BOOK REVIEW. ORPHEUS IN MANHATTAN: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life. By Steve Swayne

by Walter Simmons

ORPHEUS IN MANHATTAN: William Schuman and the Shaping of America’s Musical Life. By Steve Swayne. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. 692 pp. $39.95. (Web site

The year 2010 marked the hundredth birthday of William Schuman, which may account at least partially for the appearance of this new biography by Dartmouth professor Steve Swayne, coming on the heels of the 2008 biography by Joseph Polisi (reviewed in Fanfare 32:5). (I might add that the publication of my own book, Voices of Stone and Steel, which addressed the lives and works of Schuman, Persichetti, and Mennin, and was reviewed in Fanfare 34:6, was not related to Schuman’s centennial, but I mention it also to acknowledge whatever potential conflicts of interest may be involved in my reviewing Swayne’s book, as I did Polisi’s. I will also take this opportunity to disclose that among Swayne’s seven densely packed pages of Acknowledgments, I am rather generously included.)

The reader interested enough in Schuman to avail himself of Polisi’s comprehensive tome, written with the cooperation of the Schuman family, is likely to wonder what another biography—even longer (at 555 pages of text)—could possibly add to that earlier volume. (My own book, dealing with two additional composers and emphasizing their musical contributions rather than their biographies, is less directly comparable.)

After reading Swayne’s book, I have concluded that while only the most avid devotees are likely to find it necessary to read both biographies, there are differences of style and emphasis that distinguish them. Furthermore, Swayne has pursued his research with a voracious diligence that exceeds my understanding of the usual norms. As a result his book includes a few rather startling revelations. Perhaps the most remarkable of these involves the often-recounted story that the 20-year-old Schuman’s somewhat reluctant attendance at a New York Philharmonic concert—his first classical orchestral concert—prompted his sudden decision to drop out of business school and undertake serious compositional study.  Without spoiling Swayne’s scoop, I will simply note that this account entailed the composer’s own rearrangement of the facts as well as the omission of some key details. Swayne’s suggestion that the character of the woman whom Schuman was to marry exerted a stronger influence on his sudden career change than did his attendance at that concert is quite convincing, especially when presented within the context of some additional facts.

With regard to style, Polisi’s book is extremely sober, objective, and rather formal in tone. As I mentioned in my review of that book, although Polisi benefited from being virtually an honorary member of the family, he did not shy away from pointing out many of the defects in Schuman’s character, as well as some of his more egregious behavior, although these by no means overwhelmed Polisi’s recognition of his subject’s positive qualities and contributions. Swayne’s writing style is a little more informal, more anecdotal. Sometimes—especially in the earlier portions of the book—he indulges in digressions whose relevance one might question. And sometimes—again in the earlier portions—the amount of tangential detail seems rather excessive. In contrast to Polisi’s general posture of neutrality, one can infer how Swayne seems to feel about various aspects of his subject, and gives special emphasis to the areas that seem to interest him. For example, he draws considerable attention—even more than Polisi did—to Schuman’s discomfort and ambivalence regarding his Jewish background, including his refusal to lend his name in support of Israel during its earliest years. Schuman’s avoidance of religion in general seems distasteful to Swayne.

While not overlooking or downplaying Schuman’s less admirable qualities—his high-handedness, his arrogance, his manipulativeness, and, most of all, his outrageous chutzpah—Swayne gives more than equal attention to the composer’s generosity toward his colleagues, the visionary ideals that motivated so much of his activity, and his unwavering advocacy at the highest levels of serious American music in general, and not merely his own. Schuman strongly opposed both the League of Composers and the American chapter of the International Society of Contemporary Music (ISCM) because of their attempts to limit representation of traditionalist composers—those who refused to embrace serialism or other avant-garde compositional approaches. (So much for today’s revisionist attempts to deny the hegemony of serialism and the destructive efforts of its proponents to suppress alternative approaches.) At the same time Swayne reveals Schuman’s considerable efforts to find ways to accommodate aspects of serialism within his own compositional style, despite his natural revulsion to a compositional “system.”

One aspect I found disturbing about both books involves Schuman’s shabby treatment of Peter Mennin, his successor as Juilliard’s president. Although the casual observer may have assumed that the two were “buddies,” since the former hired the latter in the first place, in fact there was great enmity between them for decades, and Schuman actively attempted to prevent Mennin from succeeding him at Juilliard, when he became the first president of Lincoln Center. Polisi acknowledged that Schuman’s behavior toward Mennin was indefensible. The subject appears to be of little interest to Swayne, who seems to take Schuman’s positions at face value. Neither writer looks beneath the surface for an explanation, a deeper interpretation, an alternative perspective.

While Polisi devotes a significant section of his book to musical analyses, executed by an assistant, of a number of Schuman’s important works, the amount of musical analysis undertaken by Swayne is minimal, though not non-existent, and usually serves to make some important points, such as the considerable extent to which Schuman “borrowed” material from his other works. Swayne’s book is also enhanced by the presence of a Web site (indicated in the headnote above) that further augments the material in the book. Though not complete at the time of this writing, the site will, I believe, provide additional musical analyses for those who are interested.