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ClassicsOnline Home » SCHUMAN, W.: Symphony No. 6 / Prayer in a Time of War / New England Triptych (Seattle Symphony, Schwarz)
‘Whatever meaning my life has is to be found in the music itself’, declared William Schuman of his extraordinary career as a composer and artistic catalyst in the fertile and evolving environment of 20th-century America. His single-movement Symphony No. 6 stands as one of his most intense and integrated, its somberness enlivened with intricate rhythms and startling counterpoint. Prayer in a Time of War and New England Triptych highlight Schuman’s abiding sense of patriotism, the former written soon after America’s entry into World War II, the latter based on hymns from the time of the American Revolution.
By Merlin Patterson
By Bob Neill
Positive Feedback Online
By Walter Simmons
William Schuman (1910–1992): Symphony No. 6
Prayer in a Time of War • New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings
Few people have had a greater impact on the performing arts in America than William Schuman. He made up for the late start in his musical studies by becoming one of the most distinguished composers of the twentieth century, as well as president of The Juilliard School and then Lincoln Center. He composed over one hundred works for various genres, although his great love was writing for orchestra. Schuman saw his music as an integral part of his persona, saying, “Whatever meaning my life has is to be found in the music itself.” William Schuman’s extraordinary life as composer and arts leader reflects his role as an artistic catalyst within the fertile and evolving environment of twentieth-century America.
Symphony No. 6
After the psychologically arduous process of creating dance music for the renowned choreographers Antony Tudor in Undertow (1945) and Martha Graham in Night Journey (1947), Schuman returned to his first compositional love with the creation of his Sixth Symphony. Its somber quality is doubtless influenced by the “darkness” of the Tudor and Graham works. The Sixth Symphony has been called craggy, dark, and emotionally impenetrable, but it stands as one of Schuman’s finest works for its structural cohesion and musical intensity. It also represents a new maturity in Schuman’s compositional approach.
Commissioned by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra League, the symphony was given its première by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, Antal Doráti conducting, on 27 February 1949. Schuman was not pleased with the first performance, saying that the Dallas audience “found the Symphony utterly without appeal. In fact, some were so incensed with the work that they questioned whether they should even complete payment of the commission.”
The symphony is distinctive for its masterly integration of the orchestra choirs in a 28–minute work of melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic complexity, with musical material rarely-repeated. Its single movement is composed of six interconnected parts—Largo, Moderato con moto, Leggieramente, Adagio, Allegro risoluto–Presto, and Larghissimo. Doráti commented in a program note for the première that “the first and last parts…provide a frame for the work; or…have a
similar function as the two piers of a bridge—to hold and support the span of the whole structure.”
The opening Largo at the very slow tempo of half note = 40 juxtaposes somber brass and woodwind chords against an extended muted first violin line with dissonant chordal accompaniments in the winds. Schuman breaks up this somberness by soon introducing a frenetic, almost eccentric piccolo and then flute passage of rapid sixteenth and thirty-second notes. Solo violin, woodwind, and brass lines add piquancy to the glacial pace of this introductory section. The ensuing Moderato con moto, at the quicker tempo of quarter note = c. 96, features brassy, bass-heavy lines that position the brass and strings in counterpoint of considerable complexity. Using all the instruments in intricate juxtapositions, Schuman weaves a unique aural texture both abstract and intense, combining skittish syncopated rhythms with excited brass chords. A long timpani solo then segues into the Leggieramente section (half note = 96), where the intensity continues in syncopated string figures driving to frenetic solo woodwind lines. Once again Schuman introduces his familiar brass chords, but this time with meter and accent changes that add a jagged quality to the line. With intricate rhythmic accompaniments in the strings and complex contrapuntal writing, Schuman creates a compositional tour de force of enormous intensity.
The next section, Adagio (quarter note = c. 48), introduces a calm atmosphere, although the intricate counterpoint heard earlier in the woodwinds and strings continues the complex texture of earlier sections. A solo violin against solo clarinet provides a soulful duo as pizzicato strings develop a pulse-like accompaniment. Ensuing intertwining melodies in the oboe and horn add to the serene quality of this section. It is here that one encounters the only obvious repetition of a musical motive, when trumpets and trombones play the chords
heard at the very beginning of the work.
This calm is broken by a series of accelerandi moving to the Allegro risoluto–Presto section characterized by intense and, as Schuman instructs, “wild” and “strident” passages of offbeat eighth notes, snare drum rim shots, sharply accented notes in the strings and triple forte chords in the brass that create
multiple instrumental lines intertwining in a whirl of dense aural power. Finally an insistent timpani part against brass and lower woodwind chords slows the pace considerably, leading to the final Larghissimo section, in which astringent and sustained string lines are punctuated by unison rhythmically complex parts in the brass. The mood turns contemplative as the strings play an unbroken line of triple piano chords through divisi bowing. As bells toll in the final measures, the Symphony comes to a solemnly hushed ending through a morendo triple piano passage in the lower strings.
Prayer in a Time of War
Schuman was a patriotic citizen, reflecting the values of his father, Sam, a veteran of the Spanish-American War. With America’s entry into World War II after the December 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, Schuman attempted to enlist in the armed forces but was ultimately rejected owing to a lifelong muscular deficiency. The rejection was a crushing personal blow, but Schuman received timely and wise advice from Carl Engel, his publisher at G. Schirmer, who said, “Write a piece of music. Take it out in music.”
The resulting work reflects the many emotions that Schuman surely felt at the time, from somber to heroic to soulful, although the overall aura of the composition is solemn. Prayer in a Time of War (originally entitled Prayer, 1943) was given its première by Fritz Reiner and the Pittsburgh Symphony on 26 February 1943.
Prayer begins at the slow tempo of quarter note = 60 with a bell-like forte chord in woodwinds and strings that quickly decreases in volume to piano. Schuman
skillfully meshes a consistent pulse in a pianissimo viola line with a slowly-evolving melody for solo French horn, foreshadowing his 1947 work Night Journey. This somber atmosphere continues as a long solo oboe melody is supported with a rhythmic pulse in the violas and cellos, eventually moving to a Più animato…section with a newly-introduced brassy quality. Intensely accented passages in strings and brass move the composition to its central, more hopeful mood with an energetic “con moto, half note = 120–132” section. Schuman marks the fluid cello line at the beginning “smooth, even, like plain chant,” underpinning the prayer-like quality of the overall piece, and he continues to indicate “chant like” as each new instrumental group enters with the melody.
This central part moves seamlessly to a section of triumphant brass lines that is a mixture of fanfares and agitated string parts playing animated eighth-note triplets. This in turn accelerates to a new section at the faster tempo of “half note = c. 144 marcato,” where Schuman energizes the work with accented chords and his distinctive “flourishes” (bursts of rapid sixteenth notes irregularly interrupted by sixteenth rests) in the violins, violas, and cellos.
Ultimately Schuman returns to the somber nature of the beginning through ominous-sounding passages played by timpani, snare drum, and tam-tam, then moves to a solo trumpet line accompanied by snare drum and pizzicato lower strings and a mellifluous obbligato first violin melody. This final section brings to mind commemorative battlefield music commonly associated with the trumpet and snare drum. Prayer ends quietly and soulfully on the same chord that began the work, with a diminuendo in the strings reflecting the prayerful quality of the overall piece.
New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings
New England Triptych is perhaps the most beloved work in Schuman’s oeuvre, as well as his most frequently performed original composition. Based on hymns of the Revolutionary War era by William Billings, it is an audience favorite thanks to its accessibility and energy. Here Schuman allowed his exuberance, patriotism, and joie de vivre to come forward, as if he had consciously thrown off the highly intellectual and compositionally erudite style of previous works.
The piece came to life through a commission from Andre Kostelanetz, a mid-twentieth–century conductor famous for his pops concerts. Kostelanetz requested that the work “be in a light vein with a ready appeal for many people, and should run about eight to ten minutes in length. I would like to suggest that the work might be of a programmatic nature, with an American background.”
New England Triptych had its première in Miami on 28 October 1956, with Andre Kostelanetz conducting the University of Miami Symphony Orchestra; this was followed by a performance on 3 November by the New York Philharmonic, again conducted by Kostelanetz.
Schuman recalled being asked: “‘Why don’t you write another New England Triptych? Don’t you want another success?’ I always say I would love another success, but I didn’t write the piece to make it a success, it just happened to turn out to be successful.”
The composer provided his own program note for New England Triptych (reproduced below for the first movement). He explained that William Billings (1746– 1800) was a major figure in the history of American music and that his works “capture the spirit of sinewy ruggedness, deep religiosity and patriotic fervor that we associate with the Revolutionary period ... These pieces do not constitute a ‘fantasy’ on themes of Billings, nor ‘variations’ on his themes, but rather a fusion of styles and musical language.” Schuman continued:
I. Be Glad Then, America
“A timpani solo begins the short introduction which is developed predominantly in the strings. Trombones and trumpets begin the main section, a free and varied setting of the words “Be Glad Then, America, Shout and Rejoice.” The timpani, again solo, leads to a middle fugal section stemming from the words “And Ye Shall Be Satisfied.” The music gains momentum and combined themes lead to a climax. There follows a free adaptation of the “Hallelujah” music with which Billings concludes his original choral piece and a final reference to the “Shout and Rejoice” music.”
II. When Jesus Wept
The use of a low-pitched tenor drum and the juxtaposition of the bassoon and oboe lines at the beginning of the movement introduce the hymn tune in a somber texture. Schuman then transforms the tune to develop a much more contemporary harmonic setting.
Schuman writes only for one oboe, one bassoon, tenor drum, and strings in this movement. The string section is primarily responsible for the various treatments of the theme, often written divisi and always muted.
The reintroduction of the bassoon and oboe with dotted whole-note string accompaniment once again changes the texture of the movement and eventually brings it to a somber end with a diminuendo in the tenor drum.
The dignified presentation of the hymn theme at the movement’s beginning is quickly transformed at the Allegro vivo (quarter note = 160), where the melody is played at twice the earlier tempo by flutes, oboes, and clarinets, with militant and incessant downbeats played by brass and strings.
Schuman then introduces his distinctive “flourishes” as melodic material for only the woodwinds, with the strings eventually taking up the theme on tremolo eighth notes. A quasi-fanfare in flutes and piccolo, horns, and trumpets further adds to the movement’s playful vivacity. The military quality of this Revolutionary War marching song played by a
brass choir is enhanced by the addition of a stately snare and bass drum figure. Schuman then positions the music for its conclusion by introducing first the brass, then the woodwind and string choirs with eighth-note triplets that drive the composition to a new level of energy. Flourishes, snare drum solos, triumphant brass chords, and a roaring timpani part bring the work to a close on a triple-forte E-flat major chord.
Joseph W. Polisi
Joseph W. Polisi is currently the sixth president of The Juilliard School. Excerpts from his most recent book, American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman, appear in these notes.
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