William Schuman (1910-1992)
American Festival Overture
New England Triptych
Symphony No 10 ‘American Muse’
Charles Ives (1874-1954) Variations on ‘America’ (orch. Schuman)
Saint-Louis Symphony Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin
rec. 1991/92, Powell Symphony Hall, St Louis
RCA 09026 612822 
William Schuman was one of a group of mid-twentieth century American symphonists who are little known in the UK. Others include Walter Piston, Roy Harris, David Diamond and Alan Hovhaness. Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein also belong to this group; they are, of course, far better known in the UK, but not primarily for their symphonies. Roger Sessions and Elliott Carter stand rather apart. The others adopt a loosely neoclassical idiom, one which, like Walton or Prokofiev, admits a certain amount of dissonance and is enthusiastic about colourful orchestration but which generally keeps to clear themes and traditional formal structures. Schuman, like Copland, was also strongly nationalistic, and this is reflected in his titles, subject matter and idiom.
Schuman earned his living as a teacher and later as an arts administrator but found time to write a good deal of music. Central to his output were his symphonies. He wrote ten of these, but withdrew the first two. The others have all been recorded by that indefatigable champion of American music, Gerard Schwarz. In addition to this, Bernstein championed the third, on a DG disc now available from Presto, and Slatkin has here championed the tenth.
That is the culminating work here. We begin with the American Festival Overture, which was commissioned by Koussevitzky and was an immediate success. It is a characteristic Schuman work, with leaping lines in the violins, punchy work from the brass and strong punctuation from the timpani. A dreamy middle section establishes a different mood after which there is a lively fugue and a declamatory brass passage. I felt this should have been the close, but actually the piece is a little longer.
The New England Triptych is a work suggested by Ives’s Three Places in New England and, like some of Ives’s works, draws on American hymn tunes by William Billings (1746-1800). The first, Be glad then, America, begins with the timpani, who continue to have a prominent role when the Billings hymn tune enters. The second, When Jesus wept, is a gentle work, beginning with a dialogue between oboe and bassoon. The finale, Chester, uses a perky tune which became a marching song; this gets festooned with woodwind skirling round it. This is a good work.
The Variations on ‘America’ was an organ work by Ives, which Schuman felt he just had to orchestrate. The tune is the one we know better as God save the King, and the piece is really a romp, a jolly send-up of the tune with hints of various styles. It is quite amusing, but, like other funny music, I doubt whether I would want to hear it very often.
The symphony is another matter, Schuman’s culminating work in the form, although he had nearly another twenty years to live. It is in three movements. The first begins with a kind of extended call to arms, with menacing and impressive dissonant brass – I thought briefly of the opening of Tippett’s third symphony. Gradually a long violin line pushes through, but the conflict remains unresolved at the end of the movement. In the second movement we again have a struggling violin line, taken over by a flute and gradually leading to an agonized climax. There are some enigmatic chords on muted brass. The finale is, for me, even more enigmatic. I couldn’t get hold of it at all. There is certainly a strong spirit of exploration with occasional moments of relief with quiet wind chords and tuned percussion.
This is one of the excellent series of recordings of American music made by Slatkin during his time as chief conductor of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra, beautifully presented with pictures by Thomas Hart Benton from his America Today series. It is a very good thing that these recordings are being made available again by Presto. The playing is confident, brash where required but also musical and well phrased. The recording is good. My preferences in Schuman tend to go to the third and fifth symphonies rather than the tenth, but this is a good survey of his work and should win him new friends.
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