William Schuman (1910-1992): Violin Concerto / New England Triptych
Charles Ives (1874-1954): Variations on America
William Schuman had several successful simultaneous careersin music, as composer, educator and administrator. After teaching for ten yearsat Sarah
Lawrence College, he became president of the Juilliard Schoolof Music, and then the first president of the newly inaugurated Lincoln Centerfor the Performing Arts in New York. Schuman was by then, according to the NewYork Times, probably the most powerful figure in the world of art music.
Besides his full-time positions, he found the time to be director of the KoussevitzkyMusic Foundation, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, the Chamber Music Societyof Lincoln Center, the National Endowment for the Arts, the NationalEducational Television network and the Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Born in New York, Schuman started to compose while stillin high school, and was soon organizing jazz ensembles. His early interest inmusic was focused on popular music and jazz. He studied at Columbia University Teachers College, and took private composition lessons from Roy Harris at Juilliard.
Harris was a great influence, both in Schuman's development as a composer andin his career. It was Harris who first interested Serge Koussevitzky in hisstudent's works. In turn, Koussevitzky was one of the first conductors to performhis music. The violinist Samuel Dushkin commissioned Schuman's Violin Concertoexpecting to give the first performance with Koussevitzky and the BostonSymphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky, however, left the orchestra the year beforethe premiere in 1950, and the first performance was given by Isaac Stern, and conductedby Koussevitzky's successor in Boston, Charles Munch.
Schuman's compositions include the 1939 AmericanFestival Overture, one of his earliest successes, a Concerto for Pianoand Orchestra, the ballets Undertow and Night Journey, tensymphonies, four string quartets, choral works, film scores, Credendum
(commissioned by the United States government) and A Free Song, whichwon the first Pulitzer Prize in Music.
The Violin Concerto is one of Schuman's most powerfulworks. Emotionally packed, it could almost be considered a symphony for violinand orchestra. Rather than "accompanying" the soloist in the classictradition, the orchestra becomes a participant in the high drama. The work isindeed extremely theatrical, evoking powerful emotions in a highly chargedromantic atmosphere. Schuman was a poet at heart. His earliest interestsactually included the writing of poetry. The concerto has some of the mostpoetic music ever written by Schuman. The work underwent several transformationsafter each of the first performances. Schuman seemed unsatisfied with the form,eventually settling for the final version of two very large movements insteadof the original three. The final version of the work was performed by Roman Totenbergat the Aspen Festival in Colorado in 1959.
The first movement starts bluntly, as if the theatre curtainhad gone up and the stage lights went on all at once. It grabs the attention.
The main motif that will link the entire work, and re-appear in many disguises,is stated at the outset by the soloist. The forward motion carries the musicthrough the first of many dialogues between the violin and the woodwind, butsuddenly it halts, a dramatic and unexpected stop. The dramatic music continuesbuilding up to a climax. It slowly dissipates, leading to a middle section, anintimate molto tranquillo of chamber music quality, a poetic, nostalgicviolin line supported by tenuous strings, with comments from the solo clarinetand flute, a most romantic gesture. After the horn adds another lovely touch,the music builds up speed and momentum, with a fast section by the soloist andplucked strings, an imaginative coupling. This leads to the violin cadenza, whichSchuman added after one of the early revisions (soloists wanted it), followedby a nervous rhythmic pulsation in the strings against which the soloist intonesthe recurrent motif, The brass takes over from the strings, with the first ofseveral brilliant passages that contrast the lyrical solo violin against apulsating brass rhythm. Suddenly the speed picks up, all at once, like a suddenchange of scene. Broken rhythms abound, this time with most of the orchestrapicking up the earlier brass accompaniment. It explodes into another big orchestralclimax, leading to a brilliant conclusion.
The opening of the second movement features the solotimpani, one of Schuman's trademarks. After this very dramatic openingsubsides, the solo violin takes over in a very subdued, cantabile fashion,somewhat reminiscent of the middle section of the first movement. A tiny newviolin cadenza sets the drama in motion once again, leading to anunexpected fugue by the strings. This eventually leads to a most imaginative dialoguebetween the solo violin and the woodwinds, one of the most complicated anddifficult passages in the work. The brass literally puts an end to this mayhem,and eventually takes over, with another one of the rhythmic dialogues betweentrombones and solo violin. After a couple of these interpolations, the solo finallystarts to calm down, leading for the last time to the slow, lyrical section,reminiscent of the previous cantabile passages. Not for long. The momentumpicks up rather quickly, leading to a hair-raising finale, in which the soloistbecomes just one more participant.
Finally, the orchestra takes over.
New England Triptych, commissioned by Andre Kostelanetz,and first given under his direction by the Orchestra of the University of Miami,soon became one of Schuman's most popular works. He wrote the following notesfor the first performances.
William Billings (1744-1800) is a major figure in the historyof American music. His works capture the spirit of sinewy ruggedness, deepreligiosity, and patriotic fervor that we associate with the Revolutionaryperiod in American history. I am not alone among American composers who feel asense of identity with Billings, which accounts for my use of his music as adeparture point. These three pieces are not a "fantasy" nor"variations" on themes of Billings, but rather a fusion of styles andmusical language. Billings, text for Be Glad then America includes thefollowing lines:
Yea, the Lord willanswer
And say unto hispeople-behold
I will send youcorn and wine and oil
And ye shall besatisfied there with.
Be glad then, America,
Shout and rejoice.
Fear not O land,
Be glad andrejoice.
After a short introduction by the solo timparti, the stringsdevelop music that suggests the "Halleluyah" heard at the end of thepiece.