William Schuman: American Festival Overture

Program Notes

            The American Festival Overture is one of William Schuman’s earliest works to achieve success and his first to be recorded. It was composed in 1939 at the encouragement of Serge Koussevitzky, who promised to perform it with the Boston Symphony. The title refers to a festival of American music that Koussevitzky had planned for the 1939-40 concert season. He led the orchestra in the premiere of the overture in Boston, in October of 1939. The piece is based entirely on a simple motif that Schuman identified as a familiar boys’ street call. Sung to the syllables “wee-awk-eee,” the motif consists of three notes, the first falling a minor-third, and the third a return to the original note. This motif, along with a sequence of perfect fourths, thoroughly permeates the overture. Schuman later stated, “The American Festival Overture is obviously a piece that could only have been composed by someone in his/her twenties or maybe thirties, but not an older person. This overture is a musical pep talk, brash and all those things.” Except for a brief passage of reflection, the work is vigorously rousing and emphatically exuberant. Yet despite its extroverted character, it is saturated with a profusion of brilliant developmental activity. Although much of the melodic content is simple and straightforward, there is a great deal of harmony built on the interval of the fourth, which imparts a bristling, modern surface. Shortly after the premiere, a 23-year-old Leonard Bernstein noted “an energetic drive, a vigor of propulsion which seizes the listener by the hair, whirls him through space, and sets him down at will.”

© Walter Simmons
BBC Proms Concert 2016