AMERICAN MUSE: The Life and Times of William Schuman

by Walter Simmons

Book Review

AMERICAN MUSE: The Life and Times of William Schuman. By Joseph W. Polisi. New York: Amadeus Press, 2008. xvii + 595pp, inc. 127pp. musical examples. 8 b/w plates. Hardcover. $32.95

This past weekend I attended a dinner-party on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. The guests comprised some ten senior citizens, all of whom are highly cultured and remain actively involved in the arts, though not classical music especially. Nevertheless, pre-occupied with the subject at hand, I decided to ask the group how many of them could identify William Schuman. Not a single one could. Once I announced that he was a composer, and had been the president of Lincoln Center during the 1960s, one or two indicated some vague recognition of the name. I thought that this was fairly remarkable, in view of the fact that in 1992, the year of Schuman’s death, Edward Rothstein had characterized him in the New York Times as “the most important musical administrator of the 20th century” and “at one time … probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music.” Furthermore, my own recollection is that during the 1960s he was generally regarded as one of America’s two or three foremost symphonic composers, and I suspect that many enthusiasts of the American symphonic repertoire of the 20th century still feel that way today.

Schuman belonged to a group of composers that might be termed “modern traditionalists,” i.e., composers who renounced the opulent emotionalism and clear tonal adherence of the “neo-romantics,” refrained from dipping into the overtly American vernacular elements that attracted the “nationalist-populists,” and avoided the spare textures and restrained expression of the “neo-classicists,” while shunning the strictures of 12-tone serialism and other experimental approaches that came to command critical attention during the 1950s and 60s. The modern traditionalists embraced familiar genres, such as the symphony, concerto, sonata, etc., and standard techniques like counterpoint, motivic development, and thematic transformation, while using the gradient of tonality as an expressive device, rather than as an organizing principle. The modern traditionalists comprise a large group of composers, a group that is in many ways epitomized by William Schuman. The stranglehold that serialism exerted on public discourse within the music profession loosened considerably during the late 1970s and 1980s, to be replaced by minimalism, along with a variety of eclectic approaches. A more open, tolerant atmosphere prevailed, and with it a revival of interest in the long-disparaged neo-romantics. However, the modern traditionalists have continued to remain in the background, their more challenging, sometimes abrasive language not as immediately appealing to casual listeners. Their names may still be familiar to some, while their creative identities have grown dimmer and dimmer.

Perhaps in anticipation of his centennial in 2010, there has been a sudden flurry of interest in Schuman, heralded by the appearance of Polisi’s book, to be followed by several others currently in progress (including one of my own, I should disclose, although mine is not limited to Schuman alone). Of course the broad outlines of Schuman’s career have been long familiar, even legendary: Born in New York City, this all-American boy spent his childhood consumed with baseball, later forming a dance band, for which he wrote a host of popular songs, many of them with lyrics by his friend Frank Loesser. Classical music meant nothing to him until, at the age of 20, he was dragged reluctantly by his sister to a concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Toscanini, when the sound and appearance of the symphony orchestra precipitated a conversion experience: The next day he dropped out of business school, walked into the first music school he could find, and announced to the receptionist that he wanted to become a composer—what should he do? Amazingly, nine years later his Symphony No. 2 was performed by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony. At the age of 35 he became president of the Juilliard School, revamping the entire faculty and curriculum, and 17 years later became president of the brand-new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, shaping it into a world-famous institution that influenced all “performing arts centers” to follow. By the time he died in 1992, he had completed ten symphonies, a couple of operas, and numerous choral, orchestral, and chamber works, most of which had been performed and recorded by the world’s leading soloists, conductors, and ensembles. But, of course, there is much more to the story than that.

I approached Joseph Polisi’s book with great interest, as he, as the current president of the Juilliard School, clearly has access to the widest array of documents and reminiscences. However, I expected the result to be biased and hagiographic, as I was aware that Polisi has personal ties to the Schuman family. I had also heard a number of stories documenting Schuman’s attempt to control what was said and written about him. In fact, in her book Juilliard: A History, Andrea Olmstead asserted that after Juilliard president Peter Mennin’s sudden and premature death in 1983, Schuman had advocated Polisi for the position, “because Schuman knew he could control Polisi.” It appeared that such control was continuing posthumously when Polisi began the “Acknowledgments” section of his book with an account in which Schuman’s widow stated that she wanted the story of her husband’s life to be told “only in his own words…. [She] emphatically stated that she did not want a musicological study that would analyze her husband’s life through a revisionist or psychological lens, …” Therefore I am both pleased and relieved to state that not only is American Muse a fascinating and enormously informative study, but also that it presents a remarkably balanced picture of the man. Of course it presents Schuman in a favorable light: As the first comprehensive study of the man, how could it be otherwise? (Hatchet-jobs usually come later.) But as a man of professional stature, grand vision, supreme self-confidence, and boundless energy, Schuman did not look favorably upon anyone or anything that stood in his way, and he was both clever and charming enough to manipulate most situations in such a way as to achieve the outcomes he desired. (Phillip Ramey recounted to me an incident he witnessed personally in which Schuman, upon learning that a pianist he knew was scheduled to perform the concerto of another composer with one of America’s leading orchestras, simply phoned the orchestra manager and insisted that his own concerto be played instead. Not only did he get his way, but the composer whose music had been elbowed out never learned what had happened, and continued to regard Schuman as a “good friend.”)

The fact is that a good deal of the book is told in Schuman’s own words, as he had provided several “oral histories” during the latter part of his life, and, although such recollections inevitably present the perspective of the subject, one can “read between the lines” and glean a good deal more. Although the primary focus of the book is biographical, Polisi presents Schuman’s creative work as a parallel track, stopping every few chapters to “catch up” with his compositional output during the years just discussed, including the basics, such as source of commission, first performance (when, where, by whom), and a general description of the approach and content of the work in question. Then, following the body of the book, an appendix of some 150 pages is devoted to more elaborate analyses of ten works, in which Polisi was assisted by one of Juilliard’s music theorists. Though accompanied by copious musical examples, these analyses are intended to be self-sufficient even for those who do not read music. They are largely effective as fairly in-depth program notes, although references to measure-numbers may be distracting and disheartening to those less trained listeners. The selection of ten compositions encompasses Schuman’s entire career, and embraces most of the genres in which he worked, although other commentators might choose differently. Polisi’s writing is clear and fluent, so that the narrative is consistently compelling, even when delving into the complexities of budgetary issues and inter- and intra-institutional conflicts among boards of directors. The author does not avoid potentially sensitive areas, such as Schuman’s ambivalent relationship with Judaism, his hostility toward Peter Mennin (his successor at Juilliard), his relationships with his children, and the rigidity and arrogance that inflamed his conflicts with the Lincoln Center board of directors—especially, John D. Rockefeller III. 

However, what I miss from this study are summaries and conclusions: Putting together the various contradictory elements of Schuman’s personality, what is the central character that emerges; i.e., how are these elements integrated? Polisi does make some general evaluations of some individual compositions, but what about Schuman’s overall stature as a composer? What are the central strengths of his output? What are the chief weaknesses? How is he viewed today, and how apt is this perspective? Aside from the absence of such summary points, American Muse paints a fascinating and vividly detailed portrait of one of this country’s most important musical figures, placing it within the rich context of American musical life during the middle third of the 20th century.