SCHUMAN Symphony No. 8. Night Journey. IVES (arr. Schuman) Variations on “America”

by Walter Simmons

SCHUMAN Symphony No. 8. Night JourneyIVES (arr. Schuman) Variations on “America” ● Gerard Schwarz, cond; Seattle SO ● NAXOS 8.559651 (65:04)

With this release, Gerard Schwarz and the Seattle Symphony complete their comprehensive survey of the symphonies of William Schuman (minus Nos. 1 and 2, which the composer withdrew), along with a variety of his other orchestral works. A significant achievement for the performers, this survey—if nothing else—reminds listeners of what a powerful and distinctive body of work Schuman left us. Unfortunately, aside from the New England Triptych, his orchestration of Ives’s affectionately satirical Variations on “America,”and, perhaps, the Symphony No. 3, Schuman’s music has largely fallen from view since his death in 1992. I fear that younger listeners are barely aware of his name, let alone his music. It may be hard for them to believe that 50 years ago Schuman would probably have been among the first to be mentioned in any discussion of “great American symphonies” (which were discussed a lot more often in those days than they are today). This year marks Schuman’s centennial, which has prompted a flurry of attention, at least in the New York area. But Naxos’ contribution is probably of more lasting value and significance; those who digest the extant eight symphonies and the half-dozen or so other works included in their survey will have a pretty thorough impression of Schuman’s musical style and scope of expression. Schuman may not have been America’s greatest symphonist, but he was certainly among the handful of top contenders.

Probably one of the main reasons that most of Schuman’s music has not found a permanent place in the repertoire is that, while he did not join the serialists who exerted so much influence between 1955 and 1975, much of his music is quite dissonant harmonically and dense texturally, while the later works in particular are largely atonal, although they typically conclude with a clear tonal focus, which often seems somewhat incongruous. The symphonies from No. 6 through No. 10 would, I suspect, be quite jarring to most audiences hearing them for the first time today. When they first appeared, critical opinion was divided between those who felt that the music was deeply profound and those who felt it was straining to seem profound. 

The Symphony No. 8 is a case in point. Completed in 1962 for the opening of New York’s Lincoln Center, of which Schuman had recently assumed the presidency, the work is quite challenging. Much of it is an elaborated transcription of his own String Quartet No. 4—probably the most impressive of his five efforts in that medium—although its orchestration is so dazzling and seemingly essential that only those who are quite familiar with the quartet are likely to suspect anything. The symphony begins with two searing slow movements—long, speculative reflections—while concluding with a brilliant finale. 

Contributing greatly to the positive impact made by Schuman’s music was the advocacy of Leonard Bernstein. Eight years younger than Schuman, Bernstein was galvanized by this music from the moment he heard it, when he was all of 20 years old. He remained devoted to Schuman’s music throughout his career, his own music was clearly influenced by it, and he identified with it so strongly that his performances seemed to capture fully both its spirit and its expressive essence. Most of Bernstein’s recordings of Schuman have been reissued on CD, and any new performances must inevitably face comparison with those pioneering efforts. I suspect that most of those reading this review who are already partisans of Schuman are familiar with Bernstein’s recordings of the Symphonies Nos. 3, 5, and 8. (They are currently available on Sony SMK-63163—an indispensable recording.) So how does Schwarz’s reading of Schuman’s Eighth compare with Bernstein’s? Schwarz provides a credible and creditable reading, somewhat more precise and more smoothly and carefully phrased than Bernstein’s, but in the process sacrifices Bernstein’s edge-of-the-seat energy and excitement. Somewhat paradoxically, Schwarz’s performance reveals more details, while Bernstein’s displays a more transparent sonority; there is an opacity to Seattle’s orchestral sound that may be more the result of the engineering than of the performance itself. But the result is that Schwarz’s rendition evinces a sense of massiveness and power, while Bernstein’s emphasizes energy and brilliance.

Some of Schuman’s best work was done in collaboration with choreographers—Antony Tudor and, especially, Martha Graham. In fact, the composition I consider to be Schuman’s masterpiece—Judith—was a collaboration with Graham. But preceding that by a couple of years was his first effort for her, called Night Journey. Graham based her work on the Oedipus myth, presented from the mother’s point of view. Although composed in 1947, the music was not made available for concert performance until 1981, when it was published in a scoring for woodwind quintet, piano, and strings. This version was recorded only once previously, in a decent performance by the Endymion Ensemble, conducted by Jon Goldberg, on a CRI LP. What emerges most remarkably from the juxtaposition of this work with the Eighth Symphony, is how much this piece from Schuman’s “middle period” anticipates the later symphony. A most austere work, Night Journey displays the same sort of long, slow reflection that characterizes the first movement of the Eighth Symphony. Schuman biographer Joseph Polisi describes Night Journeyas “introspective, pensive, jagged, and dissonant,” and that pretty much captures it. These long, barren stretches may be viewed by some as self-indulgent, and can try a listener’s patience; they are arguably one of the composer’s chief weaknesses. Perhaps an awareness of this is what led Schuman to wait so long before releasing the work for concert performance. On the other hand it also reveals some arresting dramatic effects, such as the striking consonance of a sustained minor triad in the strings, heard against a descending motif on pitches in sharp tonal conflict with that triad. Schwarz’s performance makes a strong case for the work.

The performance of Variations on “America”was actually taken from a 1992 all-Schuman Delos release and was reviewed favorably at that time in these pages. The other pieces on that disc have been distributed as fillers among the recent Schuman releases on Naxos.