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New England Triptych

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: William Schuman
Program note originally written for the following performance:
National Symphony Orchestra: NEW MOVES: symphony + dance: Thomas Wilkins, conductor; KEIGWIN + COMPANY / From Schuman to Bernstein May 7 - 8, 2014
© Thomas May

William Howard Schuman could be regarded as one of classical music's patron saints of late bloomers (another is the Czech composer Leoš Janác?ek). Despite the proximity of his last name to one of the Immortals in the classical pantheon, Schuman spent his youth obsessed with baseball and popular music, but the experience of hearing Arturo Toscanini conduct a concert at Carnegie Hall in 1930, he later claimed, proved so revelatory he decided to become a composer.

Schuman would go on to create an impressively large body of work, and with his Pulitzer Prize-winning Third Symphony in particular (1941) earned a rank among the leading composers of American symphonic music around the time the United States was asserting its new postwar identity. As a musical citizen, Schuman also wielded enormous influence with his educational reforms as president of the Juilliard School followed by his tenure as head of the newly established Lincoln Center in the 1960s.

New England Triptych remains Schuman's most frequently heard composition. Commissioned by André Kostelanetz, well-known as a pops conductor in that era, the piece was initially delayed by illness but completed in 1956. Kostelanetz had asked for a brief piece "in a light vein with a ready appeal for many people" and suggested something "with an American background." In 1944 Schuman had written a concert overture drawing on the music of William Billings (1746-1800), a Bostonian who became one of the new nation's most important composers thanks to his influential choral music. His works, according to Schuman, "capture the spirit of sinewy ruggedness, deep religiosity, and patriotic fervor that we associate with the Revolutionary period. Despite the undeniable crudities and technical shortcomings of his music, its appeal, even today, is forceful and moving. I am not alone among American composers who feel an identity with Billings, and it is this sense of identity that accounts for my use of his music as a point of departure."

The Overture, written in wartime, was never published but in fact reworked to provide some of the material for Triptych. Of the latter, Schuman's recent biographer Steve Swayne writes that it is "indeed a rarity" as "a seriously written work" that quickly won acclaim and became "a ‘hit.'" The process of composition involved more than merely quoting or "reworking" the tunes originally by Billings. "These pieces do not constitute a ‘fantasy' on themes of Billings," explains Schuman in his own program note, "nor ‘variations' on his themes, but rather a fusion of styles and musical language."

Adapting the music originally used to set the anthem "Be glad then, America," the first panel begins with an introduction of solo timpani "which is developed predominantly in the strings," according to Schuman's note. "Trombones and trumpets begin the main section," while another timpani solo "leads to a middle fugal section ... and combined themes lead to a climax. There follows a free adaptation of the ‘Hallelujah' music with which Billings concludes his original choral piece a final reference to the ‘Shout and Rejoice' music [from the main section]."

"When Jesus wept," the second panel, also begins with the sound of a drum (a tenor drum) and features subdued scoring for bassoon and oboe and muted strings. The Billings hymn is "used in its original form, as well as in new settings of contrapuntal embellishments and melodic extensions." An especially overt example of Schuman's transformations is apparent in the rousing final panel, which begins with a statement of Billings's hymn tune "Chester." During the Revolutionary War, this well-known church hymn was "adopted by the Continental Army as a marching song," so Schuman's orchestral treatment "derives from the spirit of both the hymn and the marching song."