SCHUMAN: Symphony No.6. Symphony No. 9 (“Le Fosse Ardeatine”)

by Walter Simmons

SCHUMAN: Symphony No.6. Symphony No. 9 (“Le Fosse Ardeatine”). Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Eugene Ormandy. CRI SD 477

This new release from CRI pairs two milestone recordings from the William Schuman discography. The two. symphonies chosen are probably Schuman’s most ambitious, uncompromising, and fully realized symphonic works. The Symphony No. 6 dates from 1948 and was recorded on Columbia ML-4992 during the mid-1950s, as part of its pioneering Modern American Music Series. The Symphony No. 9 was written in 1968, and was released a couple of years later on RCA LSC-3212, a recording that also included Vincent Persichetti’s masterful Symphony No. 9.

Most music lovers seem to know William Schuman as a personable and articulate musical statesman who also happens to have composed some rousing works, overtly American in character. Much of his public identity derives from his influential administrative activities, which significantly shaped the course, first, of the Juilliard School, and later, of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. But he is also one of America’s most significant symphonic composers, whose music is often grouped with that of two other composers: Vincent Persichetti and the late Peter Mennin, both of whose careers have been associated, thanks to Schuman, with the same two institutions.

These three composers have shared much in common by way of musical influences and attitudes. That is, all three demonstrate a deep commitment to the symphony as a viable form for a uniquely 20th-century statement. Though based on the familiar principle of motivic development as a unifying procedure, a symphony by Schuman, Persichetti, or Mennin is usually a large, serious statement—unmistakably modern and unmistakably American in its vigor, assertiveness, and absence of either sentimentality or uncertainty, not to mention a general avoidance of symmetrical classical forms. Yet these general affinities have led to a lack of differentiation among some listeners, who overlook considerable differences of style among the three.

Schuman works with much larger gestures and a broader perspective than Persichetti, and his outlook is more detached and balanced than the frenzied Mennin. Closest in aesthetic lineage to Roy Harris, Schuman favors expansive planes of sound, while Persichetti focuses on small details, revealed through transparent textures. By comparison, Mennin’s textures are usually densely—almost compulsively—contrapuntal. Persichetti’s approach to rhythm tends to highlight lean, actively syncopated figures dancing freely within a background pulsation; for Mennin, rhythm is a means of regulating emotional intensity, through general tempo and by means of irregular punctuations interjected into the contrapuntal flow. Schuman’s approach to rhythm is represented by nearly static passages of gravely reflective character, as well as by a predilection for nervous, spasmodic bursts of rapidly syncopated figurations in brittle sonorities. In fact, the balance of these two contrasting polarities provides the basic duality of his music. On the whole, Schuman lacks the comprehensive scope and limitless technical gamut of Persichetti; nor does he display the intense concentration and expressive urgency of Mennin. But he is, nevertheless, a serious, highly individual symphonic thinker who has, in his best works, pursued the symphonic approach of Harris in boldly original directions, while developing a musical personality of his own. .

A particularly notable technical contribution is Schuman’s simultaneous use of contrasting musical planes, each with its own distinct character. The resulting juxtapositions achieve stunning effects of multiple perspective, similar to but far more eloquent than those sought ineptly by Ives and Carter.

The two works on this disc, central entries in the Schuman canon, enable the listener to gain an insight into his characteristically lofty, slightly aloof, yet exceedingly muscular approach to abstract musical development. The Symphony No.6 is probably the first of Schuman’s symphonies to reveal full emancipation from the dominating influence of Harris. That symphony and the three that followed loom as his major works in the form. (The Tenth depends too heavily on clichés in its self-conscious attempt to achieve a grand public statement.) The Ninth is the most dramatic of this sequence of four, while the Sixth is probably the most emotionally austere, although this latter impression may be exaggerated by the typically lifeless performance conducted by Eugene Ormandy. Ormandy has, however, on rare, unpredictable occasions, been capable of dynamic and incisive performances. I am pleased to report that Schuman’s Ninth, a work inspired by a visit to the site of Nazi atrocities in Rome, receives such a performance. Both symphonies are somber works, on the whole, and therefore, are missing the brash optimism (and the familiar devices used to achieve it) found in most of Schuman’s better-known works. While not as concise and tight dramatically as he could be at his very best (e.g., in Judith, the choreographic work written for Martha Graham in 1949 and not currently available on recording), both these symphonies are very powerful and complex works—emotionally and structurally—and demand repeated listening. 

The re-mastering of the Symphony No.6, in simulated stereo, is no better or worse than one would expect from a recording that was typical of its time 30 years ago. The recording of the Symphony No.9 displays the same slight fuzziness and mid-range emphasis that was common on RCA around 1970. One should mention, however, that this disc contains a little less than an hour of music. Like CRI SD-399, which contains Mennin’s Symphony No.7 and piano concerto, this release brings together on one disc two major works by one of America’s most important composers. It is an essential recording for anyone interested in contemporary symphonic music who does not already have these works in their earlier recorded incarnations.