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William Schuman

By Morton Gould

“Reflections on William Schuman”


William Schuman was very special, as a composer, educator, administrator, and cultural advocate. He was also a person of great wisdom, charm, and wit. A truly special human being. What is also special are the things he was not. For example, he was not a prodigy, emerging full-blown at the age of six or seven performing the Goldberg Variations, or conducting his first symphony at the age of eight, or graduating Harvard, with honors, at the age of ten, with a Doctorate at eleven. To the contrary—as a young growing adolescent he was obsessed with baseball, rather than music, and his initial musical tendencies and proclivities were in popular music, as a composer, and as a dance band organizer and instrumentalist. He was what we call a “late bloomer.” His “late blooming” was triggered by his first hearing a Symphony Orchestra, which catapulted him from the sound of popular songs to the sounds of symphonic music. Here he studied and developed and stayed and “bloomed” for the rest of his life. But concurrently with this creative emergence, he developed his skills as a teacher and musical functionary, and an understanding of what is known as “the music business.” As if to make up for the lost years of not being a prodigy, he ascended in short time to the rarefied and elitist world of concert music, quickly gaining recognition, and winning the first Pulitzer Prize in Music.

He was off and running, and composing and administering. After making his mark as teacher at the famous Sarah Lawrence College for Girls, he became Director of Publications for the prestigious music publishing firm of G. Schirmer. This was followed by two presidencies: the Juilliard and subsequently Lincoln Center. To both organizations he proved to be an inspiring and creative administrator.

At Juilliard he radically changed long-entrenched teaching methods and materials to innovative new and stimulating approaches. He established the Juilliard Quartet, the Dance and Drama departments, engaged young composer teachers, and set a pattern that exists to this day. He helped shape and instigate many of Lincoln Center’s expanding cultural activities and projects, such as film and community out-reach. And through all these years he kept composing—ten symphonies, concerti, choral works, chamber music, band music, ballets, two operas. A major creative figure of our time, William Schuman not only was special, but is very special as we honor his memory today.

Now, he was also a special friend and colleague of mine, and to those of you who might have heard me eulogize him before, please permit me a few perhaps already familiar reflections and anecdotes.

Bill and I became friends sometime in the thirties, and through the social and political ferment of that period we saw each other fairly frequently; as we got more married and parental, our families joined in our get-togethers. The period leading to World War II held for many young people panaceas for improving if not solving the problems of humankind, the elimination of bigotry, prejudice, racism, colonialism, imperialism, etc., etc. The answer for many intellectuals was found in communism, Marxist dogma, Stalinism. Here again I cite Bill for being special because of what he was not. Contrary to much of the intellectual climate and passion of that period, Bill never succumbed to the “party line”—he was, in that context, a “subversive.” I cite this because in retrospect it reveals much about Bill as an intellectual with an independent mind-set, questioning orthodoxy and dogma in any guise, and in a sense more radical than “establishment” radicalism. The whole nature of the American Liberal movement of that period, buffeted by the hard-liners of various political and sometimes interchangeable hues, deserves an in-depth review someday, dealing with such incongruities as the communists mouthing Isolationist slogans, or the other way around, when it was the “party line.” This is not the time or place for that, but William Schuman held his own course throughout this turbulence, and it was typical of Bill, because he was special. On a musical level he also held to a straight course in a musical world of ferment. Of course, the very nature and essence of art, and certainly music, is constant change, from simple to complex, from one tone to twelve tone, from the trendy, to the fashionable, from the enduring to the transient. Here again, how does one classify Bill’s music, when it is unclassifiable as musical dogma? Here again, he uses traditional devices and orthodoxies such as fugues, canons, triadic juxtapositions, grandiose codas, and yet in some strange way, it comes out Schuman! Here again, in the context of our musical times, Bill as composer is conservative and therefore radical—he never joined any parades nor led them but followed his own signposts. He fits neither the maximalists nor the minimalists. In short, he just is! If pressed for an applicable descriptive adjective I would classify Bill’s music as “Schumanesque” (Schuman with one “N”)—from his flippant early Newsreel through his haunting Carols of Death to his last works. A continuing and unrelentant and, as far as I know, unrepentant creative ascension.

As friends, Bill and I often exchanged thoughts on our respective careers. I remember walking on the beach in Rye and discussing whether he should leave his position at G. Schirmer to become President of Juilliard, and what that would entail; and later on the possibility of being President of Lincoln Center. I don’t recall what advice I gave, my track record is not too reassuring in that department. After all, I advised Goddard Lieberson to take a job at Mills Music Publishing Company—where I had gotten him employment in the late thirties—against an offer at the same salary of thirty dollars a week from the newly formed Columbia Records Masterworks Department. The reason I gave Goddard for my recommendation was future security! In any case, regardless of what I said (or anybody else), Bill made his own decisions, and obviously the right ones. Later on, when the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers asked me to be president, I conferred with Bill, and he was an influential factor in my decision to accept the ASCAP presidency.

I mentioned Bill’s keen wit and humor, and I take the liberty of repeating for this “on-record” tribute two stories. One is sitting in the Russian Tearoom after a Philharmonic concert at Carnegie Hall with a bevy of my composer colleagues, including Bill. This was sometime in the early forties. The orchestra had done a first performance of a new Shostakovich Symphony—front-page news because it had been bid for by all the major orchestras, and finally was won by the Philharmonic for the highest bid at that time, an astronomical figure. I think it was in the neighborhood of ten thousand dollars. On the same program was a piece of Bill’s—I think the American Festival Overture. We were all young and starry-eyed and discussing not so much the Shostakovich work, but the sum of money paid for it. During a momentary lull in this composers’ babble, Bill, who had been silent, said, “Well, guys, you just heard ten thousand dollars worth of Russian music, and twenty-five dollars worth of American music!”

The other story is set in the fifties. It was summertime, and I was visiting Bill with my oldest son Eric, who was about a year younger than Bill’s son Tony. Now, I have consciously avoided exercise in any form, including swimming. There are family photos of me with my wife and children on the beach at Acapulco, Mexico. There, in bright glaring sunlight, I stand surrounded by my family and dozens of other beach-goers, all of course in minimal swimming attire, including bikinis. I stand at water’s edge—fully dressed, with jacket, tie, and shoes—as if ready for any land-based social event. Now back to Bill this hot summer day in White Plains, where he and Frankie resided at that time. Their property had a swimming pool, with a high diving board. It was also high noon, and I was sitting poolside with Bill who was casually attired.

Here again, like in Acapulco, I was fully dressed—jacket, tie, shoes, etc. The only difference was that I was not standing but reclining in a beach chair. Bill’s son Tony and my son Eric had undressed and came running out to the pool in swimming trunks. My son Eric, very athletically inclined, quickly climbed up to the top of the diving board, poised briefly, and made a beautiful and perfect dive right into the pool. As Eric hit the water with a splash, Bill turned to me and said “Chip off the old block!”

That was typical Bill. That was also “Schumanesque.” He was also obviously special as a husband and parent, and blessed with a very special wife and companion throughout his life, Frankie, and their two children, Anthony and Andrea, and grandchild Joshua, and daughter-in-law Peg.

A few more final personal comments. When Bill was Managing Director of G. Schirmer he offered me a composer contract. I could not accept at the time but years later they did become my publisher. In the sixties, when I was conducting and recording with the Chicago Symphony I did two Charles Ives albums for RCA, one of which won a Grammy. On that album was Bill’s orchestration of Charles Ives’ Variations on America. Bill had given me, a few years before, the printed score. He wrote on the fly leaf, “To Morton Gould—I will sign this when you play it,” with no signature! I always meant to call that promise in, after I conducted and recorded the work, but somehow never did. I still have that score—still unsigned—but how typically Bill! Perhaps I’ll remember to take it with me when I go—in case we meet.

I titled this tribute “Reflections” rather than attempting biographical data, readily available through the many words written about Bill through the years. Dear Bill, I hope my words reflect some of what you were, as a man of our time. You have no more miles to go, but we remember all the miles you went. It was one hell of a journey. We miss you, and still hear you.

Read at the Institute Dinner Meeting on November 4, 1992.

© 2021 American Academy of Arts and Letters