In Sweet Music – William Schuman at 100: A Centenary Tribute by Leonard Slatkin

Written by: Leonard Slatkin

William Schuman

If Charles Ives was the “Father” of American music, and Aaron Copland was the “Dean”, then, at the very least, William Schuman was our “favorite Uncle”.

Not that this means he was always giving us everything we wanted. He could be a rough taskmaster and often held back praise in favor of stern criticism. But he always had a smile for everyone and, most of the time, he meant it.

Bill was perhaps the finest example of the composer/academic/administrator that could be imagined. Here was a person whose life was altered by a single musical event. Basically schooled as a fly-by-night jazz musician, and apparently not so talented in that arena, he was invited to a concert by Toscanini with the New York Philharmonic in 1930. Schuman did not want to go, claiming that the music was “too high-brow”. But the visual as well as the aural stimulation caught his fancy and off he went, down a different yellow brick road.

The United States was one of the last holdouts, along with the UK and Russia, for symphonists. We are talking about those composers for whom the form still had relevance in the 20th-century. Roy Harris, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston and David Diamond were among those who tried, and usually succeeded, in combining the European structural ethic with the raw energy of the upstart American spirit.

Schuman did not exactly burst on the scene, dabbling in various aspects of the arts along the way. But, as with so many composers, it was at the invitation of Serge Koussevitzky that he would write a piece of music that would place him firmly on the New World map. This was his Third Symphony. Schuman would actually call it his first, having banned the first two efforts from performance. It won the New York Critic Circle Award for composition in 1944. From that point, Bill was one of the most dominant voices on the American scene, and all his compositions were awaited eagerly by not only the musical establishment, but the public as well.

But he also became the country’s most important educator, heading up the music schools at Sarah Lawrence University and the Juilliard School of Music. He introduced a new method of teaching Harmony and Theory, lured the best teachers in every aspect of music, and built on the already impressive list of students turned out by each school.

In 1962, Bill left the noted uptown conservatory and assumed the mantle of President of Lincoln Center, the new arts compound in mid-town New York. This move made sense, as there was probably no-one else who could have handled moving five resident companies. Of course, they did not all go at the same time, and the last of them, the Juilliard, would now be under the supervision of another great symphonist, Peter Mennin.

It was in 1967 that I made my Carnegie Hall debut, leading a youth orchestra in Schuman’s New England Triptych. I had met Bill through some friends and invited him to the concert. His words after were kind and from that point we maintained a wonderful relationship until his death in February 1992. I commissioned and recorded a number of his pieces, performed his chamber music and spent many hours delighting in his company.

As world-wise as Bill was, he was an American through and through. You knew this the minute the subject of baseball came up. Oh, those long nights discussing and arguing the relative merits of my St Louis Cardinals and his beloved NY Yankees. There were times when I truly believed that our friendship hinged on a critical series between the two teams.

There were two presentations which stand out in my mind. I was fortunate enough to have been awarded an honorary doctorate from my Alma Mater, Juilliard, having only completed a Bachelor’s program. Bill, having departed the school many years earlier, chose to present the degree to me on that occasion. And in 1989, Schuman was chosen to receive the Kennedy Center Honors. I asked that the Juilliard orchestra play in tribute, and we did two of the Triptych movements, the same piece I had done more than twenty years before. At this concert, I told the audience that Bill heard me play it with his “children”, all those years ago. Now he would hear it again with his “grandchildren”.

On April 1st, we will once again pay tribute to this giant, with a birthday concert at Avery Fisher Hall. The Juilliard Orchestra and I will present his Violin Concerto and Third Symphony, among other pieces. Now it is time for the “great grand children” to be heard. Bill would have been 100 this year (on August 4 2010). But it only seems like yesterday when he was telling me not to play his music slowly. “What do you think I am? An old man?!”

Hardly, not as long as you kept that twinkle in your eye and your fastball humming.

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