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.”