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Symphony No. 8

About the Work

William Schuman
Quick Look Composer: William Schuman
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: Leonard Slatkin, Conducting/Frank Peter Zimmermann, Violin Oct. 10 - 12, 2002
© Richard Freed
Untitled Document

William Schuman began composing his Eighth Symphony on June 23, 1960, under a commission from the New York Philharmonic for its opening season at Lincoln Center. He interrupted the effort later that year to work on A Song of Orpheus (for cello and orchestra), resumed on July 17, 1961, and completed the score on June 14, 1962. The first performance of the Eighth was given on October 4, 1962, by Leonard Bernstein and the Philharmonic, who recorded the work for Columbia (today's Sony Classical) at that time. The work enters the repertory of the National Symphony Orchestra in the present concerts.

The scoring is for a large orchestra: 4 flutes and 2 piccolos, 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 6 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, suspended cymbal, tam-tam, wood block, tubular bells, glockenspiel, vibraphone, xylophone, 2 harps, piano, and strings. Approximate duration, 31 minutes.

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Few figures in American music (or music anywhere, for that matter) have been so valuably productive in so many areas as William Schuman. He was an outstanding administrator (president of the Juilliard School 1945-62, and of Lincoln Center 1962-69), educator and general gadfly in matters musical, as well as one of the most eloquent and distinctive composers our country has produced. His production was entirely and recognizably American, sometimes involving citations of folk material, but more often simply in the vitality and compassion that expressed his own personality. Early on he had experience as a performer (in jazz bands and night club dance bands) and in writing songs for which the celebrated Frank Loesser provided the words. Except for the summer of his 25th year, spent at the Mozarteum in Salzburg, all his training was American. In the following summer (1936), by then a married man and veteran of a year on the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College, Schuman began studying with Roy Harris, and in October of the same year he heard his own Symphony No. 1 played at a WPA concert in New York. A Second Symphony followed in less than two years and, at Aaron Copland's suggestion, it was performed by Koussevitzky in Boston.

Neither of those early symphonies pleased Schuman, who withdrew both shortly after the respective premieres and spoke of himself later in life as "the composer of eight symphonies, numbered 3 through 9." It was the Third, introduced by Koussevitzky in October 1941, that brought instantaneous recognition and profound respect for Schuman as a symphonist, and as a major factor in American music. His final symphony, given the title American Muse , was an American Bicentennial Commission for the National Symphony Orchestra, which introduced it under Antal Doráti in April 1976, together with two other Schuman premieres, those of The Young Dead Soldiers (a setting of an Archibald MacLeish poem for soprano, horn, woodwind and strings) and Casey at the Bat (a "baseball cantata" adapted from Schuman's earlier "baseball opera" The Mighty Casey ). Schuman's music, in fact, has been prominent in NSO concerts since the orchestra's earliest period, when Hans Kindler made the premiere recording of the American Festival Overture. His 1943 cantata A Free Song (a setting of a Whitman text), for which he received the first Pulitzer Prize awarded in the field of music, was performed under Doráti in the inaugural concert of the Kennedy Center Concert Hall on September 9, 1971. Schuman was honored with virtually every prize and award that can be bestowed on a composer in the United States, including, in 1989, a Kennedy Center Honor.

Schuman spoke of himself as "an unabashed romantic." It is an undated and peculiarly American variety of romanticism, which finds expression in Schuman's response to the words of Walt Whitman and the music of Charles Ives and William Billings, to Casey at the Bat and the Sears Roebuck Catalogue (the 1897 edition of which was the source of texts for his Mail Order Madrigals , composed in 1971); it is a romanticism characterized by the deep-felt , open-hearted compassion reflected in his Ninth Symphony ( Le fosse ardeatine, a memorial to Italian civilians massacred by the Nazis in World War II), in the unpretentious exuberance of the American Festival Overture of 1939, and the soaring affirmation of the Credendum (1953).

"Unabashed," as Schumann demonstrated, need not be equated with "self-indulgent." His style is at once expansive and concise, never "larger than life," but always informed with credible vitality. He was definitely committed to communicating with an audience--aiming, however, for the "active listener" rather than "passive" ones whose "particular joy is sound-bathing." What strikes the ear as straightforward and uncontrived in his music, however, is almost always built on an exceptionally complex base, and the Eighth Symphony, as Leonard Slatkin remarks in his note for the reissue of the Bernstein recording, "gives us Schuman at his boldest and most provocative best."

       The most striking element in the work may well be its breadth. In his program note for the premiere, Edward Downes cited its "rhythmic variety and vitality" and the "combinations so pungent, so brilliant, so sensuous" in its instrumental coloring, remarking, however, that "the score gives the impression that it is basically melodic in concept, that almost everything, including the form, grows out of this melody, which holds the entire work together . . . " Mr. Downes's analysis is reprinted here by kind permission of the Philharmonic-Symphony Society of New York:

II. Lento--Pressante vigoroso--Lento. Despite the primacy of melody, the Symphony does not open with melody, but with a distinctive harmonic color, a familiar, modern harmony, but one especially favored by Schuman: the common chord spiced with the clash of simultaneous major and minor thirds. Here it is so orchestrated that it almost resembles the decaying sound of a great dissonant bell. This particular harmony will recur and we shall find that the emphasis on thirds is characteristic of this Symphony's melody as well. The tolling sound repeats, growing more dissonant as it fades and swells.

Against this sound a single rich note of a French horn is heard very softly. Then gradually, but persistently, the horn outlines the narrow interval of a minor third, a crucial interval in the melodies from which the Symphony is built. It would hardly be possible to start with a simpler basic proposition. Soon it is expanded into a paradoxically graceful, yet jagged melody. Another tolling chord of the full orchestra introduces a solo oboe singing a similar melody against a soft background of muted brass. After the oboe the entire violin section takes up its own version of the melody, and then a mellow solo trumpet follows in what by now makes the impression of a series of free variations on a theme.

Gradually the tempo quickens, more instruments join the fray in more and more jagged rhythms, exploding into a short, dissonant climax of the full brass with a wild kettledrum solo. The climax fades quickly, but the movement concludes with another sharp outburst of kettledrums, snare and bass drums.

II. Largo--Tempo piu mosso--Largo. The second movement too opens in a pensive, songful style related to the opening melody of the Symphony. A duet for solo oboe with the viola section is gradually joined by other instruments, all rising to a passionate cantabile built around the familiar characteristic of minor thirds. As it progresses, the melody line is further intensified by combining with itself in canonic style. There is an agitated climax after which the placid opening melody is brought back by muted strings before the savage outburst of the close.

III. Presto--Prestissimo. The brilliant finale begins with a motto-like emphasis on the minor third, which keeps returning almost like a rondo refrain. The same interval is emphasized at the start and conclusion of a perky little scherzo-like figure, the last five notes of which are often detached to serve as a motive in their own right. This figure too recurs like a refrain, often in the wake of the motto. Despite the diversity of this finale, indeed of the entire Symphony, the feeling as we approach the prestissimo closing pages is of increasing concentration, compactness and unity of expression.