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CD Review

William Schuman


  • Symphony #3 (1941)
  • Symphony for Strings (#5) (1943)
  • Symphony #8 (1962)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leonard Bernstein
Sony SK63163
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Executive Summary: Landmark works in the history of American Music in magnificent performances. Essential to anyone with an interest in music since 1900.

The Third Symphony of William Schuman was introduced by the Boston Symphony with Serge Koussevitzky conducting. There is a bold, extroverted optimism that permeates this dazzling work. It is almost unbelievable to imagine that Schuman had only heard his first orchestral concert some eleven years before completing this Symphony.

It is divided into two parts, the first, a flowing passacaglia with long lines followed by a bold, dynamic fugue. The second part begins with a contemplative choral which builds to an impassioned statement and concludes with a rhythmically stirring Toccata, brilliantly orchestrated; an explosion of positivism. This is not subtle music, it speaks in large gestures and its musical argument is clear and the language direct; it commands your attention. The rhythms of jazz are integral to the music. The melodic lines are long but always vocal in nature. As Schuman said on several occasions, the melodic line was at the root of his music. The harmonic style of the Third is based upon polychordal structures derived from the superimposition of triads, frequently producing the simultaneous presence of major and minor. His orchestration in this work is clear and highly differentiative. He handles the orchestra as distinct instrumental groups with minimal use of doubling between the groups. This clarity in the orchestration is very much in line with the clear formal structure and the directness of expression to be found in the thematic material. It is music with a clear purpose.

The Fifth Symphony is scored for string orchestra. As with most of his music, the form is clear and the thematic material direct. The second movement contains some of Schuman's most lyrical writing. The thematic material for the opening of that movement can also be found in Schuman's short piano work, Three Score Set. The finale is vigorous music which clearly owes its rhythmic impetus to jazz. It is easy to understand why this Symphony, along with the New England Triptych and his orchestration of the Ives Variations on America is amongst his most open performed works.

The Eighth Symphony is an orchestral tour de force. From the opening chords you know this is something different. You are confronted with distinctive, and quite original orchestration for the accompaniment of a long solo in the french horn. The dissonant quality of the harmonic vocabulary is heightened by a relatively conventional harmonic rhythm usually associated with a less strident harmonic structure. Relative dissonances are offered on strong beats with the use of brass and percussion strengthening the intensity. The entire first movement has the character of lament tinged with bitterness. The second movement is in the nature of an orchestral song. The finale is difficult to describe. The metaphor that comes to mind is a moto perpertuo from hell. The pace is almost unrelenting as screams along the way. I would find it difficult to imagine anyone not being effected for there is a level of intensity that one rarely finds in music. While there is strength in the thematic material, it is clearly the scoring that brings out the emphasis. This becomes clear when one listens to the finale as it was originally conceived, as the last movement of his 4th String Quartet. This Symphony is not an easy listen but the conventional formal structure and rhythmic style, with plenty of references to jazz, including a vibraphone solo, provide a clear sense of direction and drama. There are few works that come to mind that covey such an overwhelming sense of power.

The friendship between Bernstein and Schuman went back many years. When at the urging of Copland, Serge Koussevitzky performed Schuman's Second Symphony, it was Leonard Bernstein who met Schuman at the train station when he arrived for the performance. The two men remained friends the rest of the their lives. It was Bernstein who worked with Schuman suggesting cuts in the Third Symphony. With Bernstein's understanding of vernacular of American Music, he was well suited to capture the intensity to be found in Schuman music. Ormandy made the first recording of the Third Symphony. It is quite good, but suffers from dry sonics and less facility with the rhythmic gestures. Of the dozen broadcast recordings I have, performances by Monteux, Koussevitzky and Krips are excellent but Bernstein really captures the excitement of this music best. With the Fifth Symphony Bernstein gets my vote as well over recordings by Steinberg, Schenkman and a broadcast tape of Koussevitzky. When it comes to the Eighth, Bernstein's commercial recording is outpaced only by a concert recording of first performance with Bernstein conducting. The breakneck pace of that reading is almost terrifying, a notion that may be difficult to believe to those already familiar with the commercial recording.

Bernstein's interpretations of the music of Schuman should not be viewed as the final word. I value highly some very distinctive and credible broadcast performances of the Sixth and Tenth by de Waart, the Eighth by Martinon, who find the poetry, the Seventh by Munch, a performance from Tanglewood that will knock your socks off, and others but when it comes to capturing the jazz elements and the dynamic expression of Schuman's music, Bernstein was it. If these works are not considered classics of the American Symphonic literature, they should be, for in my mind they capture the excitement, optimism, and positivism that represents the best notions of what constitutes the "American Spirit." While a fair amount of tape hiss can be heard in the Third Symphony, the transfers are otherwise excellent.

November 7 1997

Copyright © 1997, Karl Miller