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William Schuman Review

SYMPHONIES #3,SYMPHONY FOR STRINGS(#5) & #8
Leonard Bernstein, Conductor
New York Philharmonic
Sony Classical 63163
by Keith Barrett

    On November 10, 1997 I broadcast a program on Monday Evening Classics which was built around a CD release which gave us, available for the first time, the New York Philharmonic debut of Leonard Bernstein, which occurred on Nov.14, 1943. Besides airing that broadcast concert, I also aired several Columbia LP's of Bernstein's. I purposely chose recordings of music recorded by Bernstein which had not yet seen the light of silver. I was upset, stating so on the air, with the Leonard Bernstein rerelease program of Sony Classical which now owns the entire Columbia/CBS Records back catalogue. While Sony had put out a large amount of Bernstein's recordings, they seemed to ignore one special group of recordings. That of American music which wasn't by Gershwin, Copland, Ives or Bernstein himself. One of the recordings I chose was of the magnificent Symphony #8 of William Schuman, commissioned by the New York Phil. for the opening of Lincoln Center and premiered by Bernstein with that orchestra in Oct. 1962. How could such an important recording continue to sit in Sony's vaults? Well as you can see by the headnote, my wishes have come true. Sony has begun a new series of Bernstein releases, which include not only this disc, but one featuring the music of Lukas Foss and another disc with music of Barber and Schuman.
    Who could have predicted the fate of a young William Schuman? In his early days he was the banjo playing leader of a dance band. A writer of some 40 odd popular songs, including efforts with a just beginning young lyricist named Frank Loesser. Schuman was in college studying business when his sister took him to hear the New York Phil harmonic. With this, his first contact with classical music, Schuman literally dropped everything he was doing and decided to become a classical composer. Not only did be become one of our great composers, but also a colossus in the American music scene, directing the Julliard School for many years and then directing Lincoln Center in New York.
    Schuman stated of his work, "A composition must have two fundamental ingredients-emotional vitality and intellectual vigor." He practiced this all his life with music which I feel has great emotional depth and power. His compositional style is marked by a strong attention to melody, but not of the four -square sentimental, romantic kind. Instead his melodies are taut and sinuous, sweeping and open ended, and they have power! His music is suffused with an incredible rhythmic drive. Even if you can't whistle the tunes, you can tap your foot to the driving rhythmic force. In Schuman's music we also find intense linear counterpoint. One of his favorite techniques is to have two or three rhythmic drives superimposed on one another. For instance we will find a long, slow moving melody, say in the strings, with much faster rhythmic punctuation's from the brass and at medium speed, chordal movement in the winds. The counterpoint is linear in that the three musical ideas are of equal importance. interconnected but with a life of their own. In his orchestral writing he often plays different sections of the orchestra off each other and many times will give extended sections of music to just the winds, or the brass, for instance. Finally there is his harmonic writing. Always with a tonal base, his early works, feature a wide spaced American sound with a healthy spicing of dissonance. His later style crystallized into a unique sound world of dissonant chord and harmonic structures. If one can use the visual arts as an analogy, his earlier works are like richly colored landscapes, and the later works are finely chiseled, powerfully overwhelming sculptures. After all in the 40's Schuman produced the vigorous American Festival Overture, the great baseball opera The Mighty Casey, and works based on newsreels and the Sears catalog.
    Schuman produced 10 symphonies during his long lifetime which spanned from 1910-1992, although he withdrew the first two. This disc begins with his great 3rd symphony from 1941. Considered one of "holy trinity" of 3rd symphonies from the forties, the others being by Roy Harris and Aaron Copland.
    This piece should be in everyone’s collection. It is hard to imagine anyone not liking this work. It is in two movements, with each movement split in two. All four movements draw their form from earlier ages. Thus we have in order a Passacaglia and Fugue and a Chorale and Toccata with all the themes descending from the opening passacaglia. The whole work is a masterwork from the opening strains in the violas to the final driving 2:00 minutes of the toccata. This 1960 recording is fabulous, infused by Bernstein with tremendous vitality and drive. The orchestral playing is topnotch and risk taking. (Just listen to those wild trumpet section chorales). Bernstein would later release a live 1985 recording on Deutsche Grammophon with this game group. While the overall timings of the two readings almost match, the later recording lingers over the slower sections, and pushes some of the faster sections. I feel that the earlier recording has the slight edge in interpretation. However, the sound is another thing altogether. DG's sound from 1985 is quite warm and detailed but the 1960 recording has troubles. It is overreverberant, and somewhat harsh on the highs, lacking in the bass and muddy in clarity and detail. None of this makes the recording unlistenable though and it is still well worth the listen, especially for this early searing hot interpretation by Bernstein and the 1960's New York Phil. I suspect the problem is the recording venue which was the Manhattan Center. The other two works were recorded in Avery Fischer Hall and are in excellent 1960's sound, not quite to the level of Mercury Living Presence or today's best digital recordings, but quite good.
    The 5th Symphony is quite simply, in my opinion, one of this centuries great works for string orchestra, and this recording is a fine reading. An other product of the 40's this three movement piece is still in his earlier American style and features a long elegiac 2nd movement with touches of a Shostakovich Adagio. Finally, this disc restores to the catalog the only recording of Schuman's 8th Symphony. Taped just days after its premier by these forces, it is a stunning work in three movements, but played without pause. The first movement is dark, sparkling, in tense. It gives way to a brooding deeply felt slow movement, which begins with a long stretch for strings alone, eventually adding mystical harps and bells. The percussion announce the beginning of the third movement. Fast, powerful with a breathtaking ending. A work which tests every section of the orchestra, it invites and rewards multiple listening. Bernstein and the orchestra are just incredible. I am thrilled to have' this work available on disc once again.
    I have been quite taken by and committed to the music of Schuman for sometime, having already broadcast a cycle of the complete symphonies on WWUH. At present no record company has given us a William Schuman Symphony cycle complete and to acquire all the symphonies one must search the catalogs of many companies. The 9th symphony can only be found in the used record shops on a fabulous 1971 RCA LP which also includes the Persichetti 9th. In any event, pick up this disc while you can. It is conveniently at mid level price. Let us hope for more of the Bernstein/Schuman recorded legacy.

Copyright©WWUH: March/April Program Guide, 1998

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