It seems to me that in today’s new music scene, for the most part, there are very few “American” composers. There are loads of composers who are American, but very few “American” composers. There is a difference: a composer who is American (or French, or British, or from whatever land, just change the country) is from and lives in America. An “American” composer (or again, French, British, ect) is someone who takes pride in their nation’s musical heritage, and there are distinct national qualities in their work. This also goes for any art medium. There are “American” composers living now, I first think of the minimalists or post-minimalists (Reich, Glass, Adams), because minimalism was developed in America, by Americans. But for me, one of the greatest “American” composers of all time, is William (Bill) Howard Schuman, born August 4th, 1910. That makes this last Monday his 114th birthday.
As well as being a very prolific composer, Schuman was probably the most influential arts administrator of the 20th century. He taught at Sarah Lawrence college for 10 years, and then went to a school you may have heard of, Juilliard. He completely rewrote the curriculum, and while he was there, the dance department was added, and he also founded the Juilliard String Quartet, which is a phenomenal group (I have a recording of them playing the 6 Bartok Quartets, and, damn). He then left Juilliard to go be the president of another place you may have heard of, the Lincoln Center.
Throughout his life he earned many, many awards, including the first Pulitzer prize, but that isn’t too important to me. What is important to me is the music he wrote. He wrote 10 symphonies, but withdrew the first two, so we are left with 3 – 10. His violin concerto is a virtuoso masterpiece. The “New England Triptych” and “American Festival Overture” are probably his most performed pieces. All of his music, for me at least, defines “American” music; the orchestration is without parallel, the lines are long and wide in their range, the harmonies are punchy and gritty. There is a boldness, and an incredibly strong sense of rugged individualism. In the later works, the music becomes darker, and in the words of more than one commentator, craggy, but still, it is Schuman. I keep coming back to his music, and it just keeps getting better for me.
Happy Birthday Bill. I will leave his 8th Symphony as the postlude to this post. It is a dark and strange work, very difficult to wrap your head around. The first few times I heard it, I couldn’t make sense of it at all, but I keep coming back to it, and it becomes more clear every time. It’s a masterpiece, one that doesn’t ever get performed, but a masterpiece none-the-less. Listen for the bizarre orchestration in the first movement (muted brass and harp!) and the skittish, jazzy finale.