SCHUMAN New England Triptych. American Hymn. George Washington Bridge. Circus Overture (trans. D. Owen). Prelude for a Great Occasion

SCHUMAN New England Triptych. American Hymn. George Washington Bridge. Circus Overture (trans. D. Owen). Prelude for a Great Occasion • Jack Stamp, cond; Keystone Wind Ens. • KLAVIER K-11155 (76:55) & Jack Stamp interviews William Schuman (March 5, 1990)

The music of William Schuman, who was generally considered among the handful of greatest American composers during the middle years of the 20th century, has received little attention during the past two decades or so. I have been surprised to discover how little of his music, aside from the New England Triptych and his orchestration of Ives’s Variations on “America,” is familiar to younger listeners today. This is most unfortunate, because Schuman had a strongly distinctive creative voice, and composed some of the finest music written in America during the 1940s and 50s.

Though the period of Schuman’s ascendancy roughly corresponds to the “Golden Age of American Band Music,” he himself wrote relatively little for the medium. Therefore, this recording, a worthy effort in many ways, is also a bit of a stretch, and leaves one with some unanswered questions. Since the CD is extended by several transcriptions, and an interview that lasts almost half an hour, the first and most obvious question involves the omission of Schuman’s first original work for band: Newsreel, in Five Shots, five brash and witty sketches composed in 1941. The fact is that Stamp and Schuman discuss this piece during the interview, and Stamp and the Keystone Wind Ensemble did record it in 1997 for a Citadel release (CTD 88132). Would it have been so difficult to include that recording on this compilation, which could then be said to include “all” of Schuman’s music for wind ensemble? 

While we’re at it, the second question involves New England Triptych, originally an orchestral work, and Schuman’s most popular and often-performed work by far. The eponymous three pieces are entitled “Be Glad Then, America,” “When Jesus Wept,” and “Chester.” Concurrently with composing the Triptych, Schuman wrote an original work for band, entitled Chester Overture. Though this piece is similar to the “Chester” movement from the Triptych, it is quite a bit longer and more elaborate. In 1958, Schuman arranged the second movement, “When Jesus Wept,” for concert band. Then, in 1975 he made a new arrangement of “Be Glad Then, America,” which again deviated significantly from the orchestral version. (I should mention that on the interview Schuman’s recollection of this chronology differs somewhat from what I have just recounted, which I based on K. Gary Adams’s Schuman “Bio-Bibliography.”) The version of Triptych heard here begins with a transcription of the first movement done by David Martynuik, which “more closely follows the orchestral score,” according to the liner notes, followed by Schuman’s transcription of the second movement, followed by the extended Chester Overture. The obvious question is, if Schuman’s own expansion of the third movement was to be used, why not his arrangement of the first movement?

Schuman composed his Circus Overture in 1944, for an ill-fated musical revue produced by Billy Rose, called The Seven Lively Arts. Originally written for orchestra, the piece is not as frivolous as its title might suggest. Although it does have a “clown-like” section, most of it is quite acerbic and parts are rather intricate. Schuman had not yet arrived at his own personal voice, but the piece is certainly interesting enough to merit attention. The overture was transcribed for band by Don Owen in 1972, and that is the version heard here.

Schuman’s second original work for band is the short piece entitled George Washington Bridge, composed in 1950. Despite its brevity it really packs a wallop. By then the composer had arrived at his own authentic voice, and it was still fresh and vital. He created a sound that evokes for many people both the optimism and the brashness of America during the post-World War II period, while its hard-edged polychords and restless rhythmic irregularities suggest the brusqueness and tension of New York City. For Schuman, the George Washington Bridge was a symbol of all this, and one of which he was especially fond. The piece is in ABCBA form (like a bridge, get it?), and treats the bridge almost as a modern sculpture, viewed from a variety of angles. 

And, speaking of modern sculpture, Prelude for a Great Occasion (not “Fanfare,” as it is inaccurately listed on the front and back of the CD package) was commissioned for the opening of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden of the Smithsonian Institution. Composed in 1974 for an ensemble of brass and percussion, it falls chronologically between Symphonies Nos. 9 and 10, and reflects the composer’s awareness of some of the newer musical trends of the time. But like many of his later works, the piece gives the impression of a sort of synthetic pseudo-profundity, while its harmonic language is considerably more dissonant than in his earlier works. Nevertheless, Schuman had a hard time weaning himself away from ending every piece with a major triad. These are all qualities that alienated many listeners from his music during his later years. 

American Hymn: Variations on an Original Melody was based on a song Schuman composed in 1956 to a text by Langston Hughes, called “The Lord Has a Child.” His touching setting of the poem is available as a solo song, as well as a choral piece. The song must have held special meaning for Schuman, as he used it for several series of variations that appeared at subsequent points during his career. In fact, his very last piece was yet another treatment of this song. The 10-minute work for band was composed in 1981. Schuman’s original setting is most beautiful, and well suited for variations, which pursue the basically triadic (though not obviously tonal) setting through increasingly unconventional harmonizations, until its character is quite thoroughly transformed. This is an original work for band that ought to be better known.

Conductor Jack Stamp’s interview with Schuman is especially interesting because it was taped when Schuman was 80, had essentially finished composing, and had only two more years to live. With this in mind, the vitality and lucidity displayed are remarkable and the interview is valuable from a historical perspective, although the sound quality definitely proclaims the use of inexpensive home equipment. Nevertheless, despite its interest, I would have gladly traded off eight minutes of it in order to have Newsreel on the CD. 

The Keystone Wind Ensemble is a group of players associated with Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where Jack Stamp is on the faculty. He has made a real contribution through the many fine recordings he has made of the classics of American wind band literature. The ensemble is really impeccable, with superb intonation, balance, and technical precision, even in the trickiest spots. All pieces on this recording are represented by first-rate performances. Sound quality is good, although there is some “spot-lighting” of instruments that is a little unnatural.