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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUMAN, W.: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 / Judith (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
William Schuman juggled many careers in his full and productive life: teacher, administrator, conductor and composer of ten symphonies as well as a significant representation of music in many genres. His two-movement Symphony No. 3, dating from 1941, derives its organization from Baroque era models. Known as Symphony No. 5, though published without a number, the Symphony for Strings is remarkable for its contrapuntal mastery and irresistible rhythmic élan. Judith (1949) was based on the ancient Hebrew tale of the Jewish widow who saved her people by seducing and beheading the despotic general Holofernes. The syncopated score conveys the anxiety and determination of Judith’s heroism.
By David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer
William Schuman (1910-1992)
Symphonies Nos. 3 and 5 • Judith
William Schuman was born on 4 August 1910, in New York City. His first musical studies centered on the violin, though a passion for jazz and popular music led him to teach himself a variety of instruments. On hearing Arturo Toscanini conduct the New York Philharmonic in 1930, Schuman withdrew from the School of Commerce at New York University after a two-year stint there and embarked upon private studies in harmony with Max Persin and counterpoint with Charles Haubiel. Following studies at Columbia University (B.A. from Teachers College, 1935) and at Juilliard with Roy Harris, he joined the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College. In 1943, Schuman won the first Pulitzer Prize in music for his cantata, A Free Song. Two years later he left academe to assume dual rôles as director of publications for G. Schirmer, Inc. and president of the Juilliard School. From 1962 to 1969 he served as president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.
Balancing multiple careers as teacher and administrator, Schuman was able to write a large amount of music. His Second Symphony (1937) caught the collective attention of the musical world when it was performed the following year in New York City. His best-known works are New England Triptych, based on music written by the eighteenth-century American composer William Billings, and his orchestration of Charles Ives's wittily irreverent Variations on "America". He died on 15 February 1992, in New York City.
Schuman put the finishing touches to his Symphony No. 3 in January 1941, though the première with the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky, the score's dedicatee, had to wait until 17 October of that year. The layout of this work is unorthodox: a pair of two-part movements. The opening movement, Passacaglia and Fugue, derives its organization from venerated models reaching back to the Baroque era. A passacaglia is essentially a set of variations over a repeated melodic line generally stated in the bass regions, though Schuman gives the initial statement of the seven-measure theme to the violas. Perhaps the most famous passacaglia is Bach's glorious organ work, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, though undoubtedly the most popular example today is Pachelbel's Canon in D. Like the Pachelbel opus, Schuman's is both a canon and a passacaglia. In common with both Bach's and Pachelbel's, the theme is immediately and lastingly attractive. Unlike "typical" models, Schuman raises the tonal center (beginning on E in the first variation, then moving to F in the second, etc.) in the first several variations, piling additional melodic lines and thereby enriching orchestral textures. With the seventh variation, Schuman presents a new version of the theme announced by strings, horns and trumpets. Finally the jagged-shaped fugal subject emerges, launched by four horns; this part of the movement perfectly reflects the composer's vigoroso marking. As with the passacaglia, the first entrances of the fugue subject arrive in rising semitones.
The subsequent Chorale and Toccata, also stalwarts from the Baroque era, balances the opening double movement. The Chorale, according to Schuman, "really represents the spirit of composition". In contrast with the florid and often rousing first movement, the Chorale is a haven of comparative serenity, its fluent but quiet polyphony serving as a comforting balm brought to us by alternating paragraphs in the strings and winds. Without a break, the energetic Toccata asserts itself with the virtuosity and éclat that were the pride of Koussevitzky's great Boston Symphony.
Two years after completing Symphony No. 3, Schuman composed his Symphony for Strings in Three Movements, un-numbered, yet positioned between his fourth and sixth symphonies, and therefore counted as No. 5. Koussevitzky led the première with the Boston Symphony on 12 November 1943—no surprise, since the new work was commissioned by the Koussevitzsky Foundation and dedicated to the conductor's late wife, Natalie. At the time of its composition Schuman was still teaching at Sarah Lawrence; he would eventually become director of the Koussevitzky Foundation. The Symphony for Strings found a ready audience both in the United States and overseas, and was recorded twice in the years following World War II.
An acknowledged master of counterpoint, Schuman invested this work with all manner of canonic and other imitative devices, impelled by his equally compelling rhythmic intensity. Though in three, rather than the traditional four movements, the Fifth Symphony fits more comfortably into symphonic tradition than does No. 3. The opening Molto agitato ed energico bears the imprint of the time-honored sonata form, its main theme a long and flowing melody sung in unison by violins in low register. A second theme, highly rhythmic and well adapted for fugal elaboration, subtly derives from the main theme. In place of a normal development section, Schuman provides an extended paragraph of chordal movement energized by emphatic variants on fragments from the main tune.
Always mindful of the intellectual side of his craft, Schuman fashioned the ensuing Larghissimo with canonic writing and clever alternations of melodic snippets; yet the fluidly alternating emotions therein, ranging from calm to calamitous, show a characteristic confluence of thought and feeling. The movement closes peacefully in a coda redolent of the opening melody, setting up a fitting contrast with the rondo-based finale. This closing movement is clearly celebratory in mood, notable in having been written before the optimism attendant to the Allied invasion of Europe in 1944. A delectable episode of pizzicato strings inevitably recalls Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, though the syncopated rhythms and "accent" are unmistakably mid-twentieth-century American. The exuberant energy of Schuman's Fifth seems yet all the more remarkable in lacking brass and winds, which by their presence would have more readily assured so blazing a conclusion.
In 1949 the Louisville Orchestra asked the renowned choreographer Martha Graham to create a new ballet score. Graham's stature and personal charisma had induced Aaron Copland to write Appalachian Spring. As with the Copland work and several other commissions, Graham was once again accorded choice of composer for the work-to-be. This time she elected William Schuman, and not for the first time. Three years earlier they had worked together on Night Journey, which had had its première in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on 3 May 1947, and quickly became part of her regular repertoire. Schuman worked on the new score for much of 1949, entrusting the première on 4 January 1950, to Robert Whitney, who led the Louisville Symphony with Graham as soloist.
The title, Judith, refers to the ancient Hebrew story of the so-named beautiful Jewish widow who saved her people from Nebuchadnezzar's army by defeating and personally beheading the Assyrian despot and general Holofernes. Though the plot could have conceivably lent itself to histrionic overstatement—and the first performance certainly created quite a stir—Schuman was ever the consummate craftsman (focusing on the drama within). The opening Adagio, suitably dark in conveying the suffering of the Israelites, presents the backdrop against which Judith swears vengeance in an impassioned plea to God. To accomplish her deed, she exchanges her mourning raiment for seductive garb by which to seduce Holofernes. The syncopated, jazz-inflected music suggests the attendant anxiety and fierceness of purpose behind Judith's actions.
A solo oboe in a section marked Tranquillo precedes the appearance of the licentious villain in a vehement and contrasting Presto. The drunken despot becomes even more intoxicated by the sight of Judith, who invites her into his tent—alone. Here he is smitten, quite literally, by the avenging woman, who after committing the deed of retribution lifts his severed head by the hair. "The Lord has smitten him by the hand of a woman", she tells the villagers.
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