by Walter Simmons
During the 1960s William Schuman was one of the most prominent figures in America’s classical music world—“probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music” and “the most important musical administrator of the 20th century,” according to the New York Times. He was also one of America’s most highly regarded composers throughout the middle third of the century. The story of his rapid ascent to a position of such eminence was legendary during his lifetime: Born in New York City in 1910, he was an “all-American boy” who spent his childhood consumed with baseball. Later he formed a dance band, for which he wrote a host of popular songs, many of them with his school chum Frank Loesser (subsequently a celebrated Broadway lyricist). After high school Schuman had enrolled in a commercial business course. Classical music meant little to him until, at the age of twenty, he attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Toscanini. The concert excited and inspired him, awakening an interest in a new direction he might pursue: the path of a serious composer. So he abandoned his focus on popular tunes, and turned his attention to more advanced musical study. His future wife, whom he met at this time, quickly realized his great potential, and strongly encouraged him in this direction.
Schuman made rapid progress toward his ambitious goal. In 1939, only nine years after embarking on his new career path, his Symphony No. 2 was performed by Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Six years later he was appointed president of the famed Juilliard School, where he promptly revamped the entire faculty and curriculum; in 1962 he became the first president of the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, shaping it into a world-famous institution that influenced all performing arts centers to follow. At the same time he continued to compose, receiving commissions, awards, and performances by the country’s foremost musical ensembles and arts institutions. After he retired from his Lincoln Center position, he continued to compose until his death in 1992.
Perhaps the most distinctive quality of Schuman’s music is its strongly “American” character, achieved without recourse to jazz, folk, or popular melodies or even to their general styles. This quality is deeply embedded within the tone and spirit of his musical personality, which may be described as bold and brash, declamatory, self-confidently assertive, tense, aggressive, nervously edgy, and, at times, contemplative, lofty, and even oratorical. His body of work comprises ten symphonies, two operas, and numerous choral, orchestral, and chamber works, most of which were performed and recorded by the world’s leading artists and ensembles.
© Walter Simmons
BBC Proms Concert 2016