture is performed as a separate concert piece, that fact is not generally noted. In any case, the cadence is part of the power of traditional opera and a point of connection between the arcane arts of composition and the musical comprehension of the public. In effect, it was the link between purely musical form and the power of music to drive a theatrical narrative. As this power slowly ebbed away, a hole was created in the fabric of music, which has not yet been repaired.

    No one would deny the importance of the core structure of tonality in Western art music. But is it just a relic from another, more hierarchical period, when politics and social organization were similarly organized? Can it be called a reign of musical terror or musical oppression with meaningful political parallels? It was certainly the product of a dynastic era of absolute monarchs and baroque social hierarchies, and as they disappeared, the reign of tonality seemed to become progressively weaker and weaker. Do the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the advent of meritocracy have esthetic applications? The parallels, however simplistic, are irresistible, especially since we know that the breakdown of the old order and the beginning of the breakdown of tonality and the cadence are almost simultaneous historic events. In an age of pluralistic democracy, wouldn’t any sound have the right to be played and heard in the widest context? In fact, this has actually proven to be the case. It is ironic that when innovation is everything and any new sound imaginable is a possibility, the term music itself becomes fuzzy (any sound or complex of sounds can be “music” if we so name it) and the notion of new music itself becomes a paradox.

    There is another factor here, a twentieth-century addition to the political and social change of the previous century. This is the intrusion of technology into the process. The near-universality of amplified and loudspeaker sound long ago replaced acoustic sound transmission as the norm of musical culture. Although classical opera might seem to be the least affected of all the arts, it hardly escapes the omnipresent and democratic reign of audio—and now also video—technology. New halls and opera houses are built to sound like high-quality audio recordings. Performers learn music and musical interpretation as much by listening to recordings as through written music. Formerly rare and obscure repertoire becomes familiar to both performers and audiences. Difficult or unfamiliar contemporary music becomes much easier for performers due to the presence of examples that can be imitated or learned by ear. Through recordings, the history of music is pushed back and forth through the centuries and extended horizontally around the globe.

    Only new, unperformed music seems to escape this and presumably must be learned in other ways. But even this is no longer completely true. New music is now often recorded before it is performed for an audience. Composers, even when writing for the voice, can routinely mock up electronic versions of their music for learning and rehearsal purposes, a scheme that is enormously aided by the portability and relatively low cost of modern sound systems and digital audio computing.13 In addition to creating sound and music, sound systems make available any sound that can be or has been recorded; such sounds are not only available for direct musical use but they can also be sampled for further use and processing. With the intervention of microphones, amplifi ers, and sound modifi cation devices—nowadays mostly computer programs—any sound can be recorded, synthesized, processed in multiple dimensions, reworked, distributed, and redistributed.

    All of this has had a huge influence not only on new music but on musical culture in general. This infl uence extends from pop music through all the layers of classical and contemporary music and is a major factor in new music theater as well. The new universality of a musical culture where everything can potentially enter the world-scene through media and mass media has produced a new complexity and new levels of overload. It has also produced a reaction, a strong countercurrent that favors “acoustic” music, the nonamplification of voices, the paring-down of vocabulary, and the kinds of neo-tonalities represented by minimalism and its offshoots.

    This even has social and political ramifications as it did in Marxist days. The double-bind of total democratization may bring and even require a simplification of language. Looking at the avant-garde of the twentieth century from the vantage point of the early twenty-first, we can see how and why much of modernism was transitory. The utopian plan for a new society with potentially total freedom inside an anarchic but peaceful social order simply collapsed. Is there a new cultural order that will come to replace the old? What is certain is that change continues and that it is reflected in new audiences and new relationships between audiences and the performing arts, with music theater most certainly in the front lines of change.

A Conversation with Joseph W. Polisi, Author of American Muse

American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman by Joseph W. Polisi (New York: Amadeus Press, 2008)


[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.

    JWP: Right.

    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.]

From American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman

American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman by Joseph W. Polisi (New York: Amadeus Press, 2008)


[Ed. Note: The following excerpt is a reprint of Chapter Four, “I Wanted to Run Before I Could Creep,” from the book, American Music: The Life and Times of William Schuman by Joseph W. Polisi (New York: Amadeus Press, 2008), pp. 57-81. Copyright © by Joseph W. Polisi. Reprinted with the permission of the author and publisher. Unless otherwise indicated, all of the photos reproduced here appear in the book and are also reprinted with permission.]


  • ALSO: Read a conversation with author Joseph W. Polisi.



    I Wanted to Run Before I Could Creep

    Schuman was determined to continue his career as a composer, no matter what the critical response. He emerged from his Symphony No. 2 experiences with only a few bruises. Financially supported by his teaching at Sarah Lawrence and enjoying the support of such major figures as Copland, Harris, and, especially, Koussevitzky, for Schuman the late 1930s marked the beginning of an amazing period of compositional productivity and success.

    In the fall of 1939 Koussevitzky decided to give “two special concerts in honor of the American composer.” The BSO was justly proud of its support of American music. The program books of these concerts included a long list of works by American composers performed since 1924, when Koussevitzky began his twenty-five-year leadership of the orchestra. This festival took place nine days before the formal opening of the BSO’s 1939–40 season. The Boston event seems, curiously enough, to have been in response to the orchestra’s inability, owing to its non-union status, to participate in a similarly themed series of concerts in New York, sponsored by and celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP). The Boston concerts were presented free to the public for the first time in the orchestra’s fifty-nine-year history, and the orchestra’s box office was swamped with people wanting to attend.

    Roy Harris was Koussevitzky’s advisor on the project. Schuman approached his friend and mentor about composing an “American Festival Overture.” Said Harris, “Koussevitzky is never going to agree to perform something by you after the disaster he had with your Second Symphony.” However, Harris was not aware that Koussevitzky had told Schuman he would welcome the opportunity to perform other new works by the young composer. Despite their friendship, Schuman felt that “unlike Aaron, he [Harris] never showed any particular interest in promoting me or my music, which was odd (though thoroughly in keeping with his personality), considering that he knew me far better than Aaron did.”

    Harris was eventually persuaded that Schuman’s non-commissioned piece would work for the concert series. Schuman based the opening of the overture on a surprisingly American concept: he explained to Harris that he remembered calling his neighborhood friends together as a young boy by yelling “Wee-Awk-Eee.” “I want to open this overture with ‘Wee-Awk-Eee’ on a minor third, and develop it in a very energetic, celebratory style . . . [which would eventually lead to] a non-academic fugue which would again start out with the minor third.” After Schuman sang the fugue subject to the older composer—while Harris was shaving at home in New Jersey, according to one story—he was surprised when Harris responded, “Great, that’s a wonderful theme. I’ll see what I can do.”

    Serge Koussevitsky (left) and William Schuman after a performance by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, c. October 6, 1944 (Juilliard School Archives)

    Koussevitzky finally authorized Schuman to write the piece, although with no guarantee that it would be performed. Schuman composed most of the overture in the summer of 1939 at the vacation home of Frankie’s aunt and uncle, Amy and Walter Charak, at Menemsha, in Chilmark on Martha’s Vineyard. After reviewing the score, the conductor invited Bill and Frankie to lunch at his home in Brookline, Massachusetts, to discuss the new work. Schuman recalled that Koussevitzky “was very hospitable but his table manners were appalling—at one point, he actually spat on his plate.”

    The overture was premiered at the second of the two special concerts on the afternoon of Friday, October 6, 1939, in a program that included Gershwin’s Concerto in F (with Abram Chasins as soloist), Harris’s Third Symphony, and Randall Thompson’s Second Symphony. Schuman was not pleased with the conclusion of his overture and wanted to rework it, especially because it was scheduled to be performed again in New York City—the first performance by a major orchestra in his hometown. Schuman recalled the original ending as having “pages that were filled with consecutive fourths . . . melodic fourths, and I recognized that it just wasn’t right.”

    Koussevitzky’s response to Schuman’s dilemma was touching in its sensitivity: he agreed to let Schuman write a new ending for the overture. He would rehearse it in a special session in New York just prior to the concert, which was to be given at Carnegie Hall on November 25, 1939, as part of a program that included works by the American composers Edward Burlingame Hill (Violin Concerto), John Alden Carpenter (Skyscrapers: A Ballet of Modern American Life), and Howard Hanson (Symphony No. 3). This was not the first time Koussevitzky had demonstrated such generosity toward a young composer. He had premiered Harris’s Third Symphony on February 24, 1939. Although the work was considered a success at its first reading, Koussevitzky felt that its ending was too abrupt. His concern led Harris to create “the quite extraordinary coda that really makes the Symphony work,” said Schuman. “Koussevitzky had great instincts and could put his finger on the few crucial points that made all the difference. His approach was not intellectual, but his instinctive judging of the qualities of immediate sound was of enormous help to a composer.”

    Schuman’s new ending was performed to great acclaim. A work of unending musical energy, it embodied his youthful bravado and inherent American optimism. The composer wrote a short program note for the world premiere in Boston:

    The first three notes of this piece will be recognized by some listeners as the “call to play” of boyhood days. In New York City it is yelled on the syllables, “Wee-Awk-Eee” to get the gang together for a game or a festive occasion of some sort. This call very naturally suggested itself for a piece of music being composed for a very festive occasion. From this it should not be inferred that the Overture is program music. In fact, the idea for the music came to mind before the origin of the theme was recalled. The development of this bit of “folk material,” then, is along purely musical lines.

    The first section of the work is concerned with the material discussed above and the ideas growing out of it. This music leads to a transition section and the subsequent announcement by the violas of a fugue subject. The entire middle section is given over to this fugue. The orchestration is at first for strings alone, later for wood winds alone and finally, as the Fugue is brought to fruition, by the strings and wood winds in combination. This climax leads to the final section of the work, which consists of opening materials paraphrased and the introduction of new subsidiary ideas. The tempo of the work, save the last measures, is fast.

    Elliott Carter, writing in Modern Music, observed that the overture

    has vitality and conviction behind it. Schuman’s gift is undeniable, though so far his musical material has shown a tendency to be slight.

    Olin Downes of the New York Times commented:

    This overture is a lusty piece, full of vitality, and fearless. It is the poorest composed piece of yesterday’s program, but far from the least in ideas and creative urge. The harmonic style may not be what the composer will show when he has become completely himself, and more skilled than he is today in the arts of instrumentation and development. But the piece is full of spirit and talent . . . there is wit and imagination in this music.

    Leonard Bernstein also waxed enthusiastic about the overture and its energy:

    [There is] an energetic drive, a vigor of propulsion which seizes the listener by the hair, whirls him through space, and sets him down at will. This involves a buoyancy and lust-for-life which I find (at the risk of being called old-fashioned and artificially nationalistic) wholly American. To help me make my point I wish I could somehow perform the American Festival Overture on these pages for each reader, to prove that Young America exists, acts, and speaks in this music.

    American Festival Overture became Schuman’s first successful work and went far toward helping him overcome the sense of failure he had known with his Second Symphony.


    Schuman saw his successes of 1939 as a turning point in his life as a composer. The Symphony No. 2; the Prologue for chorus and orchestra, first performed on May 7, 1939, in New York City by the “Federal Symphony Orchestra and Chorus of the New York City High School of Music and Art,” conducted by Alexander Richter; and the String Quartet No. 2 of 1938 all spurred Paul Rosenfeld to write an article linking Schuman to both Copland and Harris, two of the most prominent American composers of the time. Rosenfeld began the segment on Schuman by praising his Prologue and the widely dismissed Second Symphony. He then focused on the Second String Quartet:

    [The quartet] . . . revealed . . . the modernity of his style. It is entirely a melodic one. The harmonic consistency is unusually distinguished, the counterpoint is very openly spaced. The Quartet’s melodic lines were noticeably long: the middle movement indeed is a piece of beautifully sustained song pervaded by a sensuousness not invariablyto be found in modern music.

    Rosenfeld was no less enthusiastic about the Second Symphony:

    In the Second Symphony his structural style has energy and grandeur. The effects are large and ample, the feeling is elevated. Again the instrumentation is strikingly fresh, plainly that of a musician with a new sonority. The raucous and sensuous sound reflects the world of mechanism and industrial techniques; its closer parallels are in Varèse and Chavez; but it is clear and firm in its own way. . . . The Symphony testifies to the presence of something primitive in the composer’s feeling, a fierceness and an earthiness.

    Schuman’s String Quartet No. 3 received mixed reviews from the critics but still garnered praise. It was premiered on February 27, 1940, in Town Hall, by the Coolidge Quartet, and had been commissioned in a first-time joint venture by Town Hall and the League of Composers: “Olin Downes found energy and assurance in the part-writing but was unable to predict whether [these] were more than part of an experimental phase.” Francis D. Perkins in the New York Herald Tribune praised the work:

    [Schuman’s] new quartet is marked by notable instrumental craftsmanship. The introduction is distinguished by long-breathed, meditative lyricism; the musical ideas themselves, as well as their subtly colored harmonic investiture, had an exceptional poetic appeal. The sonority and transparency of the scoring spoke well for the composer’s ability to make thorough use of the tonal resources of his chosen medium.

    Irving Kolodin in the New York Sun noted that

    the fugue . . . was abstruse and over-complex with little variety. Similarly the intermezzo and the rondo finale with variations, were juiceless and lacking in thematic distinction.

    Schuman eventually used material from the last movement of the Third Quartet in the finale of his Fourth Symphony.

    In fact, both the Second and Third Quartets exhibit many of the compositional characteristics that would be evident in Schuman’s subsequent symphonies and works for dance: movements based on baroque forms such as the passacaglia and fugue, which appear in both the Second Quartet and Part I of the Third Symphony; complex rhythmic textures; harmonic structures that create piquant dissonances; polychords that combine major and minor triads; and an overall structural unity, something that was lacking in his earlier works. What is most remarkable about the String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 is their musical sophistication. Schuman had only begun his formal music studies less than a decade earlier. He clearly believed that he was developing a new voice, one distinct from Harris’s. Now Koussevitzky, in a profoundly perceptive piece of advice, told Schuman in no uncertain terms that he had to forge his own creative path: “You have to learn to hate Roy Harris.”


    The American Festival Overture success not only reinforced the young composer’s confidence, but also made him even more determined to compose for large orchestral forces: “[Because] I had very unconventional training . . . I really learned how to be a composer by composing symphonies. I didn’t fool around. I wanted to run before I could creep.” Schuman’s Third Symphony, one of his great works, was a manifestation of this momentum. Although not commissioned by Koussevitzky and the BSO, Schuman dedicated the work to the maestro who had championed his compositions with such consistent enthusiasm.

    The demands placed on Schuman by his teaching duties at Sarah Lawrence led him to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship and a leave from the college, both of which he received in 1939. The fellowship—$2,500—was almost equivalent to his annual salary. For the first time in his life, Schuman was a full-time composer. This newfound freedom to compose seemed to be a double-edged sword for Schuman. Although progress on the symphony went well, he also missed the camaraderie of his teaching days: “In some respects, the days were too long. I wrote the Third Symphony in less than a year, and when I finished it, early one January morning in 1941, I told myself ‘well, I don’t know what else to do, so I’d better start my Fourth Symphony.'”

    This uneasiness with being only a composer was a leitmotif throughout Schuman’s life. As the president of the Juilliard School of Music and then of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, Schuman was happiest and at his most creative when he could easily jump from being a composer to working as an administrator. As a result, Schuman asked the Guggenheim fellowship administration to make an exception and allow him to teach or conduct while he completed his fellowship. He told Henry Allen Moe, president of the foundation: “This has nothing to do with money, but I can’t just be a composer. I’ll go out of my mind, and my publisher will go broke trying to put out everything I produce. I need to do something else as well.” Moe agreed and allowed Schuman to continue working part-time at Sarah Lawrence. He even renewed the fellowship for a second year.

    The late 1930s and early 1940s were for Schuman a time of exceptional creativity and productivity. His routine usually involved composing for about three hours every morning, time dedicated in particular to sketching and developing new ideas. Then, after a walk, he would turn for the rest of the day to more mundane endeavors such as proofreading or orchestration. Schuman always contended that if a person was a true composer, the music would inevitably be written no matter what might be the circumstances of employment or available commissions. Although he wrote for long hours, he also prided himself on being an efficient composer—a trait that permitted him to follow both of his career paths.

    Schuman did not compose at the piano, but he did have a drafting board adjacent to it where “he frequently banged out . . . chords,” according to his son, Tony. Explained Schuman, “When I go to the piano, I waste a lot of time, because I have fun improvising. For me, just sitting and thinking is a very pure exercise, and I love writing music that way. Occasionally, if I’m not sure of a sound, I go over to the piano and try it out.”

    Prior to the important premiere of the Third Symphony, Schuman made public his proletarian inclinations with the first performance of his work entitled This Is Our Time: Secular Cantata No. 1, for chorus and orchestra. The text was by Genevieve Taggard, whose Marxist and socialist affiliations were widely known. The work was performed at Lewisohn Stadium in Upper Manhattan on July 4, 1940, by the People’s Philharmonic Chorus and the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Alexander Smallens. The chorus was “made up of iron workers, painters, carpenters, workers in shoe factories, housewives and white-collar workers. . . . Schuman wrote: ‘Music which the layman can perform is essential if we hope to reach a wide audience.'”

    Taggard’s text for the cantata is certainly proletarian in spirit but mild in terms of Marxist rhetoric. Rather, her words embrace the romance of hard work and the need for all to band together to achieve new initiatives in America. The five movements, entitled “Celebration,” “Work,” “Foundations,” “Questions,” and “Fanfares,” deal with such themes as “Celebrate our time,” “The idle are the sad,” and a traditional American barn-raising.


    Leonard Bernstein (left), who would remain a lifelong champion of William Schuman as well as a close personal friend, looks over a score with Schuman, c. 1972 (Schuman Family Archives)

    The Third Symphony was premiered on October 17, 1941, by Koussevitzky and the BSO, with Leonard Bernstein assisting the conductor in its preparation. Both the composer and the conductors soon agreed that the original manuscript needed significant cuts and adjustments. Recalled Schuman:

    In writing the symphony I had discovered the interval of the fourth, so I had pages built on that interval. It was a youthful excess and I caught it myself . . . the need for other cuts became obvious in rehearsal. In the toccata I had a virtuoso section for the double basses that sounded terrible . . . on the first reading Koussevitzky looked up at me, shook his head, and out it went.

    In retrospect, it is possible that the cuts made by the composer, Koussevitzky, and Bernstein might have been precipitous. In 2005 Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra restored some of the cut material, which in the opinion of informed listeners made the symphony much stronger.

    Schuman did not accept all of Koussevitzky’s suggestions. With the debacle of the Second Symphony perhaps still lurking in the conductor’s memory, he proposed that the performance only include the second half of the symphony. Schuman politely rejected that notion. However, Koussevitzky was quite solicitous of the young composer. In a letter to Frankie dated three days before the world premiere of the Third Symphony, Schuman wrote that during a rehearsal, “as the Passacaglia was drawing to a close Kousse turns to me and says—exact quotes ‘Bravo Schuman these pages are truly wonderful.'” Frankie had been able to travel to Boston to be with her husband during rehearsals for the symphony, and their time together was deeply meaningful for Schuman: “Yesterday with you was too too you know what—a man in love with his wife—how dull . . . all the boys say Frankie’s the nuts. Flatterererer.”

    The Third Symphony is in two parts: the first consists of a passacaglia and fugue, and the second, a chorale and toccata. Schuman did not use these baroque forms strictly, but only as suggestions in developing each movement. Audience reaction to the Third Symphony was very positive, much to Koussevitzky’s joy. Bernstein also embraced the new work with great enthusiasm and subsequently recorded it twice, calling it “my symphony.” Its New York premiere was scheduled for a Friday matinee performance on November 22, 1941, preceded by Ravel’s suite Le tombeau de Couperin and followed after intermission by Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony. Schuman had hoped for a premiere on the evening before, when he anticipated a more “sophisticated audience.” George Judd, the manager of the BSO, gave some valuable advice to the composer by taking him to a peephole backstage that looked out at the audience: “Young man . . . tell me how many empty seats you see.” None, replied Schuman. Judd then delivered his eminently practical assessment: “That, my friend, is a great audience.”

    The first page of the orchestral score of William Schuman’s Symphony No. 3; Copyright 1942 by G. Schirmer, Inc. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

    After the first New York performance Olin Downes wrote, “It is a symphony which for this chronicler takes the position of the best work by an American of the rising generation.” The December 6 New Yorker crowed that “young Mr. Schuman is the composer of the hour by virtue of the popular and critical success of his Third Symphony.” Many years later Winthrop Sargeant wrote in the same magazine: “This Third Symphony is, in my opinion, by far the finest that Mr. Schuman has written. It shows evidences of that rare ingredient of contemporary symphonic music—talent—and it has the virtues of clarity and coherence.”

    Not only was the work a popular success, but it garnered Schuman in 1942 the first New York Music Critics Circle Award. The young composer expressed total disdain for the honor. His arrogance in protesting the awarding of the prize opens a window into the psyche of this up-and-coming American composer. In a recollection that appeared in most of the oral histories Schuman participated in over the years, he told of inviting the composers Paul Creston and Norman Dello Joio, who were also candidates for the award, to lunch at the Russian Tea Room on West 57th Street, where he proposed that they all declare their lack of interest in receiving anything in the way of recognition from a critic: “Now, look boys, the last thing we want is for the critics to give us a prize. Let’s denounce the whole idea . . . let’s just say we won’t accept any critics’ prizes: it’s bad enough to have to submit to criticism.” When Creston and Dello Joio refused to go along with such a divisive scheme, Schuman said: “All right, remember I warned you. I’m going to win it because mine is the best piece.”

    Such reckless language within the close-knit and highly sensitive world of classical music seems nothing short of an attempt at professional suicide on Schuman’s part. Yet his self-confidence and his desire to push the envelope were evident as early as his years in Speyer Experimental School for Boys, then at Juilliard and particularly at Lincoln Center many years later, when his pugnacity would not be looked upon so benignly as it had been by Olin Downes, the chairman of the award committee. In any event, Schuman’s rhetoric quickly cooled and he decided to accept the award.


    A Guggenheim grant in hand, Schuman decided to create another symphonic work. Thanks to Koussevitzky’s success with the Third Symphony, Artur Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra requested the right to perform Schuman’s next new work, which was the Symphony No. 4. At the time, the country’s most respected conductors were competing for compositions from the next “new talent.” Eugene Ormandy of the Philadelphia Orchestra also sought out Schuman for a new work.

    Frankie and Bill traveled to Cleveland in January 1942 to attend the rehearsals and performances of his Symphony No. 4. Schuman remembered Rodzinski as eccentric, an impression reinforced by the widespread belief that he carried a concealed handgun with him at all times.

    Although Schuman did not recall having extensive discussions with Rodzinski, he did know that the conductor wanted to repeat the success that Koussevitzky had enjoyed with the Symphony No. 3. The premiere of the Fourth Symphony took place on January 22, 1942, and a post-concert reception was given at the home of Frank Loesser’s older half-brother, Arthur, a concert pianist, teacher, and writer.

    Arthur viewed the new work positively:

    The Symphony is the work of a remarkable musical mind, of predominantly intellectual bent; the composer has great skill in the arts of counterpoint and thematic manipulation, and is animated by a passion for logic and unity. The Symphony is an essay in pure design; its three movements are a consistent evolution of an elaborate structure from the same one or two germinal motives . . . the entire work arouses admiration, gives a feeling of strength and inspires a desire for re-hearing.

    At the reception Rodzinski and Loesser became involved in an animated discussion of Scarlatti, ignoring the young composer: “It wasn’t personal, it was just the way the things were. . . . Composers were salesmen, notcustomers, and very few conductors treated you very pleasantly. Some of them were outright rude.”

    Schuman again encountered this dismissive attitude from Ormandy’s performances of the Symphony No. 4 in Philadelphia on April 4 and 6, 1942, and in Carnegie Hall on April 7. Ormandy, concerned that too much “noise” was coming from the percussion section, wanted the composer to revise the work; as he explained, “My audiences can’t take anything like that.” Schuman’s remembrance of the exchange between himself and Ormandy shows that the composer’s self-confidence was on the upswing. He told the conductor:

    “Well, Mr. Ormandy, I need that there, and if I thought it was a good suggestion I would certainly consider it.” He replied, “Don’t you want me to have a big success with the Fourth the way Koussevitzky had with the Third?” And I said, “Yes, but I have a counter-proposal. Let’s you and me have a grand failure.” Ormandy was furious and yelled, “What are you saying to me?”

    Schuman hit a sore spot when he reminded Ormandy of his days as a conductor at the Capitol Theater in New York City, where the resident orchestra accompanied films and attractions: “Ormandy was not pleased to be reminded of this; he shouted, ‘You have the nerve to come in here and mention that?'”

    Despite the personal friction between the two, the Ormandy performances of Schuman’s Fourth Symphony were a success, and according to the composer, the “audiences [liked] the music very much, better than they had in Cleveland, though Rodzinski did it well.” Many critics commented that they had never known two new symphonies by one American composer to be performed in one season. Ormandy later became one of Schuman’s greatest supporters, performing new and established works with the Philadelphia Orchestra throughout his tenure.

    Critical views of the new symphony were unenthusiastic. Olin Downes found the symphony “disappointing and by no means as strong a work as the preceding symphony.” He added insult to injury by spelling Schuman with two ns throughout the review.

    Virgil Thomson’s thoughts on the work were poisonous and condescending:

    I found it [the Fourth Symphony] vague and more than a little diffuse. Its musical thought flows without hinderance [sic], but it assumes its precise form with great difficulty. . . . He writes pleasant little exercises in free counterpoint that go along nicely but that lack definition. . . . He reminds me not a little of Theodore Dreiser. I should like to put him to work writing incidental music for plays or doing ballet scores. I fancy the necessity of making music say something briefly and clearly and simply might be a valuable experience for him. He has an agreeable kind of boisterousness, also, that should be fun to dance to.

    Schuman himself remarked about the Fourth Symphony, “I think it’s quite a different work from the Third Symphony in every way. It was for me at that time a forward-moving work, I think principally because of the second movement.”

    Although one hears in the symphony’s first and third movements the now-familiar brashness and “muscularity” with which Schuman would always be identified, his compositional approach toward the second movement was different, though he had also used it in the chorale in Part II of the Third Symphony. The intensely moving and elongated melody of the Fourth Symphony’s second movement presages Schuman’s approach, seen frequently in his later works, of developing a melodic line over an extended period. In addition, his masterful orchestration, also a hallmark of subsequent compositions, utilizes woodwind, brass, and string choirs in highly effective juxtapositions throughout the movement. And in one of his first borrowings of material from a previously composed work, a practice he would embrace enthusiastically toward the end of his life, Schuman used the musical material from the last movement of his Third String Quartet as the basis for the symphony’s last movement.


    In late 1941 Schuman composed his first work for band, entitled Newsreel, in Five Shots. Schuman had always loved the sounds of bands: “I wanted to write music that could be performed by kids, because I love kids . . . but I got better at it after [Newsreel] because [it’s] too difficult to play in terms of musical content.” Another reason Schuman enjoyed band writing was that “it makes you feel like a citizen. Bands want new pieces. Unlike most symphony orchestras, who do new music on sufferance, bands love to do it.”

    In the 1930s and early 1940s the newsreel was an integral part of any moviegoing experience. It presented short snippets of the news of the day, both serious and whimsical: “[I] thought how amusing it would be to imagine these events and write music to go with them, so I did. . . . It was great fun to do—kind of a joke. Lukas Foss loves that piece. . . . He never played anything of any importance that I wrote, but he loved that.”

    Newsreel was premiered in 1942 by the Pennsylvania State College Band under the direction of George S. Howard. Written in five movements whose titles depict various topics in a newsreel (“Horse Race,” “Fashion Show,” “Tribal Dance,” “Monkeys at the Zoo,” and “Parade”), the piece became a favorite with bands around the United States and eventually was even played by junior high school bands.


    During this busy and successful time for Schuman the world was thrust into the cataclysm of World War II. Schuman, who at the time was in his very early thirties, was swept up in the patriotic fervor. He had always had a deep love for all that America stood for, and, like most men of his generation, he wanted to fight for his country. Unfortunately, a congenital physical malady, progressive muscular atrophy (PMA), which Schuman described as a “form of dystrophy,” made him unfit to serve. PMA is one of a group of motor neuron disorders that includes amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), primary lateral sclerosis, and post-polio syndrome, among others:

    In most people who have one of these disorders, the cause is unknown. . . . In all of these disorders, motor nerves in the spinal cord or brain progressively deteriorate, causing muscle weakness that can progress to paralysis. However, in each disorder, a different part of the nervous system is affected. Consequently, each disorder primarily affects different muscles and different parts of the body. . . . [Progressive muscular atrophy] is similar to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, but it progresses more slowly, . . . and muscle weakness is less severe. . . . Many people with this disorder survive 25 years or longer.

    Both Schuman children recalled discussions of their father’s health as an ongoing litany of vaguely diagnosed maladies. The composer’s daughter, Andie, spoke of an “atypical ALS” that may have caused his muscle weakness and a case of Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, an inherited neurological disorder that often presents in adolescence whose symptoms include weakness and atrophy in the extremities, all leading to his “illegible handwriting and musical notation. . . . The problem was first medically evaluated shortly after [my parents] were married—they were told he had only a few years to live, which may have been why they waited so long to have Tony (8 years post-marriage).” Schuman was turned down by the Phoenix Mutual Life Insurance Company because of the condition, as seen in a letter dating from 1942: “Our medical department regrets to advise that your history of progressive muscular atrophy does not warrant further consideration of you as an insurable risk at this time” (emphasis added). PMA is incurable and can be fatal, but Schuman was able to live with it to the age of eighty-one. Nonetheless, it constantly threatened his physical well-being and affected his ability to write clearly and exercise vigorously.

    Schuman, with his customary resourcefulness and optimism, tried to find a way to serve despite his uncertain health. He learned of a unit of the army called the Army Specialist Corps, which would provide “music advisers to the service commands.” Members of this new corps “must be ineligible for drafting for combat service under Selective Service, and must have a specialty of value to some phase of military activity.” Schuman had approached Harold Spivacke, chairman of the Sub-Committee on Music of the Joint Army and Navy Committee on Welfare and Recreation and chief of the Music Division of the Library of Congress, almost immediately after Pearl Harbor. Spivacke wrote to Schuman on December 27, 1941, and told him that owing to the recent attack, he would need more time to respond to Schuman’s desire to join the armed forces.

    Some months later Spivacke advised Schuman that he might, in fact, be taken into the Specialist Corps, which also required that all members be at least at the rank of captain. The strategy was to first enlist in the regular army and then eventually be transferred to the Corps. After consulting with a physician in Larchmont, who was dubious about Schuman’s chances for success, Schuman went to his local draft board in Scarsdale for an interview.

    Because Schuman was under the impression at the time that the Specialist Corps would “only accept 4F men from the first draft,” he went to his local draft board and was able to convince them to change his status from 3A to 4F. Schuman told Spivacke, “I feel that part of being patriotic is to continue to do creative work as long as it is humanly possible to do so. If, however, this can be coupled with a direct war job in music, I am prepared to offer my services.”

    Once again the news was negative, but a ray of light appeared when the board said that rules might change soon thanks to ever-greater demands for manpower. Schuman informed Constance Warren, Sarah Lawrence’s president, of his impending induction and even bought a uniform at Brooks Brothers. This strategic move was based on the example of Frank Loesser, who, although only a private, had acquired a uniform from the renowned gentlemen’s clothier.

    In August 1942 Spivacke wrote to Schuman to say “that we are now prepared to offer your application to the Army for final consideration [and] should an appointment be offered you, [are] you prepared to accept it immediately, without any reservations whatsoever?” (emphasis added).

    Unfortunately, Schuman’s plan collapsed soon after his army physical at Fort Slocum, close to New Rochelle. He was advised through letters from the office of the director of the Special Service Division, dated September 21 and October 17, 1942, that “it is with considerable regret that, because your physical examination failed to meet the standard requirements, no waiver was recommended, and your application [for the Specialist Corps] is withdrawn from consideration.”

    As it turned out, Schuman was mistaken about the necessity to change his draft status to 4F: “The regulations drawn up for the Corps indicate that, subject to certain restrictions, ‘the minimum physical requirements for appointment in the Corps will be the same as those . . . for limited military service (class 1-B standards).'” Schuman wrote to Spivacke the day he received the final letter from the Special Service Division:

    Since I cannot serve in the Specialist Corps I am trying to do what I can with my pen. The first work is a Cantata for Chorus and Orchestra [A Free Song: Secular Cantata No. 2 for chorus and orchestra] which Koussevitzky will perform. It has wonderful words by Walt Whitman. If I’ve done my job well it can’t help but be a moving patriotic affair.

    Spivacke wrote back on October 20:

    I was surprised to hear that your application has received unfavorable action. . . . [I] presumed that it was moving along all right. You are correct in stating that your 4F status was frankly established from the start, but in all 4F cases it is up to the Surgeon General whether or not the man is fit for the duty in question.

    Schuman was crushed by the news. However, in a discussion with Carl Engel, his publisher at Schirmer’s, he received some wise advice: “Write a piece of music. Take it out in music.” The resulting work, written almost at the same time as A Free Song, was originally entitled Prayer, 1943, and was premiered by Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony on February 26, 1943. The title was later changed to Prayer in a Time of War. Schuman also composed a brief piano work, “Three-Score Set,” in honor of Engel’s sixtieth birthday in 1943. The composer later borrowed some material from this work for use in his Fifth Symphony.

    Prayer in a Time of War had its New York premiere on March 25, 1943, with the New York Philharmonic, conducted again by Fritz Reiner. It was also performed by Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony Orchestra on a national broadcast in December 1943, at the height of U.S. patriotic fervor during the war. Stokowski invited the composer to a rehearsal, asked for Schuman’s comments, and then, remarkably, asked Schuman to take the podium to rectify a tempo problem Schuman had pointed out to the maestro. Summoning his experiences in Salzburg eight years earlier, Schuman conducted the great orchestra and was given a bravo and a round of applause from the musicians. Stokowski returned to the podium from the radio control room, said thank you, and never made another comment. The eventual performance, with Stokowski conducting, retained all the correct tempi.


    The only memory Schuman had of contributing to the war effort was his performances with the Sarah Lawrence Chorus at military bases and hospitals: “When I walked out on stage with all these beautiful young girls, the girls got whistles and I got very good applause. My applause was mostly envy.”

    In an episode that reveals a glimmer of Schuman’s personality and politics at the time, Schuman received a letter in February 1942 from a Mrs. Robert A. Schmid, who complained that the Sarah Lawrence Chorus was performing Aaron Copland’s An Immorality (for three-voice women’s choir, soprano solo, and piano) with text taken from the poem “Lustra” by Ezra Pound, whose fascist sympathies many Americans despised. (This work is often paired with another Copland choral work from 1925 entitled The House on the Hill, with text by Edward Arlington Robinson. The works became known as Two Choruses.) Schuman explained to Mrs. Schmid that Copland’s work “proved a very meaty and novel addition to the repertory of modern choral music” and that Pound’s poem had been written back in 1916. Schuman concluded the letter with a powerful statement on his view of the confluence of art and politics:

    Don’t you agree that we must be very careful these days not to let our hatred for all the brutality and retrogression for which Fascism stands confuse our judgment of matters in art. May I say personally that if the Duce himself were a fine composer I would still want to see him shot but in the meantime I would perform his music.

    Schuman showed his response to Copland, who observed: “I thought your replique admirable, though I must say I’m rather relieved that the Duce doesn’t compose anything. What will happen when somebody discovers all the anti-Semitic references in Chopin’s letters??”

    During the war Schuman also composed the music for the film Steeltown (1944), commissioned by the United States Office of War Information.


    Schuman teaching a class at Sarah Lawrence College, 1940 (Schuman Family Archives)

    Eventually the pain of his army rejection passed, and Schuman continued his frenetic pace as both a composer and teacher at Sarah Lawrence. An important evening concert was dedicated solely to Schuman’s music in New York City’s Town Hall on January 13, 1943. The concert was produced by Kenneth Klein as the first of three Music Forums. Klein’s wife, Rosalyn Tureck, would perform Schuman’s Concerto for Piano and Small Orchestra, accompanied by Daniel Saidenberg conducting the Saidenberg Little Symphony. The composer also had a few choral pieces he wished to be heard, especially Holiday Song, with text by his friend Genevieve Taggard.

    The format of the Music Forum included not only a performance of music by the featured composer, but also a post-performance discussion and analysis of the music during which the audience was invited to comment and ask questions. Schuman needed a particularly thick skin to survive the event, described in a 1943 article in Musical America by Ronald F. Eyer.

    The performance included Schuman’s Prelude for voices, the Choral Etude, Four Canonic Choruses, the Holiday Song, and Requiescat, followed by the premiere of the Piano Concerto. Tureck, no shrinking violet, also decided to perform a second concerto—J. S. Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in F Minor—for reasons that can only be attributed to her considerable ego. Although Schuman commented that he was pleased to “have a fellow like Bach on the same program with me,” Eyer wrote that “Bach had his trials, but it is doubtful whether he ever was put under a microscope and mercilessly dissected by his interpreters, critics, colleagues in full view of the public as Mr. Schuman was on this occasion.” Joining Schuman for this “dissection” were all the performers and Virgil Thomson, music critic of the New York Herald-Tribune. Klein chaired the discussion. Thomson “sought out resemblances between the current composer and his name-sake, Robert Schumann. He also suggested that Mr. Schuman is orchestral minded in his choral writing.” Finally, a woman in the balcony “wanted to know why Mr. Schuman wrote music at all.” That seemed to rouse the young composer from a “reticent and monosyllabic” state and he became “fluently vocal,” saying “I feel I have to write music, so I write it.”

    The forum also included a query to Virgil Thomson as to whether Schuman’s concerto was “atonal or polytonal,” to which the critic and composer playfully answered, “No.” Tureck then awkwardly attempted to define a melody by stating that “any succession of notes is a melody provided they—the notes—are not repeated.” Eyer ended his article with the bemused observation that “whether or not anything of value was accomplished by this essay in musical vivisection is hard to say.”


    Dissatisfied with Hugh Ross’s Schola Cantorum—the New York chorus of choice at the time—for the Music Forum performance, Schuman asked in the fall of 1942, “Isn’t there some new chorus around in New York that’s really exciting?” The response was a suggestion to meet “a fellow who conducted the Fred Waring Glee Club and also had his own group [called the Collegiate Chorale]. His name was Robert Shaw.”

    Shaw invited Schuman to hear the Collegiate Chorale in rehearsal working on a Brahms motet and a Negro spiritual. After the rehearsal, over hot chocolate at a local automat, Schuman critiqued the work of the man who was to become America’s most respected choral conductor of the twentieth century:

    Number one, the chorus is marvelous and you’re a better choral conductor than I could be in a thousand years and I want you to conduct [the Town Hall concert]. But having said that, I have to tell you that you’re absolutely ignorant. You don’t know a thing about music. Your whole performance of the Brahms was absurd; it was almost a caricature. . . . Have you ever heard the Eroica Symphony?

    Shaw hadn’t. So on November 21, 1942, he, Bill, and Frankie sat in a box in Carnegie Hall to listen as Koussevitzky conducted the BSO in Beethoven’s Third Symphony. Recalled Schuman: “As the ‘Eroica’ started unfolding, he sat there with tears rolling down his cheeks. He had never heard music like that.”

    Through Schuman’s contacts Shaw began studying with George Szell, who began with the analysis of Bach chorales. Said Schuman: “Shaw lasted four lessons. The wonderful irony of it is that Bob spent ten years as Szell’s assistant later on.”

    Shaw returned the favor by eventually putting Schuman in contact with the great Broadway producer Billy Rose. Rose was producing an elaborate revue entitled “The Seven Lively Arts.” It included a new ballet by Stravinsky eventually entitled Scènes de ballet, with choreography by George Balanchine, new songs by Cole Porter, roles for the comedians Bert Lahr and Beatrice Lilly, and a performance by Benny Goodman and his band. Schuman first met Rose when the producer wanted the composer to set a poem that he had found in the Nation magazine called “The Ballad of Free Enterprise.” Although Schuman rejected the commission, he met with Rose anyway at the producer’s instigation: “Rose was a vulgarian of the worst sort. He decided that in order to get ahead in the world you had to be a secretary to a famous man, so he became a secretary to Bernard Baruch. . . . He also married Fannie Brice.”

    Rose laid out his plan for the revue, with its cornucopia of luminaries, and then countered Schuman’s rejection of the choral work by inviting him to compose an orchestral piece to be played onstage. If Schuman agreed, Rose was ready to offer him $1,000 for the work. Rose continued, “That’s an advance. If I like the score that you’re doing, I’m going to commission you for another thousand dollars to do incidental music for Henry VIII that I’m going to put on, directed by Margaret Webster and Laird Krieger [a movie star at the time] playing Henry.” Schuman was also entrusted with finding a conductor for the revue. After Alexander Smallens was rejected as being “too rich” for Rose’s blood, Schuman contacted Maurice Abravanel, who was interested in the project.

    The revue went to tryouts in Philadelphia before its opening in New York, scheduled awkwardly on December 7, 1944—the third anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. Alicia Markova and Anton Dolin were the dancers for the Stravinsky work. Rose was concerned about the orchestration, so Schuman said he would find out more about it from Robert Russell Bennett, who was arranging the Cole Porter songs.

    The news was not good for Rose. Stravinsky’s orchestration added about eleven woodwind players to the revue’s basic orchestra, which enlarged the weekly payroll considerably. Rose wanted to cut the length and reduce the orchestra by having Schuman arrange the woodwind parts for four saxophones. Rose approached the problem with his typical gusto: “You’re going to earn another thousand bucks tonight, Baby,” he told Schuman. He continued, “Will four saxophones make as much sound as eleven woodwinds?” “Probably even more,” replied Schuman.

    Rose was decisive. “That settles it. . . . I’m wiring Stravinsky that you’re going to re-orchestrate it. Can you do it overnight?” Schuman’s sheepish “yes” was followed by an incredulous question: “Do you think I would have the temerity to rewrite Stravinsky?”

    In a final effort to move the project forward Rose sent a telegram to Stravinsky: “Your ballet colossal success. Can be even greater success if you’ll agree to certain cuts and reduction in orchestration.” Replied Stravinsky: “Thank you for your telegram. Quite content with colossal success.”

    Schuman was saddened to see that his piece for the revue, Side Show (eventually renamed Circus Overture), was dropped after three performances and that his advance for Henry VIII was never honored. However, Schuman was able to take two of his compositional ideas from the Henry VIII “commission” to develop the beautiful song “Orpheus with His Lute,” for voice and piano, with text by Shakespeare, and a Te Deum for a cappella mixed chorus, both published in 1944. Rose continued to be a friend of Schuman, but the composer’s brief foray into show business convinced him that was a field he did not care to explore further.


    In the midst of Schuman’s compositional and educational activities, he enjoyed a singular honor as the first recipient of a Pulitzer Prize in composition. The jury, composed of the conductor Chalmers Clifton, who had become aware of Schuman’s music through his position as director of the Works Progress Administration Federal Music Project; the composer Quincy Porter; and the conductor Alfred Wallenstein, announced their decision on May 3, 1943. The prize was to be awarded for A Free Song: Secular Cantata No. 2, written soon after Schuman learned he would not be allowed to serve in the armed forces.

    Schuman had become fascinated with Walt Whitman’s poetry when he first heard Roy Harris’s a cappella work A Song for Occupations, with text by Whitman. Schuman created the title A Free Song and

    changed the “I’s” to “we’s” because I felt more comfortable saying “we.” I suppose that’s why I wrote so little solo vocal music: you can’t really write romantic vocal music unless you’re willing to say “I.” I have no trouble doing it in popular music. I think of Whitman as a poet of ideas, not of form, so I always felt quite free to change and juxtapose his words.

    A Free Song, written for a full mixed chorus and orchestra, is divided into two parts: Part I, with “Long, too long, America” and “Look down, fair moon”; and Part II, “Song of the Banner.” It is a work that engenders a good deal of patriotic feeling. The first part presents the horrors of war: “pour softly down on faces ghastly, swollen, purple. . . . On the dead on their backs with their arms tossed wide.” The second features a triumphantly animated choral part. It first trumpets the text “O, a new song, a free song” and concludes:

    We hear and see not strips of cloth alone,
    We hear again the tramp of armies,
    We hear the drums beat and the trumpets blowing,
    A new song, a free song,
    We hear the jubilant shouts of millions of men,
    we hear Liberty!

    The patriotic theme and stirring conclusion of the work resonated in an America deeply committed to the war effort.

    Schuman described the experience of hearing the wonderful news of the prize for the first time:

    I was so surprised. . . . I had finished the chorus rehearsal at Sarah Lawrence. I was driving home from Bronxville to Larchmont. Leonard Bernstein and Henry Simon—the . . . critic and publisher—were coming for dinner, and on the way home I turned on the radio, and . . . it said “Now for the first time in the history of the Pulitzer Prize, there is an award given for music.” . . . They announced my name. . . . When I got home everybody had been calling. It had been in the afternoon papers . . . and my students at Sarah Lawrence were furious with me. They said “You can’t tell us you didn’t know this afternoon. You didn’t tell us!”

    Later that day I got a telegram from Nicholas Murray Butler, the President of Columbia University, misspelling the name of the piece and my name, and the next morning it was announced that [this] year the prize was reduced from a thousand dollars to five hundred.

    Actually, it seems that Schuman heard the wonderful news, not on his car radio, but on his home radio. In an interview with the Sarah Lawrence College student newspaper—the Campus—which appeared on May 5, 1943, only two days after the announcement, it was reported that “he [Schuman] first learned of the honor while listening to the radio at his home.” Schuman told the student interviewer: “I was eager to hear about the fighting in Tunisia . . . and tuned in on the radio. I recognized the Boston accent of Quincy Howe. He announced the news of the Pulitzer winners and my name was among them. Naturally it was exciting.” Other 1943 Pulitzers went to Thornton Wilder for his drama The Skin of Our Teeth, Robert Frost for his volume of poetry A Witness Tree, and Upton Sinclair for his novel Dragon’s Teeth.


    Schuman capped the banner year of 1943 with the premiere of his Symphony for Strings, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated to Nataliya Koussevitzky, the conductor’s wife, who had died in 1942. The foundation would go on to commission some of the seminal works of the twentieth century, including Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Copland’s Symphony No. 3, Britten’s Peter Grimes, and Messiaen’s Turangalîla-symphonie.

    Schuman decided to avoid any comparison with earlier Fifth Symphonies by naming the work Symphony for Strings. It was premiered by Koussevitzky and the BSO on November 12, 1943. Schuman’s recollection of the symphony’s genesis was that he “had a great desire to write a piece for string orchestra. Koussevitzky said . . . ‘good piece for strings is always welcome.’ I remember [driving for] miles in Westchester, singing the opening theme to myself, to get it absolutely right.” The Symphony for Strings is a work of great imagination, pathos, and driving energy. It and the Third were to become Schuman’s most popular symphonies.


    During this prodigiously productive compositional period, Schuman became intrigued with the hymns and anthems of the American composer William Billings (1746–1800). Interestingly, it was also at this time that Aaron Copland enjoyed great success with his ballet Appalachian Spring (1943–44), written for Martha Graham, in which he used a Shaker melody as the basis of a set of variations.

    “I became sufficiently intrigued with the music [of Billings] to perform it rather widely [with chorus],” Schuman said. He examined the original manuscripts in the New York Public Library and found that Billings “had feelings which I recognized as being wholly akin to my own.” The result was the William Billings Overture, a set of variations on Billings’s melodies, including “Be Glad Then, America,” “When Jesus Wept,” and the anthem and marching song “Chester.” It was premiered on February 17, 1944, by Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic. Eventually withdrawn by the composer, it nonetheless resurfaced in 1956 as the foundation for one of Schuman’s most popular works, New England Triptych.

    Schuman was also asked to write a variation as part of a compilation entitled Variations on a Theme of Eugene Goossens in honor of Goossens and the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Goossens was quite succinct with Schuman: “I am asking you to write Variation 7. I would like it to be in C Major, treated as fugato or canonically throughout, but not vigorous—subject of course to your reaction to the theme which I have devised and a copy of which you will find enclosed.” The variation, of only a few minutes’ duration, was performed in Cincinnati on March 23, 1945, but was never published and remains a pièce d’occasion.


    Although his successes as a serious composer continued, after nine years of presenting essentially the same material, his patience with teaching at Sarah Lawrence was wearing thin. In addition, Frankie and Bill celebrated the birth of their first child, Anthony William, on December 22, 1943, while they lived in Larchmont. Schuman “always wanted a family” and was “wild about children.” The long delay in starting their family seemed to have been based not only on his mysterious lifelong illness, but also on concerns about the added financial burden on an up-and-coming composer.

    Frankie and William Schuman, November 1944 (Schuman Family Archives)

    The opportunity for a career change came in May 1944 when Carl Engel, director of publications and president at G. Schirmer, Schuman’s publisher, died. Engel had been both Schuman’s friend and a trusted professional partner. He was instrumental in guiding Schuman through the difficult days after his rejection from the armed forces in 1942.

    Koussevitzky recommended Schuman for the prestigious position of director of publications at G. Schirmer, but Schuman was reticent to apply for the job, saying, “Well, I don’t know. I’m not a business man, Serge.” Koussevitzky replied, “Through the night you will become a business man.” Schuman soon was offered the job at a considerable jump in pay, from his $4,500 at Sarah Lawrence to $10,000 at G. Schirmer. In addition, he was given a contract for at least three years, a resounding vote of confidence for Schuman. He was to work part-time at the publishing house until he had completed his academic obligations at Sarah Lawrence.

    His greatest regret in leaving the college was the loss of his chorus directorship, which he was asked to continue—but Schuman eventually came to believe it was important to make a complete break: “After a while, it was a kind of self-indulgence, because I wasn’t going to add anything to the experience of the chorus, nor to my own experience. So I gave it up.”

    Schuman had first approached G. Schirmer in 1932 to publish his “Chorale Canons,” but the work was rejected. However, a few years later Schirmer agreed to publish his Prologue. Said Carl Engel: “I am not sure I understood it all, but I was intrigued by it. Welcome to the house.” After the success of the Third Symphony Engel arranged a monthly stipend for Schuman so the composer could teach less and compose more. Schuman submitted several choral works for publication in 1942, including Requiescat, Holiday Song, and the once-rejected “Chorale Canons,” which Engel suggested renaming Four Canonic Choruses. Schuman was also asked to give Schirmer the right of first refusal on all subsequent compositions, a proposal Schuman accepted with alacrity.

    Schuman had accepted the Schirmer position on the premise that he would have complete control over what would be published. He set about reviewing past publications and bringing new composers under contract. Schuman saw Schirmer as publishing only two types of music: “There was music we thought we could sell, regardless of its quality, and music of high quality regardless of its commercial value”:

    In my mind, publishing was a romantic pursuit. If I had ever given it much thought, I undoubtedly would have realized that if the publisher did not make a profit, he would soon be out of business. . . . Too, I was impressed with the great number of works of artistic worth but of no economic value that are also issued by . . . responsible and imaginative publishers.

    His first composer contract was with Roger Sessions, whose Second Symphony Schirmer published. Schuman also tried to recruit the talented, eccentric, and difficult David Diamond at a lunch at the Lotos Club on East 66th Street. “Your music isn’t being published, and I want Schirmer to do it,” Schuman told Diamond. “Let’s start with some small choral pieces and songs rather than the big pieces.” Diamond erupted. “Fuck you!” he screamed. “‘You would pick the commercial things!’ and he stormed out,” Schuman remembered.

    In addition, it was not long before Schuman began to have disagreements with the owner and president of the firm, Gustave Schirmer: “Mr. Gustave Schirmer knew nothing about music, and whatever interest he had in it was limited to sales reports. His principal preoccupation, especially at Christmastime, was to go out onto the floor of the store himself and sell music boxes, or in later years, television sets.” Schirmer challenged Schuman regarding the financial viability of publishing Sessions’s Second Symphony, wanting to know how many copies would be sold. Three hundred at maximum, replied Schuman, and then added that all three hundred would be distinguished members of the music profession, and therefore Schirmer would have to send them complimentary copies.

    Schuman’s generous compensation at the firm and a subsequent six-year term as special consultant on publications after his departure in the fall of 1945 held considerable allure for the young composer and teacher: “At Schirmer’s I not only left the economic realm of the teacher [but] for the rest of my professional life enjoyed the higher brackets of executive pay commensurate with the undertaking that I led.” However, his new position left Schuman feeling “trapped. . . . Mr. Schirmer was a straight out and out commercial man, and dealing with him I felt degraded. And I was sorry that I got myself into this fix.”

A Conversation with Ken Smith, Author of Fate! Luck! Chance!

READ the introduction from Ken Smith’s Fate! Luck! Chance! – Amy Tan, Stewart Wallace, and the Making of The Bonesetter’s Daughter Opera.



Ken Smith
Photo by Kitty Katz

[Ed. Note: Ken Smith is no stranger to readers of NewMusicBox. Author of the first article ever published here nearly 10 years ago, a massive HyperHistory of composer-led ensembles, he later returned in the early years of this web magazine to write about music and politics as well as the first musical responses following the events of September 11, 2001. But over the past five years he has spent most of his time in Hong Kong and Mainland China exploring entirely different musical landscapes. His new book about the making of a contemporary American opera inspired by Chinese themes, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, featuring music by Stewart Wallace and a libretto by Amy Tan based on her novel, returns Ken to our ongoing discussion of contemporary American music.]

Frank J. Oteri: There have been quite a few books written about individual albums—e.g. Ashley Kahn’s books about Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme, or Continuum’s 33 1/3 series, and there are also a couple of recent books about specific musicals—Tim Carter’s book on Oklahoma! for Yale and Bruce D. McClung’s excellent Lady in the Dark – Biography of a Musical, published by Oxford University Press. But all of these books were written many years after the fact. To the best of my knowledge, your book is the first book about a major new work that has appeared concurrently with the work’s premiere. How were you able to convince a publisher to let you write about an unknown entity?

Ken Smith: It all started because Stewart Wallace knew the owner of Chronicle Books and the two of them started brainstorming even before the Chronicle editorial department or I entered the picture. Chronicle is very hands-on in developing projects in-house, I discovered. From there, it turned out that the editorial director had published Amy Tan’s first story, and that Chronicle had published an earlier coffee-table book on the San Francisco Opera. It became very much a neighborhood block party.

Frank J. Oteri: Of course, since your book was written before the premiere, it’s missing a few key components to the story: photos from the production, the reception history—reviews, rebuttals, etc. But the inclusion of these elements would have led to a very different book. Was this book intended for the hear and now and might these other elements be incorporated into subsequent editions of the book?

Ken Smith: At the very least, a future edition would need an epilogue about the production process, which I can tell you was long and grueling, with just as much drama as the story on stage. I’m happy to say that the libretto as performed remained remarkably close to the document we included in the book, although at times in rehearsal I was holding my breath. At various points, Chen Shi-Zheng and Stephen Sloane had suggested some aggressive cuts that would’ve eliminated several key elements that Amy and Stewart had discussed at great length in the book. Fortunately, very few of those suggestions made sense on both a musical and dramatic level, so my advance account-not just the libretto but the discussions of how specific scenes came out the way they did-still remains valid. The other crucial element for future editions would be a document of the opera itself, either an audio or video recording, and at this point that remains entirely up to the cooperation of the San Francisco Opera.

Frank J. Oteri: I wanted to talk with you a bit about the format of the book, which is somewhat unusual. The only really substantive prose narrative is your introduction. There are a ton of photos and a complete libretto as well, but the centerpiece of the book is a series of recreations of behind-the-scenes talks with the major players involved in bringing this work to life. What made you decide to present the material this way?

Ken Smith: This was largely what I meant by Chronicle developing books in-house. Keep in mind, the time between my flying out to San Francisco for my first meeting with the publisher and my holding the finished book in my hands was 53 weeks. There were decisions based on the material we already had on hand, as well as practical manufacturing concerns. Several of the conversations in the book, at least the skeleton of them, had already taken place, often over meals or in the back of a bus. Also, when Stewart first started the ball rolling, he was still excited about our time in China and the book was shaping up more as a travel account. When the Chronicle production staff weighed in, we all realized that printing a photo-driven book, which would usually be done in China or Italy, would add another six weeks to the schedule and miss the opera’s run entirely. That’s when the text suddenly became the key focus, and the libretto-which was originally intended as a separate insert-became a central part of the book itself.

Frank J. Oteri: It’s interesting that these talks are not just with Stewart Wallace and Amy Tan-the composer and librettist for The Bonesetter’s Daughter, but also the stage director, the principal singers, the presenter, and the patron who made this project happen through sheer force of will. Even Wallace’s frequent collaborator, librettist Michael Korie who briefly worked on the project, makes an appearance. Normally many of the people on the sidelines are overlooked when examining the creative process. By including the muses and catalysts for this project, you are saying something that all too often remains unsaid about the creative process for a work that’s on this grand a scale-it’s really a group process. Is this what you were trying to convey by featuring this back story? How does telling the real story about how an opera gets made demystify the myths about the all-powerful composer who seems to channel an almost divine inspiration?

Ken Smith: What can I say? I love Rashomon. Fortunately, this approach happened to work well with Stewart and Amy, both of whom have large enough egos that they’re comfortable sharing the credit. This is not a paradox with them. They’re both self-aware enough to realize that if they’d stayed at home and collaborated by email Bonesetter’s Daughter would’ve been a much different show. As far as de-mystifying opera, Amy is actually the perfect foil. She’s obviously perceptive, obviously knowledgeable about music as a listener and amateur performer, yet as far as its creation is concerned, she’s an Innocent Abroad. She’s confident enough to ask the really basic questions that other intelligent novices would ask a composer only when no one else is around. As far as Stewart is concerned, there’s nothing mystical about his composition process at all. Many composers acknowledge the performers who help them articulate their musical ideas; Stewart hauls them into the spotlight with him. There’s probably an element of self-protection involved. Certainly a project like Bonesetter invites potential accusations of misappropriating another culture. But really, with Stewart the whole composition process is a collaborative effort, and he likes large parties.

Frank J. Oteri: I imagine such a book could be written about almost any opera or other important musical composition. What else might benefit from such a treatment?

Ken Smith: Just about any major collaborative composition could benefit from this kind of in-depth account. The question is, would anybody read it? When I saw the way the people at Chronicle started becoming interested in the opera simply because of Amy’s involvement, I knew we were onto something. Let’s face it, there are only a handful of writers in America with the kind of fan base that would bring musical civilians into the world of contemporary opera.

Frank J. Oteri: Of course, part of the excitement is learning how this work transformed from a best-selling novel by a famous writer into an opera with a libretto by that same writer who had never worked in opera before in collaboration with a composer who has had a great deal of experience in opera but is not yet a household name. Is this bizarre dynamic between the two creators what initially drew you into the project? There are few precedents for this; the only other work like this I can think of is Margaret Garner by Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison.

Ken Smith: I will say that, after hearing horror stories of other collaborators, Stewart and Amy are almost ridiculously compatible both personally and professionally. They have similar priorities—in life and art—about what to pay attention to, and what to disregard. Amy’s working process as a writer is actually quite musical, while Stewart himself is particularly verbal. And rather than stepping on each others’ toes, this has led to a mutual respect for the other person’s role in the collaboration, as well as a mutual critical perspective that keeps both sides “on message” as far as the finished product is concerned. What really attracted me, though—and I was never able to mention this directly in the book—is that this Asian-American novelist was the one who almost single-handedly wrested the “American immigrant” novel away from Jewish writers and broadened the dialogue, while this Jewish composer started writing for traditional instruments that were once, so to speak, solely a province of China. I found that balance fascinating.

Frank J. Oteri: The story of how the Bonesetter’s Daughter evolved from a novel into an opera was also clearly your story to tell, since in some ways the story of how this opera evolved is your own personal story. It involves the woman you would eventually marry, Joanna Lee, who was something of a midwife to the project, as well as your own immersion into the world of Chinese culture as a foreigner. How were you able to keep a level of objectivity in your account of this? Is such objectivity even desirable for a book of this type?

Ken Smith: First of all, there’s no such thing as objectivity, only fairness. There’s no way anyone can write from anything other than his or her perspective, and the richer and more prepared that perspective is going in, the more interesting the result will probably be. I entered this project while I was more or less on a sabbatical from writing. Joanna and I were merely taking Stewart and Amy around to listen to music in China and meet some of the performers we knew. Stewart kept bugging me about documenting the project, but I had a number of problems, not least of which was finding a perspective for a story that was still very much in progress. But you’re right. This was very much my story. Before I started writing about music I worked at Random House, back when Amy was just a promising Bay Area writer and not yet a publishing phenomenon. I’d spent a week with Stewart and Michael Korie in rehearsals for Hopper’s Wife in 1998. I remember Chen Shi-Zheng back when he was still singing Tan Dun and Meredith Monk, and watched him work in rehearsals reconstructing his banned production of Peony Pavilion for Lincoln Center. Once I started writing about Bonesetter, I discovered my perspective was already pretty clear.

Frank J. Oteri: Of course one of the reasons this book is so effective is because you had an inside track to this story from day one, which is rather an unusual paradigm for a music journalist. In the previous generation, a journalist was supposed to be relegated to the role of outsider and anything else was considered inappropriate, if not unethical. It’s instructive to point out that most music journalists who maintain this wall have little training in actual journalism and that you have a degree in journalism. Why do some people in music journalism still insist on keeping up the walls between artists and the people who write about them? By keeping up the walls, what are they missing?

Ken Smith: It was pretty funny reading the Bonesetter reviews. It’s amazing how few critics do their homework. One prominent critic largely cut-and-pasted my fact sheet from the press kit into his review, so at least his background was right. Joshua Kosman had seen the dress rehearsal, and his review of opening night was ecstatic. I don’t think Stewart’s mother would’ve written a more favorable review. Josh probably measured the distance they’d come between rehearsal and the opening and extrapolated that for subsequent performances-and I think he was largely correct. His review was certainly the most knowledgeable, if a bit over-the-top for the actual performance at hand. On the other hand, the critic from the Financial Times-my own newspaper!-kept his distance and as a result didn’t even report the names of the characters and cast members accurately. Most of the others fell someplace in-between, though perhaps the most frequent mistake I saw was getting a few words from the director or composer or librettist beforehand and thinking that was the whole backstory.

That journalistic wall you talk about has some legitimate reasons. Virgil Thomson, for all his brilliant prose, didn’t do the critical profession much good as far as conflicts of interest are concerned. Later the entire journalistic profession became enmeshed in a fetish of objectivity after Watergate proved that the Kennedy-era chumminess between reporters and their subjects was not in the public good. One of our worst problems, though, is that critics have rarely considered themselves “journalists.” I remember one professional gathering where a colleague publicly said, “I hope that I never write a column that makes someone think I went to journalism school.” I had to bite my tongue from saying “I hope no one reads my writing and thinks I went to a conservatory.” If you write for a newspaper, you’re a journalist, and you isolate yourself from the profession at your own peril, as many of our colleagues are finding out now.

The funny thing about this-and one reason I was so hesitant to write about the project-was that, by the standards of every magazine I’ve written for, I would’ve been disqualified from writing about Bonesetter because of a conflict of interest. The only possible choice, really, was to write a book. And once the book was published, I’d become “an expert,” not just a reporter who’d become part of the story. I was asked to write a piece for Opera magazine in England as a result.

Frank J. Oteri: As long as we are talking about full disclosure, I too have had an inside track into this process. You’re a close friend whom I’ve known for almost 15 years and I’ve traveled to several countries with you, including China during one of the trips mentioned in this book. But to my mind, my having been there gives me an understanding of this project as well as the nature of your involvement in it and knowing all of this information first-hand helped me prepare to talk with you about it. In the era of eye-witness bloggers and “indie-cred,” this seems to be the new paradigm for a lot of journalists. Putting this back into the context of your book, it’s difficult to imagine an outsider be able to write such a book.

Ken Smith: I won’t argue. Even when you don’t show off “insider-ness,” it informs every question and how you frame the response. Just listen to the kind of questions you ask me. We’re definitely entering a different age of documentation. When people used to ask me about ethical boundaries, I used to say, “I have no ethics.” I meant that, as a freelancer, I was largely bound by the standards of whatever publication I was writing for at the time, and there’s a considerable gap between the standards in England—which, frankly, did not undergo our Watergate-era navel gazing—and those in the United States. If I had to define my own standards for the new era, I’d start with (1) get the facts right, and (2) be honest in your perspective and give your readers just enough information about yourself to determine for themselves whether or not your view is trustworthy.

Frank J. Oteri: In your first chapter, I enjoyed the way you explained your confluence of interest: your reference to the music critic who described the process of so-called objective criticism as “coming onto the field of battle after the battle is over and shooting the wounded.” In an era where contemporary opera is pretty much marginalized in mainstream society, certainly a different approach is required. How could advocational tools such as this book make people more aware of new work?

Ken Smith: First, let’s give due credit for that quote to William Littler, longtime music critic for the Toronto Star. He cribbed it from Hemingway’s view of war correspondents, but that’s hardly shameful in my book. Much of my own approach to writing about music has been influenced by writers like Michael Lewis, Thomas Friedman and Calvin Trillin. My voice would be unremarkable on the business or sports section, but it used to stand out in the arts pages.

One of the downfalls of mainstream media is that newspapers and television networks, in their efforts to reach the broadest possible audiences, has no clue anymore who their audience really is. Ten years ago, my strength as a writer for Time Out New York was that I was precisely in the Time Out demographic. Now I write for Financial Times, and even though I don’t run a Fortune 500 company, I do regularly pick up that newspaper in airline lounges. I want to know about significant events around the world that I wasn’t necessarily in town to see. So in effect, I’m still writing for myself. I’m never sure how to reach out to some vague, undefined readership. But I can write for people I know. All I need to find the best platform to reach them.

Frank J. Oteri: We haven’t yet talked about the fact that immersing yourself into a project this deeply requires more time than most people bring to journalistic projects. How can people write with an insider’s knowledge and still meet deadlines?

Ken Smith: Ah yes, deadlines. Bane of my existence. It’s enough to make a person reconsider journalism. I’ve been very much inspired over the years by people like Joe Horowitz and John Rockwell, who jump over that journalistic wall we talked about. Some people can review or annotate only so many concerts organized by someone else before they have to put together their own. Deep down, we’re all like Nick Hornby’s protagonist in High Fidelity, making mix tapes of our favorite songs for our friends. The medium is optional.

Perhaps the key thing about working in China is that, clichés notwithstanding, the frontier spirit is alive and well. In real terms, this means that there’s a great hunger for new things across the board, and not so much expertise in how to provide them. I’ve been hauled into filmmakers’ studios to consult on soundtracks. With no previous record company experience—other than having listened to a few thousand CDs professionally—I’ve become co-music director of a series of minority village music, the publisher of which has since become the head of an entire provincial museum concern in Guizhou province as a result. The advantage of all of this is that, as far as deadlines are concerned, whenever I write something these days, odds are I don’t have to start my research from scratch.

Frank J. Oteri: So dare I ask what your encore to this will be?

Ken Smith: My most immediate project is a collection of my writings from the past 15 years on Western music in China and Chinese music in the West, which is being published by Joint Publishing in Beijing sometime around Chinese New Year. I’ve also been contemplating a couple of larger projects that have nothing to do with music, including a history of Chinese drinking culture. But as far as books are concerned, I’ll have to find something that can maintain my interest and momentum long term. Not long ago, we were sitting in early creative meetings for a Broadway musical about the life of Bruce Lee, which so far at least falls somewhat into our Bonesetter formula. We’d taken David Henry Hwang on research trips in Hong Kong, and the composer David Yazbek was attracted by much of the same music that inspired Stewart. The creative enthusiasm in the room was running high, and at one point Joanna turned to me and started saying, “Somebody needs to write about this….” I immediately cut her off. I’ve already done that.

A Look Inside Paul Hegarty’s Noise/Music


Paul Hegarty’s Noise/Music is one of the more provocative books I’ve read this past year. When I first encountered the book, I assumed—like many readers—that it would be a book about a genre that has come to be known as “noise music,” which evolved in Japan in the 1990s but has subsequently become a world-wide phenomenon. While “noise music” does in fact get addressed in the latter part of the book, Hegarty’s book is actually about something much larger; it is a socio-musicological examination of the ever-changing threshold of tolerance between music and noise in a wide variety of musical genres during the 20th century.

To give the full flavor of his book, we have broken with our usual InPrint format and have featured two chapters from it. We offer his account of how noise has been used to evoke power in music from the post-punk industrial movement in England and the United States to the progressive hip-hop of groups such as Public Enemy and Wu Tang Clan. We’ve additionally included Hegarty’s more philosophical assessment of listening, which synthesizes theories of Martin Heidegger, John Cage, Pauline Oliveros, David Toop, Brandon LaBelle, and others.

My goal as a listener has been to keep aesthetic prejudices from interfering with how I experience music, so Hegarty’s exegesis has proved an invaluable treasure trove for such a listening paradigm. Although in our discussion about the book, he ultimately contended that personal judgment on some level is an inescapable component of how all human beings—both as cognitive and social creatures—experience music, even “noise music.”



  • READ Chapter 8, “Power”, from Noise/Music by Paul Hegarty.
  • READ Chapter 13, “Listening”, from Noise/Music by Paul Hegarty.
  • READ an interview with author Paul Hegarty.

One for the Money, Two for the Show: Gerd Leonhard and Music 2.0

The future is here, as they say, and boy is it messy. If you are a creator of content, your economic model for making a living probably feels a little twisted around at the moment. Though handwringing is usually in ample supply, there’s actually been a lot of action reported in the headlines of late. First, there was the ASCAP-proposed “Bill of Rights for Songwriters and Composers” and accompanying position paper (download here). Though the point of the document was clarification over forward-moving action, it was consciousness raising in an arguably friendlier guise than the RIAA’s courtroom approach to the matter.

But copyright infringement in the digital age will not be stopped, at least not with guilt trips, so some new options need to be placed on the table before we lose any more time and money. Hypebot has a stellar round up of recent action available for your review, and this week in Slate, Reihan Salam outlines what could be a promising solution or a troubling “music tax” in the quest for new profit schemes.

Also out on the net is Gerd Leonhard’s Music 2.0 (download here). He asserts that the technology is already in place that would allow us to let go of policing copies and instead track music usage in such a way that the public could access “music like water” while also allowing artists to be precisely compensated based on the usage of their work. This would admittedly dramatically shift our economic model, but his thinking fits quite comfortably with the changes we’ve seen in the past few years. Did he really have the answer? If so, why isn’t anyone doing anything like this?

Leonhard studied music at Boston’s Berklee College of Music but is based in Switzerland these days. I rang him up, appropriately enough considering the topic, via Skype. Here’s what he had to say.

Questions for Gerd Leonhard, author of Music 2.0

  • Download a copy of Music 2.0 here

Molly Sheridan: I’m glad that we got to do this, and it’s exciting that we got to do it this way [via Skype] considering the topic of your latest book, Music 2.0. It’s a collection of your writings in which you suggest strategies for getting the music industry out of some of the economic challenges that it’s facing, and one of your key concepts is a proposal that you call “music like water.” Could you give us a quick summary of what that means?

Gerd Leonhard: First of all, I have to credit David Bowie for coining this phrase; I found it in The New York Times—I think it was 2001—where David Bowie said that music will be like water. That sort of stuck to me. Basically what “music like water” means is that music becomes a service rather than a product, and it’s something that everybody has—like electricity and like an internet connection, eventually. The internet is becoming a way that we can get music in a way that doesn’t feel like we’re buying individual copies. What we have to get used to is that the music in this pipeline flows freely, which means that there is a charge for the pipeline, but it’s bundled. You know, we don’t perceive it to be an actual product thing, like a CD or individual download. So imagine basically a pipeline of music into your PC, into your mobile, your TV, that is just part of the deal. And then, just like water, if you consume more, if you fill up your swimming pool every day, if you want premium products, you pay extra. So it’s the very idea of providing music as a service rather than a product.

MS: In the entire 200-and-some pages of this book, you make it sound so obvious and so easy to shift to the model, so I’m curious: What is the hang up? Paradoxically, why does it seem so difficult to get this going in the actual music industry?

GL: Well, I think that main issue, which I describe in my next book, is about control. You can check out a preview at In the old way of doing things in the music business, there were essentially artists who were under the control of the middlemen—the labels, the publishers, societies, and so on—and the users, who were under the control of retailers and the media. And now because of the internet that whole thing is completely falling apart. So both the artists and the users are becoming empowered to such a degree that the middlemen are suffering from the consequence of course, and in some cases they’re benefiting. But they have to re-think their models. No longer do they have the authority or the ability to completely control the environment. This is actually a very good thing—even for them it’s a good thing—but in terms of paradigm, the music industry is severely worried that the loss of control will basically kill their profits. And I think this is much more a fear than a fact, like most fears, you know. They are there, but they’re not quite real. I mean, obviously you can see that not having total control is a great moneymaker—eBay, Amazon, Google, Skype, that’s what they do.

MS: I know that a lot of these concerns often come down to issues surrounding copyright law, which has been slow to catch up in these new digital environments. We have people who want to share, remix, the big Creative Commons movement, but the rules of the game aren’t keeping pace. Can we wait for them to catch up? You do mention too that major changes are coming from outside [the music industry] that might actually end up effecting this kind of change. How do copyright and digital delivery in this environment fit together for you?

GL: Well, I’m very much in favor of copyrighted protection of the creator. I think that it cannot be possible that remuneration for music is completely voluntary in the sense of, you know, if you feel like donating you’ll do so; I don’t think that’s a very successful model for content, even though as a user I would probably like it. But having said that, I think copyright doesn’t really help us here. We need a new kind of right that’s essentially based on usage. Copyright is a good thing when it’s about making copies, but so far all of technology is a giant copy machine—computers, mobile phones, televisions, digital radios. They make copies inadvertently without paying for them. So the idea of copyright doesn’t really work here any more in the sense of monetizing. What we need is a new license that basically turns the copying and the using into money. That’s what I call a usage right, and we’re seeing that happening everywhere. We’re seeing the move from the sort of static idea of a copy that gets paid a certain rate to a revenue share and to a usage right which means that I am authorizing agents to give the license for the use of the music, like I always have in the past, for example with radio. I just want to collect a piece of the revenues that the other party is making rather than preventing any kind of copy.

Unfortunately the thing that we’re seeing here is that, in principle, I as the music creator have the exclusive right of distribution and copy. In reality, however, that’s no longer really feasible. And it sounds like a great loss, but it’s not. I cannot really prevent my music from being copied on digital networks. That would be like saying I could prevent airplanes from flying above my house, but that right doesn’t really exist anymore even though it did! I did have the right to refuse it.

The reality is that yes, I can refuse it, nobody will care, everybody will keep on doing it [making copies], and I won’t be collecting money. So what I’m saying is I think we should make a switch and say okay, copyright has to be revisited as a term of monetizing. We need a usage right that gets people to be legal users and pay the creators in the process.

MS: How far away are we from having a system that could handle that, though? Is that something that the PROs could flip over and do? Do we need a whole new system? Is there some model that we could follow to get that going?

GL: Well, there are a couple of things that have to happen for this, but in principle points all the pieces are right here. The technology exists to monitor what people are doing. In terms of recognizing songs and counting them: Shazam, Gracenote, Philips, they all have this fingerprinting and waveform analysis technology—we have all that. That’s in place. There is technology that can actually administer royalties, and there are a couple of really cool companies like, Bob Kohn’s company. That already all exists. So the thing is that the copyright societies that we have now—ASCAP, BMI, and of course the European societies—it would be very hard for them to do a job that’s basically mostly built on technology because my hunch is that you’ll only get paid 2 or 3 percent of the total to do this job. It’s a tech job.

The biggest thing about basically counting what people listen to and then paying for it on a pro rata basis is not the technology, it’s the privacy issue. In other words, when you have 5 billion people connected on wireless devices, phones, and computers, and then you track all of the use of music—the listening, what they share, what they send—it turns people into sort of glass boxes, right? You know all their profiles, and that can’t possibly happen, so the biggest issue there is that, as a user, I want to make sure that I’m not completely transparent to anybody who cares to look at what I listen to. So it has to be anonymized, but those technologies exist as well.

Now that the flat rate is a huge discussion point even with Warner Music in the US and with a Danish telecom called TDC and in China and in India, now these companies are gearing up to provide these services.

MS: I was going to say, from your global perspective, this seems in a way kind of un-American and perhaps more at home in a system where, as you have in Europe, they are already paying these kinds of fees for public television and such.

GL: Let’s be sure: I don’t think this is a tax or should be a tax. I think this is a commercial arrangement where the rights holders are saying together that we’re giving a collective, voluntary license to anybody who wants one to build their business on our music, because so far people are building their businesses on our music without doing anything because there wasn’t anything to use; there was no way to get it ahead of time. This is like starting a radio station and not knowing what you’re going to be paying for the music. So now that the whole world is moving onto the web and my grandmother is now using eBay, we just can’t ignore this issue.

The global perspective here is that people in India and China and Indonesia and Brazil and Russia have never really bought into this sort of unit economy, of buying copies of CDs or downloads, because they didn’t have the wherewithal to do it. They were never on the Western system that sort of hardened copyright; that doesn’t work there. So in China this model is perfect because everybody participates, everybody pays, everybody gets. And that makes great sense when there’s very large numbers of people. So you will see this come into place very soon and you will see it come into place in India where you’re talking about 350 million cell phone users paying their $.20 or $.30 a month to get music.

MS: Are the music creators themselves really going to be able to recoup enough of a profit to make this worthwhile for them?

GL: Well, it’s not just this. The economic calculations have shown that if a flat rate is put into place at the rate of about $1 a week, which of course would be much less in India or in Brazil, the total volume of music is already twice as much if you get everyone into the system. (And in most cases the users wouldn’t actually pay; this would be completely ad and up-selling and sort of commission and affiliate supported.)

So the users themselves would perceive that as essentially built into the system, very much like if you’re a blackberry user you don’t count the emails, you just get them. This is why, again, if you have water, you’re not worried about having a connection, you’re just worried about filling up huge pools everyday because that will cost more. But anyway, I think that the rights holders are very happy about this because it gives them a guaranteed knowledge that everybody will actually be paying for music and then in addition, of course, they get this huge amount of marketing data back that the providers can share with them—the actual clicks, the amount of plays, the territories, the comments, the links, the shares, the bookmarks. That’s basically free marketing for anybody who is in the content business. And that reduces their costs by another, what, 30 or 40 percent? That’s a huge chunk. So the only real drawback is I can’t say no; I can’t say I don’t want you to use my music on the web. And if that’s what you want, then you shouldn’t be publishing it because that is the reality today. In principle it would be nice if it could be the other way around, but it’s not.

MS: You talk a lot in the book about how in the new paradigm what you’ll really be after is attention, and I’m curious how advancing technology will really help niche genres like the ones that NewMusicBox largely speaks to, which have historically had a lot of problems with getting enough attention.

GL: The thing is, if you’re good at getting attention, then you’ll be good with that in real life or on the internet or somewhere else, you just have to learn how to do it. The main challenge for the average artist is not that people are taking free downloads; the main challenge is that nobody wants to download you—nobody can even be bothered to click on your name, right, because you’re unknown. Today you can measure the value of media by how many people want to download it. It’s not how many people want to pay, but how many people even want to try it. So the big challenge is not to turn the use into money, because that should be the part of the system that’s built in, but how to get people to be interested in the first place.

When I was a musician 20 years ago, there was no online networking. There were no blogs, there were no free radio stations on the web; you had to do all that work by hand. And now you can have virtual radio stations streaming your music, using stuff like my own company, Sonific, or ReverbNation or, of course, MySpace and others. Now you can spread your images, now you can do blogging, all that stuff is free. So if what you offer is good and if you know how to attract attention in terms of what you get across, people will find you. And just like you do in real life, you play gigs. A band goes out and plays gigs. So that’s what you do on the web; you play gigs—you put up your stuff, you publish your things, and if you’re good and you keep it up, then people will find you.

MS: Do you think this is sustainably good from an artistic point of view, though? Now it becomes about buzz and how well you promote participation among users. Are there some purely artistic dangers there? You come from a music background and can sort of take a look at that from both sides, I think.

GL: Well, that danger is always present as an artist. Some artists are changing their art to be more popular. Other ones are even starting their art to be popular to begin with and yet other ones don’t care at all, and they’re still popular. What can I say? I think that ultimately whatever happens in media will influence artists to behave differently or to create different art. You know, now I find out when I write blogs I can’t write like I write the book because nobody would read it; it would be too long. So I have to change my style. Well, in many cases I don’t like changing my style so I use a different form. I think we’re going to see artists do all kinds of things. Some people will have multimedia virtual life installations where you pay lots of money to go and interact with them and other ones will keep coming out on vinyl. That’s not a bad thing. I think that technology, like the nuclear bomb and nuclear power, does have those two sides to it. It can be used to the detriment and it can be used to the betterment. I think there are great dangers using technology as a substitute for artistic merit, which basically gives us heaps of garbage. However, I would much rather have a society that’s empowered by technology tools than one that’s completely limited by lack of them.

MS: You speak in the book about the changing economic picture that the industry and in particular the middlemen will have to shift to fit into in this new paradigm. I’m curious then how the net neutrality debates fit into this, because it seems like that’s another door through which people are trying to get back in control.

GL: Well, I think there are two things to this equation. I think first, when content is legally licensed for use on digital networks, the traffic will go down because then I foresee people stopping the hamstering, the storing of content just because they can get it. Today you have kids downloading 50,000 songs and listening to 5 just because they are afraid it will be gone tomorrow. None of that will be happening anymore. There are studies about this, saying that if the content is licensed, traffic will go down, which alleviates the whole need for streamlining the web to perform better because everybody is using it for free downloading.

So that’s one issue. The other one is that the very idea of policing the network to stop the transfer of certain content is just utterly ludicrous. I think that anybody who says that just doesn’t know how it works and what people are doing. People are sharing music in a hundred different ways, including USB sticks, memory cards, flash memory, Bluetooth, Gmail, Gtalk, and what have you, right? They’re using it with IM much more than with Limewire.

MS: In the book, I liked the analogy to the cell phone network and the concepts of how we pay a flat fee and then we’re tempted with fancier phones and we pay more for other features. Framing it like that, with something we already use and which is economically successful, made it a little more comfortable.

GL: Yeah, I mean basically what we’re seeing here is that everywhere you look, stuff that used to cost money is starting to feel like it’s free. For example, airplane flights in Europe, well, I wouldn’t say they’re free but they’re close to free—you just pay for the luggage. Email feels free, software feels free, operating systems become free with Google and Linux and other things, and there are many other examples, but still people get paid for creating this. So the question isn’t really one of saying, “Is there money in the system?” but “Can we find a smarter way than the old way to monetize what we do?” And clearly for music, and then followed by film and TV, the issue can be solved by an access charge which essentially is bundled into the system so it feels like free—very important: not free, but feels like free—to the user. This is great news to the artist, great news for the user, and a little bit tougher for the middlemen, because they have to be transparent and they have to be sort of all on a level playing field.

MS: I was going to say, I like this idea. The only television programs I watch anymore I watch when I want to, online. But when I spoke to a friend of mine who works in the television industry and asked him how long it would be until all shows would be made available that way, he said it won’t happen. They’re not making any money off it, it’s not going anywhere really and they are really frustrated with it. You paint a very rosy picture of how this could all work out, but do you think you’ve overshot it a little bit, or are they being shy?

GL: Well, I think basically the realization is that an engaged user is worth a lot of money, and a user that’s being thwarted or being fought or being kept away isn’t worth much money, and that happens no matter what kind of network; the internet just amplifies this. All television wants an audience, all artists want an audience, all radio wants an audience, so the creation of a powerful audience is number one. And for television, the way that they can create an individual world-wide audience now is absolutely a huge opportunity for them, but they have to change the model to be based less on this advance fee or copy fee or physical thing, but [instead] on a share of the revenues of what happens during the engagement.

For example, people click on links, they buy other products there, they’re up-sold to buying concert tickets or merchandise. There’s lots and lots of options. If you want to read more about this issue, check out Kevin Kelly, who was the editor of Wired magazine, who has a lot of interesting articles about this on his blog. I use some of his stuff as well; it’s really great stuff. It’s basically explaining to us that in a system where content is becoming sort of, I wouldn’t say a commodity, but a “0 and 1” thing that can be copied, then it’s the intangible that becomes really powerful—the added value. So, in other words, you may not be selling a copy of a TV show, but you sell everything around it. You sell the branding, the sponsorship, the advertising of course, the access to community of fans, the brand around the TV show—pretty much like the for some TV shows it has already been in the past. So the shift isn’t really that big except that we have to be prepared to say, well, it’s no longer just the copy that matters, it’s the context.

MS: In a way, your own career mirrors this system. You collect your writings from your blog and turn them into a book that you then make available for download. And then this all plays into, I assume, your “live performances”—your speaking engagements, outside articles, and such. Is this working out for you? You have a career that you’ve built on almost exactly the same model you’re describing for the music industry.

GL: Don’t forget that I was a musician myself, so for my part, I know what it’s like to live in the product world where it’s already clear to like 99.9 percent of the artists that they’ll never see any money from the product of music. You get a couple nickels and dimes. I made 20 records, but I didn’t see much money. That might have been the fault of the records [laughs] but in any case, now I provide my content more or less for free and it works out great. I get to do a lot of really interesting speaking engagements, I do really interesting advisory sessions and think tanks, and the value is in the network. In other words, it’s not in keeping a .pdf to myself, but in spreading it as far as it will go and then creating value that way.

I think that at a certain level—this also very important—that if you reach a certain level of prominence in the network, then you can turn the product back into money. So if you’re reading Chris Anderson for free at Wired magazine, I think he can actually sell quite a few printed books and make money with that too because he’s reached a certain liquidity in the virtual sense that he can turn into money. So in other words, as a musician, if you’re at the peak of things, if you’re a global star, you can sell records, you can sell DVDs, you can sell physical things, but to get to that point, you don’t get there by insisting on the physical things first.

MS: You mention in the book how record labels are always asking you to predict the future. But looking at it from a composer’s point of view, what should composers be focused on? Since it seems like your predictions for the industry make a lot of sense, if they do indeed come to pass where should composers be looking so they’re ready for it?

GL: Well, you know, underneath every song, underneath every ad campaign, underneath everything creative there’s an idea, and composers, to me, they provide ideas, whether they’re audio ideas or other ideas. And the creation of ideas is not something that comes easy to a lot of people. Technology will never substitute for the creation of ideas just because you have better tools. So composers, and creative people in general, will be much more in demand than ever before.

Also, we’ll be using a lot more media. Tens of thousands of TV channels, rich media advertising, mobile advertising, we’re talking about a huge boom in the creation of media. The thing to do for a composer is to use all these tools that are available to get the word out about what they do. I think the major areas of growth are things like games, obviously. Motion pictures that are premiered on the web, which is now becoming a fantastic way for composers to show what they do without having to have a major contract, without the gate of Hollywood. So all these things become a huge pipeline.

The only thing I think you have to be aware of: I think we do have a sort of digital Darwinism here. Because we have so many people offering it and so many people wanting it, there’s quite a bit of pressure on the merit. So unlike the old days where you could be a lousy singer and you could still be successful, today that’s going to be next to impossible. Quality today—we’re living in a meritocracy, right? If you read my blog and you think it sucks, you won’t come back. You won’t even let me know. And the same is true for writers, for composers, for lyricists. The difference is that the middle is removed—the control is no longer with just a few people who are holding the key to the kingdom.

Having said that, I think the future of publishing is quite clear on the web because the web is essentially a publishing machine. Music publishers stand to heavily profit from the web as long as they agree on a revenue share—which they are pretty much doing, but they should go further. If you are looking at the growth in revenues from ASCAP and BMI, their performance revenues are growing, synchronization licenses are growing, all these things are growth factors. All we really have to do as creators is say yes, use my stuff and here’s the deal.

An Interview with Barrymore Laurence Scherer

  • READ an excerpt from A History of American Classical Music by Barrymore Laurence Scherer.
  • LISTEN to the full interview.
    TREVOR HUNTER: A question that has to be answered when writing about anything as nebulous as American classical music is where to begin. Now your narrative started in a place that I wouldn’t really have expected, which is with the European invasions of the Americas and Ponce de León in Florida, specifically. But some of this early material is the most compelling in the book. What made you set sail, as it were, from that point?

    BARRYMORE LAURENCE SCHERER: Well, it sounds so cliché, but we have to begin at the beginning. We have to begin somewhere. In other words, we started out as a land mass that had an indigenous people on it, indigenous peoples. Those peoples had music, because music is such a natural thing; I think it’s with everybody at the cradle. However, it wasn’t written down. It wasn’t a concert music tradition yet. And the only way we were to have our Ned Rorem and Aaron Copland and any of these guys was for someone to come over and transplant a tradition that had already been started in Europe. So for me the story of American music is the story of a transplanted fruit that is put into this wonderfully nourishing soil and grows and flourishes and undergoes tremendous changes and one of the important points that I did want to make was the certain curve.

    When you ask the man or the woman on the street what American music is, nowadays, who knows what you’d get. They could say rap. They could say Gershwin. They could say Leonard Bernstein. They could say any number of things that are American. But what I have seen in my study of this history has been this curve. You start off with a foreign introduction—people who come bearing their own music on ships. And you have this curve in which first we prove to the Europeans, who are our fathers, that we could actually write music. Then we start trying to figure out how we can write music that sounds “American,” and I put that in quotes. Today, I’m thinking that it’s very, very difficult to describe precisely what American music is in the contemporary arena because we are now completely international. We have a great number of foreign-born composers—Bright Sheng, Tan Dun—who have brought with them their own backgrounds and are working in America, have an American consciousness, but are still blending and vitalizing a number of different strands.

    TH: Now you were just talking about how American classical music was essentially rooted in the European tradition and how it’s evolved. At the end of the book you also mention that now American music is actually going back and influencing European traditions. In what ways do you see that happening?

    BLS: If we go back to the beginning of the 20th century, the American music that was an absolute bombshell in Europe was, I believe, when John Philip Sousa and his band were doing one of their European tours and they brought some ragtime to Europe. That created an enormous craze. We start with our more indigenous music and our more popular music. It wasn’t concert music that was the influence; it was the dance music, because dance rhythm is so important throughout the ages. Whether it’s a Bach suite, or a French suite, an English suite, or whether it’s ballet or an opera, dance rhythms give a sense of period, of time. Ragtime goes to Europe. After ragtime you get jazz, you get Dixieland. And then you get, of course, Gershwin and the whole sense of a much more swinging time. So our music was the more popular music that was influencing Europe.

    And today, are we only influencing? I think that there’s now, more than ever, this give and take. We are bringing music over. We are sending music out. Composers travel everywhere. Film has been an enormous messenger. Film has been a great transmitter of American ideas. Film music has also had a wonderfully persuasive effect on music, because I think a lot of people listening to a film will gladly sit through the kind of music that can be dissonant, that can be very mysterious, possibly disturbing. But because there’s a dramatic underplay, it’s behind the scene. There’s something happening on the screen; they don’t notice that they’re listening to something that is particularly contemporary, edgy, give it any name you want. If you were to take that film music out of the film and sit certain audiences down in front of it and say, “Listen to this,” they’d suddenly have to concentrate on it without anything happening before their eyes and they would say, “Boy, that’s really tough to take.”

    TH: Well, that begs the question then, from me, at least: you write in your book that more audience-pleasing opera has had much more staying power in the American classical music scene. Yet at the same time there’s a dramatic underpinning there that can be occurring with more dissonant music that just hasn’t caught on, whereas it has in film. Why is that?

    BLS: Contemporary opera makes certain demands, even greater than film, because the music in opera is the primary element. Yes, there is the drama. And from the beginning of opera it was the drama through music. Now people will go to John Adams’s opera Doctor Atomic and be greatly disturbed. The music is definitely disturbing. It’s a disturbing subject—the atomic bomb and its development. It’s by no means a traditional operatic libretto, or even a story or subject if you’re thinking in terms of La Traviata. But, you have to concentrate on the music. It’s not a screen; the camera angles don’t change, if you’re thinking strictly in terms of being in an opera house. It is a staged performance, and the music in an opera is still the most important thing, whereas music in a film is incidental music. It is the ally of the drama, but it is not the end product of the drama. The film would be less good without the music, but the film could survive without it. And people hear the music only in a secondary way, so they’re much more open because they’re concentrating on the plot, on the dialogue, on whether they wish the actress would undress or not. But it happens in opera, too, nowadays, especially with Barihunks and others, you know, why don’t they undress? But the idea of film, the image is the important thing, the music is part of the whole show, whereas in opera, even the most contemporary opera, we go with an expectation that the music is going to be paramount, and we expect that music to carry us away.

    TH: This book is published by Naxos and not only contains a sampler CD but also contains a link to a website where there are over 165 tracks, all of which are referred to in the book. How did this access to actual audio while writing a music history effect how you not only conceived the book but also the style of it?

    BLS: Something that I love is teaching. And for me to be before people and bringing them something that they may not have known before or they knew something about and needed to know more, to make it stimulating is the ultimate pleasure. Naxos started out with this American Classics series of CDs, and we’re moving on to something like 200. These American Classics have covered such an enormous range of American music, and I remember long before this book was even broached I was receiving these things and I thought, my god, here is Wuorinen, here is Rorem, here is Henry Hadley, Gottschalk—the whole range of American music from the 19th century to the late 20th century and into the 21st century is being covered here and presented in a way that was very hard to find years ago.

    When they asked me to write this it started out with a 4-CD set. The real history of this was a sort of overview in which I wrote an essay and I submitted the essay and they liked it so much they said, “We’ll publish the essay and the 4 CDs,” but they said, “Would you like to write this as a whole book? You know, expand this?” And I said this would be wonderful because when I was doing the essay, you know, there’s only so much I could say and so much was being left by the wayside. Now, I could delve into it even more so that the book is more than twice the length of the essay, possibly almost three times the length of the original essay. They never said cut anything; they just said this is fine, you know, write. And I essentially had to choose everything that’s on the website and on the CD.

    When it came to the CDs, I wanted to make sure that if you didn’t read the book, you could actually put the CD on and play a program of music that would be stimulating. There would be contrasts; there would be as many things as possible on it, but you could put it on for pleasure. And at the same time I wanted these things to give people tastes. Naxos and I had agreed that there would be no mere excerpts, where it fades out in the middle of something. That they would have to be either complete works or—if it’s a multi-movement work—a complete movement, so that there was a shape. And this was a great challenge but also a great pleasure; you know, who shall stay and who shall not?

    The book does not contain musical excerpts in print, because unfortunately we’ve come to a point at which not as many people actually read music. There are many people who are passionately involved with it who don’t read it. And with contemporary scores, some of these things dealing with the pushing against the barriers of sound, the notation is not anything recognizable anymore. And this has been going on since John Cage and since Henry Cowell, where it doesn’t look like notes on a staff. Music on a page is fine to look at, but music only exists when it’s played and so this gave me the chance to write about music and for the reader to be able to go with my descriptions and hear it, and then hopefully be interested to hear something else.

    TH: Now you just mentioned Henry Cowell and, to jump back into the book, something that was really striking to me reading this history is just how out of left field Cowell and Ives seem.

    BLS: You mean in their time? In their day?

    TH: In their time. Absolutely. And what is it about this country that fostered that? Where did that come from?

    BLS: We had out-of-left-field people a long time ago. I think that when you start as far back as somebody like Anthony Philip Heinrich, the dawn of music in Kentucky. There’s an incredible bunch of works that he was writing in a log cabin in relative wilderness, and it’s music that sounds like Weber or Haydn. I mean, it’s amazing to think, he had no recordings—he had only scores, if he had them—and he’s writing at the end of the 18th century and the beginning of the 19th century; he lives until roughly the civil war period. He was writing these relatively complex works—he was called the American Beethoven because there were people who thought that he was completely mad. So 200 years ago we had our out-of-left-field guys. Before Abner Doubleday was even inventing baseball, they were out of left field. And I think there always was this sense. You had your academic people who were trained in Europe, or they were trained by Europeans—MacDowell, John Knowles Paine, Horatio Parker, Hadley, Chadwick. I cover this seriously, because they wrote some very beautiful music, but they were writing in a tradition and they were writing not to be iconoclastic.

    But somebody like Ives grew up post-Civil war. He’s born in 1874; he’s an exact contemporary of President Hoover and his father was a bandmaster. And his father used to sit him down at the piano and play a tune in two keys. This is the 19th century. He’d play a tune bitonally because he wanted to stretch Ives’ ear. Nobody was doing this. And Ives grew accustomed to this—it didn’t sound strange to him. It sounded like great fun. You know, he’s from New England. What do they offer a farmer when he’s out tilling a field? They bring him a glass of switchell, which is vinegar and water, possibly with sugar, maybe not. It isn’t lemonade because lemons are too expensive. So in a place that is busy plowing fields full of flint and rocks and drinking vinegar and water and having clam chowder without the cream because you might not be able to get it, here is Ives finding that his father’s exercises in playing a hymn in two keys is so much fun that he then takes it to his own church. And you can just see him, because he was a sweet looking guy when he was young. It’s a Sunday, he’s playing who knows what hymn, and he suddenly switches into B-flat and A-flat at the same time, or B-flat and B-major and the choir is singing along with him and suddenly they don’t know what they’re hearing and he’s just having a ball.

    So this was not supposed to be frightening; this was supposed to be fun. And he talks about the old village bands that would play. And they had natural instruments and weren’t always practicing right. They weren’t all that good by modern band standards and he realized this, but this was spicy. When they would be sour, they were tart, and that tartness was the kind of thing that really appealed to him. So Ives was out of left field not because he wanted to upset people, but because he just wanted to stretch things. He studied with Horatio Parker at Yale and he had great respect for Parker as a teacher, but he was not fond of his music. And he used to refer to all of this as the music of the library: plush, elegant, lovely music. But it was not for him. He wanted something flintier, more fun, more unexpected.

    Cowell is another person—an upbringing that’s rather strange. His parents went their separate ways. He was unbelievably intelligent, and he was unbelievably well read. He collected butterflies, he collected rare plants, all of this because he had had these jobs trying to make a buck as a young man. He learned literature. He learned botany. He learned all these different things. And he learned music. And he, too, was completely under the spell of the expansion of the ears. There’s a piece I have of Cowell, The Banshee, where Cowell really invented the prepared piano, long before Cage was forced to figure something out in order to get music to give that dance company. Cowell had done that 25 years before, because he was thinking about taking this instrument that everybody knew so well and giving it a new voice. And what he does with The Banshee, it’s the simplest thing. He’s using the bass strings that are wrapped with wire—it’s like it’s a rat’s tail—and you stroke those strings and what you get is this absolutely unearthly sound. It’s program music really; it’s like Berlioz except that it is definitely 20th century, and it raises the hair on the back of your neck because it is terrifying. A banshee is a spirit that in Irish lore will stand before the house of a dying man or a dying woman and shriek and wail, and it’s a terrifying thing.

    He writes a whole treatise on tone clusters with a whole theory of how you can organize them just the way you would organize chords with leading tones, and you can name them; they’re not just noise. So Cowell takes these sounds and uses them to this incredibly expressive purpose. And yes, they’re “out there.” By the time Cowell comes along, Ives, of course, had been composing, and his music was not being played or it was being played very infrequently. It wasn’t well known. It wasn’t familiar. They were out of left field because they were adventuresome, really adventuresome. To them everything was worth experimenting with and some things you keep, some things you don’t. It’s a matter of just not being afraid.

    TH: So we’ve talked about these composers with an interest in expanding their ears and these more traditional composers, and certainly you talk about more popular-minded composers like Zez Confrey. Now all these have been brought under the umbrella of classical music in America in your book. And you even talk about Stephen Sondheim, for instance. In any historical narrative about the subject, the author will decide what is classical, what is not classical, what relates to it. How did you decide what to do? How did you decide to, for instance, include Sondheim, but not jazz?

    BLS: There was a good deal of choosing in this. Certainly I was guided in part by what was in the American Classics discography, but from the very start of the project Naxos said do not limit yourself to what is on the CDs. And I said I couldn’t have because there are so many things that are not on or are not yet on.

    It’s a funny thing about classical music. What we call classical, I also call concert music because people have a certain expectation of a concert. But classical music today often means music that was once popular, commercial, but is no longer. That includes the Broadway works of Gershwin. That includes the operettas of Jacques Offenbach, which were considered by some people to be the next step to musical hell, you know. If you were to compose an operetta you were lost, you were just lost. Music frequently that has had its commercial day and is no longer able to bring in the same kind of income has often become classical because it’s a different union scale for recording, for performance.

    Now with somebody like Stephen Sondheim, whom I mention in here, it’s because a very strong part of the narrative in the early 20th century is American operetta, American musical comedy, American musicals, musical plays. And this I felt was a part of the ongoing tradition of dramatic music in America because we always were trying to write operas, and I go in some detail into the rather sad story of American opera. You know, one of the earliest American operas, the first one that was actually published in America, was called The Disappointment. What better title to give it in the early 19th, the late 18th century, because that’s just what American composers of opera were going to experience for some time?

    I chose by thinking in terms of the major issues of serious music, the major issues of what audiences will normally hear. I avoided a lot of jazz. I refer to jazz, but I didn’t really write about jazz because jazz is a tremendous subject and it requires a tremendous knowledge, I feel, of its ins and outs, and there are so many extraordinary books about jazz already that I didn’t think I could contribute anything to this literature. And so, I thought, I will stick with concert music and what is generally understood to be mainstream, or experimental, or whatever you call it, because this is the music of our history. But some people may feel it arbitrary that I didn’t include jazz. I just felt that it was something that would pushed me in a direction that I wouldn’t be able to get back from. So to those who miss it in the book, I apologize, and to those who don’t worry about it, continue reading.

    TH: Now, we’ve talked about several composers here today. And you talk about a great many composers in the book which is just under 230 pages. One of the ways that you’re able to fit so much into that space is because you don’t concern yourself with composers’ psychology much, which a lot of other books on the subject certainly do. It’s more of a concern with historical perspective and their output. Why did you choose this method? Was it space?

    BLS: There were a number of scopes. Space is always a criteria; one nowadays always has to squeeze a great deal into what is too small a space. However, my feeling for this book was I wanted to do two things. I wanted to spark, to generate curiosity, intellectual curiosity. I wanted to make people know, first of all, names. That people exist. That composers exist. That their music is out there. I was less interested in a book with historical scope. I’m a journalist, and I can feel when a subject is going too deep to get out and move onto the next thing.

    You mentioned the psychology of the composers; in many instances that would have taken me off track and would have bogged me down. I wanted more to give people this sense of the overriding picture from that first printing press in Mexico City where one of the earliest publications is a book of music, the musical settings of the mass going back to the 16th century. And this arch of the way we developed as a musical country and just to let people know, to let them read and say, “I’ve never heard of this guy, I never heard this music. Let me listen to something. Let me hear it on the CD. Let me go to the website. Let me go to a concert. Let me just hear this.” So the choice was to go deeply into everybody and have to cut all those names back or to let people know about as many composers as possible and as many works of music. At the end, obviously, I just wanted to get as many people in—in fact, I kept saying, “Wait, wait. Hold, hold, I’ve just discovered somebody else that I want to put in this, I’ve got to listen to this. I’ve got to listen to that.” I wanted to represent the widest possible number of composers and their works that I could get into these pages.

    TH: Now bringing up the very wide degree or the very great amount of composers that we have had, a very common theme that you brought out in your book seems to be a frustration with the lack of performances. For instance, you brought up that the New York Phil didn’t program an American work until its fifth season. How has this perceived neglect shaped the American composer’s psyche?

    BLS: Well, certainly in the old days, I mean, there was a period around 1900, 1920 when the traditionalist composers, the Chadwicks, the Hadleys, were being performed—in terms of how many performances there were of music, period. How many orchestras we had and how many organizations were there actually to perform music? They were given a remarkable amount of time. They were known. Also, their music was published in a way—their shorter works, their songs, their smaller pieces were played at home and they were familiar names. Henry Hadley was voted the most important and familiar composer in America at one point around 1920. I think what happens post-war, post-World War II, is you have the rise of experimental music. You have the university composers, who were way off the mainstream. We were existing through an age of mannerism, where the music was meant to be listened to only by those who were “in”, those peers, the other composers, other musicians trained in the manner, in the techniques, whatever it was. This music was actively being produced, I mean, written or works for tape, works for electronic things and most audiences, season audiences to symphony concerts or to any concert season, didn’t even know they existed; they were in a small circle.

    I think that for a long time in the later 20th century many composers were not interested in whether people heard their music. They were interested in whether they were producing, whether they were expressing what they needed to express. This has changed in the past 20 years now. You have this accessibility—the neo-romantics, call them what you will. There has been a tremendous turnaround in music by the younger group of composers. Some of them aren’t even that young; they’re now in their 50s and they are writing music that, if it’s not tonal, the sounds, the shapes, the language, is much more straightforwardly appealing to an audience. And this kind of music, whether it’s Corigliano or whether it is Alan Hovhaness —there’s a composer whose work deserves so much greater familiarity. I mean, these gigantic wonderful symphonic works of his that are absolutely stunning—the orchestration is so beautiful, and the musical ideas, the thematic material is often absolutely stunning. And yet, by and large, he’s just not as well known as he ought to be.

    Unfortunately many audiences have traditionally been reluctant to hear something they don’t already know, which means they go back for the same things over and over again. There’s even old music that they don’t know; they don’t want to hear it. Or you have the audiences that just don’t want to be afraid. What’s the first thing that somebody asks about a new piece that’s going to be programmed? “Will I be bored?” It’s amazing. People will go to an art gallery and spend their time absolutely up on the most novel art creations. They will go to every opening. They will go to every new show, and they will be absolutely conversant on everything in the art world. But they won’t know about music because music represents time. If you go to an opening, yes, you get your little canapé, you get your glass of wine, and you have your conversation, and you may or may not look at the work. But it’s not demanding that you look at it. Music demands your attention for a specific span of time. And people are afraid to give up their time. They are always afraid, and the thing is, I wrote this book hoping that people will read it and not just not be afraid, but be so curious that they can’t wait to hear something. They’ll either go to a concert, or they’ll listen to the CD, or they will go to the website and listen to these things that I’ve discussed. I’ve tried to keep my own taste out of it because I didn’t want to write a critical volume. I wanted to write a volume that lets people draw their own conclusions. To me that’s so important. As a critic, I remember when I was first starting out and I would be at a concert and somebody would see me writing and they’d say, “What did you think?” and I would explain to them that I never talk about anything at a concert because I have to have my own thoughts and I’m not going to give away what I’m going to do. But I also would say to them, “Don’t ask me what I think, I want to know what you think,” because that’s active participation. Waiting for someone else to tell you what to think, that’s not fun. That’s dictation. I want people to read this and then to go out and draw their own conclusions, that’s the important thing.

    TH: We were talking about this new school, the neo-romantics, or traditionalists, or what have you. And certainly you cover them at the end of the book. But there’s also a great deal of other variety, like the Bang on a Can composers, the people coming out of the New York School tradition, electronic musicians, etc. One of the themes that you bring up early in the book is perceptual relativity, when you’re talking about Varèse, for instance, who at the time seemed so radical and can now sell out Miller Theater. But if the audience is going back to this more traditional, accessible idiom, what does that really say about perceptual relativity? Will this more adventurous experimental music be easy on the ears in 50 years?

    BLS: You know it’s funny. Our ears are constantly being stretched. And as I pointed out earlier I think, a lot of music that people might consider not easy on the ears in a concert—dissonant, brash, angular, spiky, call it what you want —they will gladly listen to it, they won’t even notice they’re listening to it, in a film because they’re concentrating on the film and their emotions are pegged to the plot. But if you wrote a work that was like the film music, you know, completely different, and you played it for them, they might say, “Oh, I can’t listen to that.” Who knows?

    You know, Stravinsky, Bartók, this music was considered unlistenable when it was first produced. When The Rite of Spring was first performed, it created a riot. Bartók, there are still people today who think, “Oh, Bartók, I can’t sit through a whole evening. Oh no, no, no. The Miraculous Mandarin, oh, isn’t that really very loud?” I think that in 50 years, my goodness, when you consider amplification and people with their earphones playing loud heavy rhythmic music and this is how they go through their days, yeah, I do believe that the ears are constantly expanding because The Rite of Spring sounds perfectly mellow to our ears. Exciting. And even melodic. At the same time, I think that people have to understand also that the length of music is important. So many people today who listen to a lot of contemporary rock, they still are geared to the song, whether it’s a structure or just the timeframe of a song. It goes for a certain span of time, so many minutes. Not that many minutes, and then it fades out. Usually. Whereas a piece of concert music is much longer in duration, and it’s the scale rather than the musical language that is the great challenge. I think of the future. Will younger audiences who are so used to the constant shifting of imagery in film and television and video and the relative brevity of pop music pieces, will they expand their willingness to sit for something, to pay attention to something for that long? That’s the question.

    I don’t think it’s so much the musical language. I think dissonance is a relative thing. You know, why did minimalism become so popular originally? I think it was this change from the dissonance of post-war dodecaphony. Minimalism was tonal, very simple chords, and it didn’t make you cringe back in those days. It was easy to listen to. And it didn’t make demands, especially if you could sit back with various other stimuli to help the evening along, whether you smoked it or drank it. It all helped the sensibility. And I think that it does boil down to our constantly expanding willingness to hear combinations of notes, combinations of dynamic levels, and most importantly the span of a piece. The major challenge is if audiences will give their time to listening to a work, not really so much the kind of work it is. I mean, I listen to Varèse now and absolutely I’m thunderstruck by the incredible color, the incredible sounds—it’s so exciting. But you do have to have that willingness. I’m always hoping that people will read what I’ve written and say, “Let me give it a try.” Because those who know me well know what a romantic I am. That’s my natural inclination. But my goodness, listening to so many of these works has been such an absolute thrill because you hear the way instruments are used, you hear the way pitches are combined, and clusters, and, I mean, you can almost taste it, it’s so rich. That’s what’s so fascinating about this music.

From A History of American Classical Music

The following excerpts are reprinted from Chapter Two, “From Founding Through Revolution” of the book, A History of American Classical Music by Barrymore Laurence Scherer, pp. 6-15. Copyright (c) 2007 by Naxos Rights International Ltd. Used with permission of the publisher.

  • Read or Listen to an interview with author Barrymore Laurence Scherer


    Zealously spreading Christianity wherever they ruled, the conquerors made a great effort to supplant the ancient and complicated Aztec traditions with Catholic rites. This included the musical element. By 1524 a Franciscan missionary, Pieter van Gent (1479-1572), known as Pedro de Gante, had established a school of music in Texcoco, formerly the second most important city-state of the Aztec empire. Father Pedro had been trained at the University of Louvain, in what was then Spanish Flanders. Assisted by fellow missionaries, he would teach his native students first to copy music from Spanish plainsong sources in his possession and after a year of this to read and perform plainsong; eventually he would teach them to play and even to make European musical instruments. The aim was to build a corps of native musicians to assist at church services.

    In 1539 the first printing press arrived in Mexico City, and in 1556 it was used to print an Ordinary of the Mass, the first printed musical volume in North America. A dozen more volumes followed between 1560 and 1589, containing portions of the Mass as well as hymns, psalms and Passiontide music.

    By the mid-sixteenth century other Spanish missionaries were building churches and monasteries throughout the territories that are now Florida, the Gulf states and California. Influenced by Pedro de Gante, they were teaching the local native Americans to sing the Roman Catholic Mass as well as non-liturgical music from those Mexico City publications. Later, European-born musicians who followed the missionaries were spurred on to compose their own settings of the Mass and of other portions of the liturgy for use in their parishes. In 1539, Canon Juan Xuarez was appointed the first maestro de capilla of Mexico City. He and his successor Hernando Franco were among the most important of these church musicians, the latter composing seven settings of the Magnificat in the great Spanish polyphonic tradition. Models were easily available to him as the cathedral in the capital of New Spain was well furnished with the works of Morales, Guerrero and Victoria, copied from the cathedral archives in Seville and Toledo.

    By this time French Huguenot emigrants were settling in Canadian Acacia and also along the Atlantic coast as far south as Florida, and the Protestant chorales they sang at worship probably constituted the earliest non-Hispanic body of song heard in North America. Somewhat later, beginning in 1585, the English arrived on North American soil. The initial settlement, at Roanoke, Virginia, didn’t last. But in 1607 Captain John Smith and his party founded the first permanent English settlement, at Jamestown. Although music had always been a part of English domestic life, these early colonists made no mention of music in their diaries or journals. Nonetheless we can assume that this doughty company sang their customary psalms at worship and staved off homesickness by singing rounds and catches round the campfire.

    The earliest description of English song in North America comes from further up the coast, in the Massachusetts Bay colony: even before the Pilgrims set sail from England in 1620, they had gathered at their pastor’s house in Southampton where, according to one of their number, Edward Window, who recorded this incident in his 1646 book Hypocrisie Unmasked, “we refreshed ourselves after tears, with singing of psalms, making joyful melody in our hearts, as well as with the voice … and indeed it was the sweetest melody that ever mine ears heard.” The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay brought along copies of Henry Ainsworth’s Book of Psalms, compiled in 1612, which included thirty-nine psalm tunes of English, French and Dutch origin, and which they sang in their newly built churches. These Mayflower Pilgrims had been persecuted in England because they had literally separated themselves from the Anglican Church and its bishops. They were followed in 1630 by a second band of Pilgrims, who had remained faithful to the Church of England but were obliged to leave England because they wished to practice a simpler form of Anglicanism than that enforced by King Charles I. They too sang psalms in church, using a psalter known as “Sternhold and Hopkins,” after its editors. Originally published in Geneva in 1556, and expanded thereafter, Sternhold and Hopkins contained psalm texts translated and adapted into metrical verse. It also contained anonymous tunes to which they could be sung. One of these, a French tune, is still sung today – the so-called Old Hundredth or Doxology, beginning with the line, “All people that on earth do dwell.”

    The jog-trotting metrical texts of Sternhold and Hopkins had been devised to simplify and popularize psalm singing, but an increasing number of Massachusetts Bay clergy began to feel that the translations strayed too far from the meanings of the original Hebrew psalms. So they appointed three English-trained scholars, Richard Mather, Thomas Welde and John Eliot, to make new and more faithful translations of the psalter. Their work resulted in The Whole Booke of Psalmes Faithfully Translated into English Metre, printed, without tunes, in 1640 by Stephen Day of Cambridge, Massachusetts. Day had received his small printing press from England in 1638, the gift of a group of Puritans still in Holland, and this new Bay Psalm Book, as it was soon widely known, was the first noteworthy book published in the English-speaking colonies. Indeed, such was the enduring demand for the Bay Psalm Book that it reached its twenty-seventh American edition by 1750, by which time numerous editions had also been published back in England and Scotland. Worshippers using the earlier editions of the Bay Psalm Book usually fitted the metrical texts to the tunes in Sternhold and Hopkins or Ainsworth, but when the ninth edition appeared in 1698, it contained thirteen tunes copied from several editions of John Playford’s Introduction to the Skill of Music, first published in London in 1667. This volume was the first music book published in the English-speaking colonies.

    Apart from singing at worship, some Puritans also made music for sheer pleasure. After all, it had been a happy Elizabethan tradition in many English households to be able to read and play music, to possess a small collection of string instruments, and to enjoy playing and singing songs and dances around a table after the evening meal. That this tradition traveled aboard the Mayflower is evinced by the variety of instruments mentioned in wills and bequests made as the first generation of settlers aged and died. In 1664 we read of a treble viol left by one Nathaniell [sic] Rogers, and in 1678 of a bass viol left by the Reverend Edmund Browne. Even at this rigorous time in American history, music was an issue of the eternal generation gap, and around 1660 a Harvard college student, requesting a fiddle from his uncle in London, received the following reprimand: “I suspect that you seek [music] both too soon and too much…. if you be not excellent at it, it is worth nothing at all … [excepting] for your sisters, for whom it is more proper…. For them I say I had provided the instruments desired.” One can only imagine what a verbal cudgeling this poor undergraduate would have received had he also asked for dance lessons.

    Though secular music was hardly absent from the Puritan colonies, sacred music led the field. Nevertheless, a minority of Massachusetts Bay colonists maintained a dim view of music at worship, some extremists showing their dislike by conspicuously plugging their ears in church. Piety may not have been their only motivation, for, according to certain early commentaries, some congregational singing could be pretty hard on worshipful auriculars. Sometimes it wasn’t just the congregation’s lack of musicality that led to sour performance. Congregations were led in song by a preceptor, who would choose a tune to fit a psalm, then sing each phrase for the congregation to repeat after him. This was fine if the preceptor himself could hold a tune. But woe unto them whose preceptor had a tin ear. And worse, some preceptors, whether musical or not, liked to “help out” the tunes with embellishments of their own, which could lead the ensemble even further astray as it tried to repeat what it heard. Eventually travelers from one church to another could hear “Old Hundredth” sung a hundred different ways, none of them pretty. Thus we have George Hood writing in his pioneering History of Music in New England (1846) that, while “the number of tunes sung to psalms before 1690 rarely exceeded five or six … no two individuals sang them alike.” Every melody was “tortured and twisted” as “every inskillful [sic] throat saw fit.”

    Melodies weren’t all that got tangled. According to one of the tales that New Englanders loved to tell each other, a well-meaning but badly myopic precentor apologized to his congregation one Sunday for having difficulty reading out the first line of the hymn they were about to sing. “My eyes, indeed, are very blind,” he announced contritely. The choir, chomping at the bit, took this for their first line and sang it to the chosen tune. The mortified deacon emphatically responded, “I cannot see at all,” only to hear his choir sing this rhythmical comment too. Red-faced, he cried, “I really believe you are bewitched!” The choir sang it back to him, and concluded by singing back his final exclamation, “The mischief’s in you all!” as the poor man slumped down in his chair, completely embarrassed.

    In short, the hoary notion that the Puritans disliked music is false. In fact it was not they, but the older Quaker settlers, who forbade music in their society. Arid while the hardy New Englanders indulged in their public ululations, other settlers were bringing their music to different colonies along the Eastern seaboard. Sixteenth-century Spanish and French voyagers had created the first settlements in the Carolinas, superseded by the English, who claimed it in the name of Charles I as early as 1629. Following Louis XIV’s revocation in 1685 of the Edict of Nantes, which ended tolerance of French Protestants (Huguenots) within Catholic France, many Huguenots fled to the Protestant Carolinas, bringing with them their own Calvinist hymns. They were joined there later by Hussites (Moravian followers of Jan Huss), who brought their own musical traditions to their settlements at Wachovia, Bethabara and Salem (now Winston-Salem). To the Delaware River valley, originally a part of Dutch New Netherlands, came settlers from Sweden and Finland. Dutch traders and planters lived in New York and parts of Connecticut, even after the English took over in 1664, while many Swedes, Germans and Bohemians settled in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania. Added to this polyglot polyphony, as a result of the arrival of the first slave ships in Virginia around 1619, was an African musical heritage that would exert a deep and vivacious influence upon America’s music in the centuries to come.

    Despite the anti-musical stand of the older Philadelphia Quakers, music flourished particularly well in Pennsylvania thanks to the influx of German Pietists – or reformed Lutherans. Among the first of them to arrive in America during the seventeenth century was a musically inclined pastor, Justus Falckner, who was responsible for getting an organ shipped to his community from Germany. Falckner believed in music’s power not only to attract native Americans to his flock, but also to help attract younger Quakers. When he became the first German to be ordained a minister in America, in 1703, the proceedings at his ceremony were accompanied not only by organ but by a small orchestra of strings, winds and timpani. Moreover the Pietists, locally called the Wissahickon Hermits, were already so well known for their musical gifts that they had been engaged to supply choral and instrumental music for the consecration of Philadelphia’s Old Swede’s Church three years earlier. The broad religious tolerance in Pennsylvania also attracted groups of Moravians from Central Europe – Hussites, like their fellow Moravians in North Carolina. Music, for them, was an essential expression of their souls and, once they established such towns as Bethlehem, Nazareth and Emmaus, their churches rang with a fervent, particularly touching style of music. Yet, though the Moravians were highly esteemed by their neighbors, their insularity prevented their music from having any widespread influence outside their community. If the northern colonists dutifully sang hymns and psalms, the southern colonies delighted in entertainments. There, genteel Huguenot and Anglican plantation owners of Maryland, Virginia and the Carolinas – many of them descended from aristocratic European families – maintained their taste for the gracious country life they had left behind. By 1722, and possibly earlier, Virginia’s elegant capital, Williamsburg, boasted the first playhouse in the colonies. There were balls and dances, with ensembles playing music imported from the homeland, and behind the welcoming porticos of southern manor houses the silvery timbre of the spinet delighted many a listener, especially when played by a comely young daughter of the house. In 1735 the genteel planters of Charleston, South Carolina, were regaled by the first opera to be performed in King George II’s American colonies: Flora, or Hob in the Well, a farce revolving around the mishaps of a country bumpkin. Imported from London, it was an English ballad opera, in which dialogue, in this case written by the celebrated English actor-manager and Shakespeare bowdlerizer Coney Cibber, was interspersed with songs adapted from popular tunes of the day.

    While there flourished in the Episcopalian South an increasingly cultivated musical life, efforts were made to raise the level at least of congregational singing in New England. The Reverend John Tufts of Boston started the ball rolling in 1721 by publishing A Very Plain and Easy Introduction to the Art of Singing Psalm Tunes. That same year saw the publication of America’s first music theory text, Thomas Walter’s The Grounds and Rules of Musick Explained.

    Even as the century progressed, some clergymen and the more conservative church congregations still resisted any kind of musical training, fearing that refined musical performance was the devil’s path to secularized worship. But, by the 1760s, singing schools and instruction books proliferated in urban and rural communities, while in cities such as Boston, Providence and Newport wealthy merchants with musical proclivities were having their own instruments shipped over from England.

    Newspapers of the period recorded a variety of musical activities. For instance, in December 1731 the Boston Weekly News Letter contained the announcement that “On Thursday the 30th … there will be performed a Concert of Music on sundry Instruments at Mr. Pelham’s great Room. … Tickets … at Five shillings each.” Not only was this Boston’s first public concert, it was also a telling social development in the colonies at a time when public concerts for paying audiences were only recently becoming customary in Europe. Soon public concerts would also become a feature of musical life in Philadelphia and New York. Indeed New York’s first recorded concert, in 1736, featured the organist Charles Theodore Pachelbel (1690-1750), son of the German organist and composer Johann Pachelbel (famous for his Canon in D major). Pachelbel had previously served as organist of Newport’s Trinity Church, and eventually settled in Charleston, South Carolina, where he was a leading musical figure until his death.

    There was an increasing demand for skilled musicians: in December 1758 the Newport Mercury, printed by Benjamin Franklin’s brother James, advertised that: ‘Any person who plays well on a VIOLIN, on application to the Printer hereof may be inform’d where he will meet with proper Encouragement.” In June 1759 the same paper advertised a shipment of goods

    Imported from the last Ships from London and Bristol, and to be sold by Jacob Richardson, Wholesale and Retail, At his shop in Brenton’s Row in Thames Street … Brass and Iron Jew’s Harps … English Flutes, Violins, Bows, Bridges, best Roman Violin Strings …

    A decade later Newport’s musical life was continuing to gain in strength; and in September 1769 the same paper carried an advertisement for a colonial antecedent of modern Broadway’s one-man show:

    This evening, at Mrs. Cowley’s Assembly Room in Church Lane, will be read the Beggar’s Opera by a person who has read and sung in most of the great towns in America. All the songs will be sung. He personates [sic] all the characters and enters into the various humors or passions of the Opera, as they change from one to another throughout the Opera. Tickets to be had at the printing office at half a dollar each.

    John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera, a pithy send-up of Italian opera and early Georgian morality, had been the great London sensation of 1728, and this performance in Newport reveals not only its lasting popularity some forty years later but also the continuing strength of the musical ties between Britain and her colonies.

    In 1770, less than a year after this Newport performance of Gay’s ballad opera, an even more important American premiere took place in New York. Its leading musical figure, William Tuckey, a London-born organist, composer and choir director, led the first American performance of Handel’s Messiah – or at least the overture and sixteen numbers from the score. Even Handel’s native Germany had to wait two more years to hear it.

    Nevertheless, by 1770 relations between Britain and her American plantations were growing increasingly strained on account of the levying of unwelcome taxes to pay for the heavy debt Britain had incurred in defending her colonists in the French and Indian wars. That year saw the publication of the first truly original American songbook: The New-England Psalm-Singer, or, American Chorister, by William Billings, a Boston tanner and self-taught composer and singer. Instead of merely copying melodies from British tune books, Billings presented 727 of his own melodies for psalms, hymns, anthems and canons set for four unaccompanied voices. The plates for the musical portions of the volume were engraved by the silversmith and patriot Paul Revere. To give a truly American flavor to his work, Billings named many of his hymn tunes after local places and landmarks, such as “Amherst,” ‘Dedham” and “Old Brick” (church). Billings, whose four-part canon “When Jesus Wept” boasts a truly beautiful melody, followed this work with a second collection, The Singing Master’s Assistant, in 1778. America was bound up in the Revolutionary War by then, and the contents included several fiercely patriotic numbers. Billings’ rugged tunefulness, his unpretentious attitude and his practical sensibility made him the dean of the “Yankee tunesmiths” who flourished in New England during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, writing and compiling music for the numerous music schools that had sprung up in this part of the country. The most popular of their pieces were usually the so-called fuging tunes, with their imitative entries for each voice. Many of these Yankee tunesmiths were part-time musicians, among them such figures as Samuel Holyoke, Jeremiah Ingalls and the aptly named tavernkeeper Supply Belcher, who moved northward from Stoughton, Massachusetts, to the woodlands where he became renowned as the “Handel of Maine.” Yet, of all their productions, Billings’ Neil-England Psalm-Singer remains a landmark of American choral song.