Orpheus in Manhattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America's Musical Life






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Publication: Music Library Association. Notes
Author: Terrio, Robert D
Date published: March 1, 2012

Orpheus in Manhattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America's Musical Life. By Steve Swayne. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. [xvii, 692 p. ISBN 9780195388527. $39.95.] Illustrations, notes, bibliography, composition index, index.

Marking a composer's centenary year routinely invites an influx of conferences, symposia, articles, concert series, and books that illustrate the broad if not complete spectrum of an artist's work. Joseph Polisi's American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman (New York: Amadeus Press, 2008) provides a substantial portrait of Schuman the businessman, with representative compositions accompanied by detailed analyses. In The Music of William Schuman, Vincent Persichetti, and Peter Mennin: Voices of Stone and Steel (Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2011), Walter Simmons profiles Schuman together with two other composers fundamentally linked to the New York music scene during the 1940s through the 1960s, and to the Juilliard School in particular: Mennin was on the composition faculty and later became Schuman's successor as president of Juilliard, while Persichetti served four decades on the composition faculty. Simmons offers substantial analyses as well as his perceptions of flaws in compositional technique, but offers only a sketch of biographical information.

Steve Swayne's book Orpheus in Man - hattan: William Schuman and the Shaping of America's Musical Life is an objective, detailed account illustrating Schuman's roles as composer, administrator, husband, father, and friend. He has left no stone unturned when it comes to the meticulousness of his research. His acknowledgments alone span seven pages, with many names readers will instantly recognize as members of our own Music Library Association, and he "approached over 200 individuals, librarians, archivists, and corporate officers to obtain permissions for the book" (e-mail message to me, 18 July 2011).

Swayne's goal "is to understand Schuman against the backdrop of the world in which he lived and moved" (p. 6). "The Early Years" chronicles not only those events that were formative influences on Schuman's musical development, including his foray into popular song composition, it also traces the immigration of Schuman's ancestors from Germany to America. As with many immigrants, pride in their adopted country held a place of high importance. The account of Schuman's time at Camp Cobbossee underscores the importance his father put on full assimilation into American life, gradually dissociating (or maybe integrating) their Jewish-German roots. "Camp Cobbossee was, in short, a place for Jews that was free of Judaism. It was also a place where German-American Jewish boys could go that kept them separate from their poorer eastern European co-religionists" (p. 32).

Schuman's position as a major figure in arts administration may have eclipsed his work as a composer in the minds of many, but "it was as a composer that Schuman wanted first and foremost to be remembered" (p. 551). Music had always played a central role in his life, but the catalyst that brought Schuman from New York Uni - versity's School of Commerce (he withdrew due to poor academic performance), to music studies at Juilliard, at the Salzburg Mozarteum, and at Columbia University, and subsequently to a teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College, all within the span of approximately seven years, appears to have been his first New York Philharmonic concert (pp. 43-44).

About his teaching responsibilities, Swayne points out that "[i]n his first four years at Sarah Lawrence, Schuman helped to revolutionize the college's music offerings, especially in extracurricular areas. With his colleagues he started a Music Forum at which faculty and students discussed various aspects of music making, and it was at a series of these forums that Schuman demonstrated his ability to play every instrument in the orchestra" (p. 84). The dedication Schuman exhibited when he reshaped the music department at Sarah Lawrence foreshadows the work he would do at the Juilliard School, namely, a curriculum overhaul taking the form of the Literature and Materials of Music. At Juilliard, "L & M" was to be taught exclusively by composers, and would offer a more integrative approach to the subtle ways musical components fuse.

Despite his teaching commitments, Schu - man wrote a great deal of music during his tenure at Sarah Lawrence, including his secular cantata of 1942, A Free Song, which would consequently be awarded the first Pulitzer Prize in music. Swayne writes humorously about that trio of composers who dominated from the 1930s onward: Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, and Schuman. He constructs an analogy predicated on the accomplishments of each composer's career, based on an article written in 1939 by Paul Rosenfeld: "Rosenfeld's handicapping of the composer horse race at the end of the 1930s has Harris in the lead, Copland fading, and Schuman gaining on the inside" (p. 94). But Harris was more to Schuman than healthy competition: he "remained devoted to his teacher throughout the 1930s" (p. 98) and continued to be influenced by Harris in his own compositional matters. For example, Schuman's composition Pioneers!, written for the 1938 West - minster Choir Festival, would be his first Walt Whitman setting (p. 95); as Swayne points out, "Schuman's love affair with Whitman can also be traced to Harris" (p. 98). Other Whitman settings would follow for professional ensembles, most notably Perceptions from 1982, and Carols of Death from the 1950s (p. 509). There are a few misidentifications in the photograph of participants in the 1938 Westminster Choir Festival (p. 99): "David Felt" is David Fetler, "Elvin Etner" is Alvin Etler, and "Mrs. H. A. Talbot" should read Mrs. H. A. Talbott.

In "The Juilliard Years," Swayne chronicles Schuman in the complex roles of busy arts administrator, prize-winning composer, and collaborator with well known and influential figures in the arts, filled with all the power of connection, communication, and consequences such positions can hold. Swayne's documentation also portrays Schu man as a fierce defender of contemporary music and a harsh critic of Juilliard's educational role. Additionally, the sheer number of commission offers alone during this sixteen-year period required "uninterrupted summers during which he could fulfill the commissions he chose to accept" (p. 208). Swayne, in the detailed style he establishes at the outset, recounts many pivotal points in Schuman's life and career during this time, most notably (and personally), the death of his father, the adoption of his daughter, Andrea Schuman (p. 219), and the death of his brother Robert at the age of 42 (p. 224).

"The Lincoln Center Years" details the thorny, sometimes contentious issues Schuman had to confront, particularly with John D. Rockefeller III, who was instrumental in bringing Lincoln Center to New York City. It is clear that Rockefeller was not satisfied with the direction of Lincoln Center under Schuman's leadership. Namely, Schu man was not conservative enough in vision (pp. 386-90; 406). Despite conflicts, differences in philosophy and direction of Lincoln Center, creative work continued with a wash of commission offers: a chamber work for the Elizabeth Sprague Coo - lidge Foundation, a fanfare to celebrate the opening of the Gateway to the West arch in St. Louis, a choral work for Colgate Uni - versity, and a new dance work for Martha Graham are but a few of the projects he engaged in during this stage of his life.

As Schuman entered his later years, his reputation continued to precede him. "Even before he had left Lincoln Center, options began to come in for Schuman's next act. The chairman of the Music Department at the University of Southern California at Los Angeles wrote to Schuman . . . to ask if the university might entice him with a position (p. 416). The final section of the book, "The Years of Comple - tion," depicts a man who "had to reinvent himself " (p. 416). He began to give paid speaking engagements and lectures, all while continuing to compose, and serve on various arts related boards and committees, though "Schuman's multifarious activities in the immediate aftermath of the Lincoln Center years point in no one direction" (p. 429). Eventually, however, he turned much of his attention to composition.

Regarding the book's lack of music examples and analyses, the author writes: "Some readers may feel that, as a result of spending so much time on Schuman's life and times, I gave the music short shrift. I do not feel this way, but I did determine early on not to include musical examples, as I felt there were other ways to approach musical analysis. The companion website for the book . . . will have analyses that accompany the sound files already present there" (e-mail message to me, 16 July 2011). The Web site (http://orpheus .dartmouth.edu/index.html; accessed 1 September 2011) is designed so the user can explore either the music or the composer's life. In the case of the latter, the site provides a useful outline with divisions that mirror the sections in the book. Likewise, the music section introduces representative pieces from each major section in the book. The author suggested the song "Once More" as an example of how the music analysis works. A page of manuscript is displayed as the piece begins to play. Within a textbox to the lower right, a playby- play textual analysis appears as the music plays. At the time of this writing, only two of the sixteen works have rolling commentary in place.

My only complaint concerns the use of endnotes. In a book of average length, flipping back and forth from page and chapter to corresponding endnotes is not a burden, but because of the thoroughness of research and documentation here, not to mention the proliferation of abbreviations and acronyms of sources consulted, it can be awkward. But this is a small price to pay for such a well written, well documented, and totally thorough biographical work.

Author affiliation:

ROBERT D. TERRIO

Westminster Choir College of Rider University

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