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CD Review

William Schuman


  • Symphony #4
  • Orchestra Song
  • Circus Overture
  • Symphony #9 "Le fosse ardeatine"
Seattle Symphony Orchestra/Gerard Schwarz
Naxos 8.559254 63:25
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Summary for the Busy Executive: War work and diversions.

Some composers, like Debussy, create music like an artist paints. Others, like Bloch, write musical epics. Nielsen composes instrumental dramas. Virgil Thomson creates terse Japanese lyrics. Ives philosophizes like Thoreau or Emerson. Schuman writes essays. That is, he concerns himself mainly with clear musical argument.

Schuman's Fourth, from the early Forties, consolidated his reputation as a major American symphonist after the acclaim that greeted his Third. Curiously, the Fourth doesn't sound as characteristic of Schuman's music as the Third. The influence of Copland, then probably at the height of his career, pervades it, particularly the Copland of the Short Symphony, and Schuman had in fact submitted his score to the older composer for criticism. However, unlike Copland, who consciously strove to create an "American" music (via Stravinsky), Schuman, in the next generation, tended to take the American qualities in his music for granted. He expressed mainly himself and in so doing manifested certain qualities (especially rhythmic ones) associated with music of the New World. He also was, to a large extent, hipped on counterpoint – academic, sectional, and his own special brand. However, his symphonic construction is anything but conventional. Indeed, the Fourth Symphony doesn't follow so much as it analogizes sonata and rondo form. Connections between movements assume just as much importance in Schuman's construction. Perhaps he picked up this outlook from his teacher, Roy Harris, also an odd master builder and gaga over counterpoint. Indeed, all the works here show far more virtuosic counterpoint, indeed revel in it, than those of most other American composers during the same period.

The Fourth begins with what becomes a passacaglia, begun (unusually) with solo bass and oboe. Above the bass, a repeated-note idea engenders several extensions. This leads to an allegro – a burst of repeated notes followed by a new tail, one which has consequences throughout the symphony. Schuman develops this as a fugato. The passacaglia bass is also treated in fugato by the winds and then the strings. The allegro returns with the tail (from now on referred to as the Big Theme) prominent. A double fugato follows, based the Big Theme and the repeated-note idea. The Big Theme emerges triumphant at the end.

The second movement, one of the loveliest in all of Schuman, opens with a sad arioso for the strings only. We hear in succession a passage for flute and brass, a fugato for winds, and a section for high brass and low strings. A new section, based on the repeated-note head in the first movement, provides contrast. The movement closes with a varied recap of the opening.

A contrapuntal extravaganza, the finale opens with yet another shot of repeated notes. Although one notes the similarities to other Forties symphonists like Piston, this movement strikes me as Schuman at his most characteristic – nervous, bright, incisive. Throughout this first section, the Big Theme begins to emerge. A series of remarkable fugatos on three ideas – a long, tied note followed by yet another stammer of quick repeated notes; the Big Theme (a section handled by the strings); and just the rapid notes. Schuman then gives us a grand contrapuntal summing up with all these ideas jostling one another. In the course of this, the rough edges of the Big Theme are knocked off, and it becomes increasingly diatonic and more prominent. In its new form, it ends the symphony.

I think of the Orchestra Song (1963) as a composer's holiday. Schuman has written a goofy quodlibet on an absolutely trivial tune, which sounds like it comes from somewhere over the Tyrol – kind of an orchestral yodel. On the other hand, the counter-tunes get increasingly complex and one hears at least seven of them, including one featuring complexly rhythmic percussion. It's as if someone told you an inane joke (with variations, sort of like "The Aristocrats") over and over, until eventually your defenses cracked and you collapsed in a giggle fit. Schuman rounds it off with a perfect bit of silliness.

The Circus Overture (also known as Side Show) comes from 1944, when the Allies had begun to win the war in Europe. To me, there's very little "circus" to it. Written for a Billy Rose "quality" Broadway revue that never came to fruition, the overture is a hard-driving toccata, similar to the finale of Schuman's later New England Triptych, which relents a bit by surrealistically melting into a triple-time episode and then back again, like a Dali watch.

During the war, Italian partisans ambushed and killed 32 German soldiers. In reprisal, the Nazis gathered more than 300 innocent Italian men, women, and children into the Ardeatine Caves and mowed them down. They then bombed the bodies. The site became a memorial which Schuman visited in 1967. Schuman completed his Ninth Symphony, subtitled "Le fosse ardeatine," in 1968. I bought the initial recording with Ormandy and the Philadelphia, who had recently premièred the work. Like most of Schuman's late music, it gives the overall impression of somber meditation, although it has plenty of, at least, rhythmic contrast. Its three continuous movements – "Anteludium," "Offertorium," "Postludium" – suggest a church rite, particularly a requiem mass. The structure (and the timings) suggest that the middle section carries the weight of the symphony. The offertory, of course, prays for the release of the souls from torment.

The symphony begins with a single line, played by the violins and the cellos two octaves apart. As more instruments enter, the music becomes increasingly agitated, over what sounds like the constant muttering of the opening idea. It ends on chord-clusters consisting of, it seems like, the notes of that idea.

Schuman conceived of the central movement as "lighter" – a celebration of the lives the victims might have lived. But "lighter" is a relative term. Certainly the rhythms are livelier, but a harmonic pall covers everything. At the end, the air quietly and simply goes out of the music, and we find ourselves in the "Postludium," essentially a series of chorales. The first moves slowly with suppressed anger. It leads to a dead march, with prominent (though quiet) percussion. An emotionally complex benediction begins in the strings – for me, if not for Schuman, it bears the emotional weight of the symphony. However, it refuses to leave quietly. Threats boil beneath the tight lid of the surface. At times, anger bursts through. In the last minute, the music builds up to a final cry.

The symphony puts you through an emotional wringer, mainly because Schuman doesn't make connections to the factual event explicit through the music. If he had omitted the subtitle, the symphony would have still made a devastating, though slightly different, effect. It's the inner program, not the outer one, that touches us so powerfully.

Schwarz's Fourth competes with one from David Alan Miller and the Albany Symphony on Albany TROY566. Miller, I think, leads a sharper, more direct first movement, closer to what I think of as Schuman's characteristic sound. However, he hurries the slow movement, robbing it of its due weight, and his finale moves less coherently than Schwarz's. Overall, Schwarz's broader reading wins out and, excepting the first movement, yields nothing in clarity to Miller. Schwarz also wins out over Ormandy in the Ninth, but then Ormandy and the Philadelphia were playing complex music just after the ink had dried. I'm certain Schwarz learned something from Ormandy's pioneering account and the intervening years.

My single favorite track on the CD is the Circus Overture. Schwarz gives us the musical essence of Schuman in a bravura reading. Obviously, he has connected deeply with Schuman's art. An outstanding release in Naxos's American series.

Copyright © 2011, Steve Schwartz.