Born William Howard Schuman, August 4, 1910, in New York, NY; died following hip surgery, February 15, 1992, in New York, NY; son of Samuel (a printing-firm executive) and Ray Heilbrunn Schuman; married Frances Prince, 1936; children: Anthony William, Andrea Frances Weiss. Education : Attended New York University School of Commerce, 1928-30; studied harmony with Max Persin; studied counterpoint with Charles Haubiel; attended summer courses at Juilliard, 1932, 1933; studied conducting at Salzburg Mozarteum, 1935; Columbia University Teachers College, B.S., 1935, M.A., 1937, Mus.D., 1954; studied composition with Roy Harris, 1936-38. Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, NY, choir director and faculty member, 1935-45; G. Schirmer (music publisher), special publications consultant, 1945-52; The Juilliard School, president, 1945-62; Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, president 1962-69. Works commissioned from the Martha Graham dance company, Koussevitzsky Music Foundation, Ford Foundation, New York Philharmonic Orchestra, and Boston Symphony Orchestra; special commission for the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty, 1985.

William Schuman had an ordinary childhood in New York City, with little to suggest that he would become a successful composer and leader in the music community. Schuman took violin lessons, albeit reluctantly, and his family often amused themselves by playing music together--a common form of domestic recreation in the early part of the century. At school, Schuman's interests lay more in sports and the theater than in music. Looking back, he once told an interviewer, "Had I been a better catcher, I might never have been a musician." Yet there was a powerful appeal in the growing popularity of jazz in the 1920s, and the young man was gradually drawn to musical pursuits.

Schuman used his considerable administrative talents to organize a jazz band. He sang, played the fiddle, the banjo, and the other instruments in the band, and he also arranged music for the group. New York City, with its ever-active nightlife, was a "learning laboratory" for him, and he often found musicians willing to give him pointers. He once attempted to write out a song, took it to a band, gave them cigarettes, and asked them to play and critique it. As Schuman recalled later in The New Criterion, one told him, "Well you can't have a trombone play a B-natural there or you'll break his arm!"

Schuman wrote over one hundred songs between the ages of 16 and 21. He collaborated with friend Edward B. Marks, Jr., on a musical comedy, It's Up to Pa, from which two tunes were published. Another youthful collaborator, Frank Loesser, went on to become an extremely successful songwriter. Schuman nevertheless did not at that time consider music a viable option for a career, and in 1928 he enrolled in New York University's School of Commerce.

On April 4, 1930, Schuman saw Arturo Toscanini conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. He had previously resisted attempts by his mother and sister to take him to a concert of classical music, convinced that he would be bored. But the sight of all those musicians playing together on stage made a tremendous impression on him. "I was knocked cold! It literally changed my life," he remembered. Although he had been studying seriously at the School of Commerce, this was a turning point; he abruptly quit school to seek formal musical study. And although his parents were not convinced that this was a wise decision, they did not stand in his way.

Schuman chanced upon the Malkin Conservatory and registered for a class in harmony with Max Persin. Persin spent a great deal of time with the promising young musician, introducing him to new music and encouraging him not to abandon his interest in popular music. The student eventually decided that he wanted to teach music, and in 1933 he enrolled in the Columbia University Teachers College. In 1935 he spent a summer in Salzburg, Austria, studying conducting and working on his first symphony. On his return, he married Frances Prince and found employment at Sarah Lawrence College.

During Schuman's tenure at Sarah Lawrence, from 1935 to 1945, he instituted a new approach to the teaching of music and general arts instruction with a course of study that incorporated history and theory in an integrated curriculum; he wanted students to explore the creative process and learn something about art that would enrich their lives beyond graduation. In addition to these academic efforts, he taught and directed the Sarah Lawrence choir, composing and commissioning new works for the group.

For Schuman's contemporaries, the brash experimentalism of the 1920s was muted during the Great Depression; the trend then was toward tonal music in traditional genres. Some of Schuman's compositions, such as 1943's William Billings Overture, reflected the renewed interest and pride in America's musical past that took hold in the 1930s and '40s. This historical interest combined with a feeling of social responsibility--and hard economic necessity--to encourage composers to write music that people could understand and enjoy.

After studying with composer Roy Harris for several years, Schuman won a composition contest with his second symphony in 1938, and his Symphony No. 3, of 1941, won the New York City Music Critics' Circle Award. In 1943 his cantata A Free Song was awarded the first Pulitzer Prize awarded in music, establishing Schuman as a leading American composer. Thereafter, honors and awards came from all directions, and his music was widely performed.

In 1945 Schuman left Sarah Lawrence to join music publisher G. Schirmer as director of publications. But he did not stay long, choosing instead to accept an invitation to become president of the prestigious Juilliard School of Music. His leadership had a profound impact there, essentially remaking the school into a modern twentieth-century institution. He founded the Juilliard String Quartet, which became an example for college string quartets around the country. Schuman also revived the opera theater and added a dance division. Distinguished composers were invited to join the faculty, and contemporary music was introduced into the curriculum.

Perhaps Schuman's most significant accomplishment at Juilliard was in revamping the school's music theory program. He was unhappy with the dry pedagogy of music theory, decrying the substitution of abstract exercises for the study of the music itself. To replace the old theory department, he developed a four-year course of study called the "Literature and Materials of Music," which combined music theory, history, and composition in an attempt to produce enlightened, well-rounded musicians. In The Juilliard Report, he wrote, "It is our responsibility to help the student to see the music of any given period in the light of its own social, political, and cultural climate ... to equip the student to deal with the novel without ridicule or fear of its strangeness, yet without being impressed by sheer novelty."

It was Schuman's hope that such a person would be able to participate more fully in a democratic society. "If the student truly absorbs the concept of free inquiry in the field of music, unimpeded by blind adherence to doctrine and tradition, he will bring something of this approach not only to other fields of knowledge but to the conduct of his daily life," he reasoned. Schuman also continued to compose. Among his notable works of the late 1940s are ballet scores for modern dance pioneer Martha Graham: her masterpiece, Night Journey (1947), and Judith (1949).

In 1962 Schuman became president of the then-new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. In this position he encouraged commissions and performances of American music, with an emphasis on service to the urban community. He founded a chamber music society, a film society, and a summer series of special events. But in 1969, frustrated by the financial limits placed on his ambition and wanting more time for his own composing, he left Lincoln Center. He continued to serve with distinguished organizations such as the Koussevitzsky Foundation, the Charles Ives Society, and the Naumburg Foundation.

Later in life, Schuman returned to an early interest in vocal music and poetry, particularly that of nineteenth-century American poet Walt Whitman, as evidenced by Carols of Death, Declaration Chorale, and Perceptions. He wrote a Concerto on Old English Rounds, which uses a women's chorus, American Hymn, On Freedom's Ground and the opera A Question of Taste. Schuman also continued to use popular tunes in his music; "Dances: Divertimento for Wind Quintet and Percussion" employs clever combinations of pairs of tunes borrowed from late-nineteenth-century popular song collections and Tin Pan Alley, as well as music from his own abandoned 1932 operetta on the life of Italian Renaissance man Leonardo Da Vinci, which Schuman had planned to mount with Frank Loesser.

Unlike elitist composers with little or no desire to reach the masses, Schuman was not interested in writing difficult, "inaccessible" music. He never espoused systems of composition like the twelve-tone scale, which is largely incomprehensible to the general public. "The lay public owes music nothing," he told the New York Times in 1991. "Music either appeals or it doesn't appeal. You can't cram it down their throats."

Schuman's compositions, though primarily dissonant and rhythmically complex, remain essentially tonally based. His use of traditional genres such as the string quartet and especially the symphony have tied him closely to the school of American composers exemplified by Roy Harris. Harris's influence is apparent in much of Schuman's symphonic writing, especially in the expansive orchestration and use of the elegiac "endless melody" over a slowly treading background. Pieces like his violin concerto are described as romantic because of long chromatic melodies--a chromatic melody uses an extended set of pitches or a set of pitches expanded beyond the simple scale--and bold rhythms. With the reclamation of tonality toward the latter part of the twentieth century and the emergence of "neo-romanticism," those composers who never strayed far from the tonal path or its genres may have been vindicated, but they received little credit.

Schuman did, however, achieve a certain stature in the public consciousness. He played a key role in the sweeping changes in American musical life in the twentieth century, from the spread of music programs from conservatories to colleges and universities, to the growth of high-school bands and symphony orchestras. He was fortunate to have been one of the few modern American composers whose works were--and still are--published, performed, recorded, and broadcast. His compositions and arrangements for high-school bands have proven especially popular. And though he never enjoyed consistent critical acclaim or the full acceptance of academic composers, Schuman's music has been studied in scholarly dissertations--perhaps the ultimate mark of legitimacy. In 1991, the American Symphony Orchestra League reported that there were 96 works by Schuman programmed for that season, demonstrating both the composer's place as a symphonist and the lasting vitality of the twentieth-century American symphonic music he championed.


William Schuman's Career

William Schuman's Awards

Two Guggenheim fellowships, 1939-41; first Pulitzer Prize in music, 1943; Concert Artists Guild award, 1967; Boston Symphony Orchestra Mark M. Horolit Prize for composition, 1980; Columbia University's first "William Schuman" award for lifetime achievement, 1981; special Pulitzer Prize, 1985; National Medal of Arts, 1987; numerous honorary degrees.

Famous Works

Further Reading


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