SCHUMAN Symphonies: No. 4; No. 9, “Le Fosse Ardeatine.” Circus Overture. Orchestra Song • Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO • NAXOS 8.559254 (63:24)
SCHUMAN Symphonies: No. 7; No. 10, “American Muse” • Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO • Naxos 8.559255 (60:48)
If called upon to name the three foremost American symphonists of the 20th century—referring to those composers who turned repeatedly to the symphonic genre for the distillation and expression of their deepest and most serious creative concerns—I would, with little hesitation, cite Peter Mennin, Walter Piston, and William Schuman. Gerard Schwarz, whose numerous recordings with the Seattle Symphony for Delos—including comprehensive or partial surveys of the works of Howard Hanson, David Diamond, and Paul Creston, as well as Piston and Mennin—have contributed significantly to a major re-assessment of that entire generation of composers, turns his attention now to the symphonies of William Schuman, thanks to Naxos American Classics. This survey is most welcome, as the symphonies of this composer—aside perhaps from No. 3—have been languishing in dormancy for the past decade or two.
Why this neglect? While listeners have been discovering the rich melodies, luxuriant orchestration, and warm emotionalism of such neo-romantics as Hanson, Barber, and Creston, composers like Schuman—and Vincent Persichetti, whom I recently discussed in a similar context—are not as readily ingratiating. Some of their music can be quite hard-edged and angular, although once their language becomes familiar, the authentic musical values infusing their work—not to mention their strong personalities—emerge clearly and eloquently. More than once Schuman identified the primary element of his music as melody, and liked to view himself as a romantic, a designation echoed in Steven Lowe’s generally informative program notes. But the fact remains that the only works of Schuman that are heard with any regularity today are the New England Triptych, based on themes by the 18th-century American William Billings, his orchestration of Charles Ives’s Variations on “America,” and the justly admired Third Symphony (although I haven’t heard that one very much recently either)—a point made by Jerry Dubins in his highly laudatory review in Fanfare 29:1. Furthermore, the music Schuman composed after 1960—the last 30+ years of his life—was often downright severe, with an extremely high level of harmonic dissonance, often created by semi-independent layers of activity, related polytonally and separated according to instrumental choir, and long stretches of slow, introspective music that only remotely suggested tonal centers. Therefore, Schwarz’s and Naxos’s decision to begin their survey with a focus on Schuman’s later symphonies is quite a bold one. While those listeners who are appalled by the neglect of these works will no doubt rejoice at the appearance of these new recordings, I would recommend that others who have found themselves put off by some of Schuman’s more formidable efforts ease into it gradually through his more accessible music—beyond, however, the Billings and Ives pieces: the Symphony No. 3, and some of his best music from the 1940s and 50s, such as Credendum—Article of Faith, the two choreographic works Judith and Undertow, and the inexplicably under-rated Casey at the Bat. Familiarity with these works will lay the groundwork for an appreciation of his later, more challenging music.
Schuman, who had no early background in classical music, only decided upon a career as a composer as an adult during the 1930s, at a time when Roy Harris and his music had struck the cultivated American public as the embodiment of what American symphonic music should sound like. Schuman sought out Harris and studied with him sporadically, but his whole musical language is a direct outgrowth of Harris’s distinctive approach, although ultimately his own consummation as an artist far surpassed that of his model. A comparison of Harris’ Symphony No. 3 (1939) with Schuman’s Symphony No. 3 (1941) makes readily apparent both the latter’s adoption of the older man’s compositional approach and the vastly greater ease and competence he displayed in achieving its artistic fulfillment.
Schuman’s Symphony No. 4 appeared later in the same year as No. 3, and has remained something of a “sleeper” over the years, under the shadow of its predecessor. I must admit that it has taken me a while to develop an appreciation of its virtues, partly because I became familiar with it through a mediocre performance by the Louisville Orchestra, conducted by Jorge Mester. But I now recognize it as a superb work, a natural “next step” after No. 3, with an especially beautiful slow movement. Again it follows closely in Harris’s footsteps, as musical ideas are developed not so much through the analogue of a drama, as in more traditional symphonic music of the prior generation, but rather through variations in rhythmic energy and bodies of sonority. This is pure, abstract music, without any extrinsic reference. It is often consonant harmonically, but without a strong tonal sense, as a result of the use of “real” (as apposed to “tonal”) parallelism—what Harris viewed as an adaptation of “organum.” Albany—Naxos’s chief current rival in spearheading the revival of the American symphonic repertoire—released a new recording of Schuman’s Fourth about three years ago, featuring the Albany Symphony under the able direction of David Alan Miller. That was a fine performance, as were those of the composer’s Piano Concerto (with John McCabe as soloist) and Credendum, also included on that release. But Schwarz’s new one is no less superb. I can only suggest that the prospective consumer choose on the basis of the companion works.
Twelve years intervened between Schuman’s Sixth and Seventh Symphonies, creating a natural stylistic caesura in his symphonic output. Perhaps as a result of his own personal artistic development, or possibly influenced by compositional currents taken place around him, his music became more austere, hard-edged, and bleak in character. But of the four symphonies Schuman composed between 1960 and 1976, No. 7 is perhaps the most difficult to apprehend. Sheila Keats has characterized the symphony as indicative of an “increasing profundity and deepening introspection” in Schuman’s work. Indeed, the balance between slow music of a darkly brooding, menacing character, and the lively, chattering, rhythmically nervous music so distinctive to his style is strongly tipped in the former direction, comprising the majority of the work. Its difficulty is further attributable to its tenuous tonality, its high dissonance level, and the elision of its four movements. The question remains: Is the symphony’s brooding introspection convincingly profound, or is it merely dry meandering? When I knew the work only through Maurice Abravanel’s recording with the Utah Symphony, I was doubtful; now, after hearing this more proficient and sympathetic reading, I am more convinced. (But I must take issue here with a statement made by Steven Lowe in his program notes: If he wants to characterize this symphony as a “ripening Romantic utterance,” this is a subjective observation he is entitled to make; but when he says that it “may be seen as a harbinger for the emergence of the post-serialism of the 1970s and onward among a younger generation of composers,” I must protest that this is a misrepresentation of musical history. The statement suggests that Schuman turned back from serialism ahead of his colleagues, paving the way for a new generation of tonalists. But this is simply untrue. Schuman was never a serialist, but, in fact, from the 1950s through the 1980s, his language, as stated earlier, moved increasingly further away from discernable tonal centers. Hence, though the fruitful growth and development of his style without recourse to the serialism that gulled so many of his peers may have made him a model of artistic courage and independence, he was not a harbinger of a change—he was always there.)
There is one more point to make about Schuman’s later symphonies: Although his music shows considerable sophistication, there was one aspect that suggested … a certain naivete, perhaps. I am referring to his endings—rousing reiterations of a tonic triad, often containing octave-leaps upward, accompanied by much bombastic percussion—which were remarkably similar to each other from his earliest works on through (most of) his final symphonies. However, when these later works, with their long, searching contemplations, blistering dissonances, unsettling rhythmic irregularities, and largely atonal motivic manipulations approach “the finish line,” suddenly heralded by a squad of cheering triads, it is hard not to wonder, “Just what was he thinking about this?”
Schuman composed his Symphony No. 9, “Le Fosse Ardeatine,” in 1968, and it was the first of his symphonies to which he appended a subtitle or acknowledged an extramusical source of inspiration. The reference here is to the site in Italy of a brutal Nazi massacre. Schuman had visited these caves in 1967, and decided to make his symphony a memorial to the victims of this atrocity. The work itself, however, is as abstract and structurally autonomous as any of his other symphonies, and, as with No. 7, its movements—three in this case—are connected, and there is a preponderance of slow music. However, for whatever reason—and Schuman acknowledged that his emotional reaction to the historical incident affected him throughout the composition of the work—this is a far more compelling symphony than No. 7, joining No. 3 and No. 6 as his most fully consummated symphonies. Gripping from beginning to end, this is music based on varying degrees of inner tensile energy, controlled chiefly through gesture and rhythm. Here Schuman’s unique use of several simultaneous “planes” of activity, seemingly unrelated to or independent of each other is taken to its extreme, as widely divergent types of activity occur concurrently; tonal rootedness has by now all but disappeared. Yet despite its consistently grim, harsh character, the music is remarkably eloquent. This is one of the few of his symphonies that do not end with the triumphant peroration described above. Premiered by Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra, the symphony was recorded by them shortly afterward, but this excellent performance has never, as far as I know, been reissued on CD. So this new Seattle performance, which owes no apology to Ormandy or his orchestra, is most welcome.
Schuman’s final symphony—No. 10—was commissioned for the American Bicentennial in 1976. In meeting this request, he played a role in which he was both comfortable and enormously successful throughout much of his career: that of musical statesman—a spokesman and advocate of artistic life in America. As such, many of his works have the feeling of public oratory. So it is hardly surprising that he decided to dedicate this Bicentennial work to “the country’s creative artists, past, present and future.” In so doing, he reverted to a number of musical devices familiar from his more extroverted earlier works, while also retaining the high level of harmonic dissonance he had been exploring in his later works (although one of its main thematic elements is a descending minor scale). The first movement, marked Con fuoco, is positively brilliant—a powerful explosion of unflagging sonic energy, orchestrated to the hilt, blazing with a wide array of percussion activity, as were many of the composer’s final works. This movement serves as an ideal example of Schuman’s last creative phase. It is followed by a Larghissimo of extraordinary beauty, which develops one of those characteristically lofty, long-lined melodies of which the composer was so fond. This melody gradually builds to a major climax that resolves into a typical Schuman lament, before trailing off to conclude on a major triad that, truthfully, does sound rather tacked on. The final movement is not quite as successful as the first two: Subdivided into many sections, it bounces in too many directions, becoming a little incoherent in the process, before coming to a close, accompanied by the obligatory fireworks. What I find quite remarkable, in reconsidering this work of Schuman’s creative maturity, is just how much of the Harris language and approach remained in his veins, even at this late date. Although this work was introduced by the National Symphony Orchestra under Antal Dorati, its first recording appeared in 1992—the year of the composer’s death—at the hands of Leonard Slatkin and the Saint Louis Symphony. That excellent performance is no longer available, I understand, so, again, the new Naxos release is the only show in town, and most welcome. But again, Schwarz and Seattle offer a tight, solid performance that is brilliant in its own right.
One of the CDs also includes a couple of shorter pieces. The Circus Overture is an exuberant piece originally composed in 1944 for an aborted Broadway revue. However it is far more musically sophisticated than its provenance would suggest. Another piece accessible enough to familiarize the listener with Schuman’s style, it ought to be heard more often. On the other hand, Orchestra Song is an uninteresting three-minute arrangement of an utterly banal Austrian folksong. Its presence contributes nothing to the value of the CD.