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Category Archives: Schuman-William

Born in the Bronx, William Schuman (1910-1992) dropped out of business school to pursue composition after hearing the New York Philharmonic for the first time.  He became a central figure in New York’s cultural institutions, leaving his presidency of the Juilliard School to become the first director of Lincoln Center in 1962.  All the while he was active as a composer.  He received the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for music in 1943.  He shared a fondness for wind music with his Juilliard contemporaries Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin, from which came many classic works for wind band.

Schuman wrote George Washington Bridge in 1950.  It was premiered that summer at the Interlochen Music Camp in Michigan.  From the score:

There are few days in the year when I do not see George Washington Bridge.  I pass it on my way to work as I drive along the Henry Hudson Parkway on the New York shore.  Ever since my student days when I watched the progress of its construction, this bridge has had for me an almost human personality, and this personality is astonishingly varied, assuming different moods depending on the time of day or night, the weather, the traffic and, of course, my own mood as I pass by.

I have walked across it late at night when it was shrouded in fog, and during the brilliant sunshine hours of midday.  I have driven over it countless times and passed under it on boats.  Coming to New York City by air, sometimes I have been lucky enough to fly right over it.  It is difficult to imagine a more gracious welcome or dramatic entry to the great metropolis.

The Cincinnati Wind Symphony performs the piece:

The bridge itself is an iconic monument connecting New York City to Fort Lee, New Jersey.  For some facts about it, visit this website, run by the town of Fort Lee.

Read more on George Washington Bridge the piece at Music Sales Classical, WQXR, and the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra blog.  Schuman has bios on Wikipedia, his own official website, G. Schirmer, Theodore Presser, and Naxos.

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If you don’t want to read William Schuman’s bio, skip down to the bottom of the page for a video version of sorts.  For those who do: Born in the Bronx, William Schuman (1910-1992) dropped out of business school to pursue composition after hearing the New York Philharmonic for the first time.  He became a central figure in New York’s cultural institutions, leaving his presidency of the Juilliard School to become the first director of Lincoln Center in 1961.  All the while he was active as a composer.  He received the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for music in 1943.  He shared a fondness for wind music with his Juilliard contemporaries Vincent Persichetti and Peter Mennin, from which came many classic works for wind band.

Chester is the third movement of the New England Triptych, a collection of three pieces based on tunes by the colonial-era New England composer William Billings.    Schuman wrote the collection in 1956 on a commission from Andre Kostelanetz and the orchestra at the University of Miami.  Schuman created his own versions for band later, one movement at a time.  Chester came first, right on the heels of the original.  The orchestration of the two versions is obviously different in important ways, and unlike the other movements, Schuman actually expands his treatment of Chester in the band version.  It begins as a chorale before being broken into pieces in an intense development that comprises most of the piece.  Much later (1988) Schuman also produced a set of piano variations on the tune.

Nobody could describe the history of Chester better than Schuman himself (from the band score of the piece):

The tune on which this composition is based was born during the very time of the American Revolution, appearing in 1778 in a book of tunes and anthems composed by William Billings called THE SINGING MASTER’S ASSISTANT. This book became known as “Billings’ Best” following as it did his first book called THE NEW ENGLAND PSALM SINGER, published in 1770. CHESTER was so popular that it was sung throughout the colonies from Vermont to South Carolina. It became the song of the American Revolution, sung around the campfires of the Continental Army and played by fifers on the march. The music and words, both composed by Billings, expressed perfectly the burning desire for freedom which sustained the colonists through the difficult years of the Revolution,

Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains,
We fear them not, we trust in God,
New England’s God forever reigns.

The Foe comes on with haughty Stride;
Our troops advance with martial noise,
Their Vet’rans flee before our Youth,
And Gen’rals yield to beardless Boys. 

What grateful Off’ring shall we bring?
What shall we render to the Lord?
Loud Halleluiahs let us Sing,
And praise his name on ev’ry Chord.

Billings himself is described by William Bentley, of Salem, a contemporary, as “the father of our New England Music.  Many who have imitated have excelled him, but none of them had better original power.  He was a singular man, of moderate size, short of one leg, with one eye, without any address, and with an uncommon negligence of person.  Still he spake and sang and thought as a man above the common abilities.”  Billings, born in Boston in 1746, started his career in life as a tanner’s apprentice but soon gave up this trade for music in which he was apparently self-taught.  He organized singing schools, composing music for them which was all the more welcome because relations with England had reached the breaking point and the colonists were glad to have their own native music.  Billings’ many “fuguing tunes” achieved great popularity, but by the time he died in 1800 this kind of music gradually fell into disfavor leaving Billings poor and neglected.  Today given the prospective [sic] of history we see Billings as a major figure in American music.  His indomitable spirit still shines through the sturdy tunes he wrote.

The Ball State University Symphony Band plays the band version of Chester:

The orchestral version, while broadly similar in its chorale-allegro design, takes a very different form than the band version does, and it is about half as long:

Schuman appeared as the mystery guest on the game show “What’s My Line” in 1962.  Sadly, his episode of the show was removed from YouTube.  Instead, you can watch this video portrait of the composer made by his publisher:

More on Chester at the Wind Repertory Project, Wikia Program Notes, an analytic paper by Christopher Ritter, and a high school listening assignment based on the piece (try it!).  Schuman has bios on Wikipedia, his own official website, G. Schirmer, Theodore Presser, and Naxos.  And William Billings has at least one giant column of a website devoted to him and his music.

Charles Ives (1874-1954) was a composer and businessman from Danbury, Connecticut. He never made his living from his compositions, instead making a fortune in life insurance.  The unusual nature of this dual life paralleled his music, which not only defied but brazenly toppled the conventions of his era.  For instance, it is at times bitonal, often disjointed, and occassionally reflects the sound of two musical ensembles playing at the same time at a distance from each other. Ives’s music was largely ignored by all but a precious few fans during his lifetime.  However, his receipt of the Pulitzer Prize in 1947 for his Symphony no. 3 made the music world begin to take him seriously.  He has posthumously attained a reputation as among the finest of all American composers of all time.

Ives scholar Jan Swafford summarizes Ives’s influence and importance thusly:

For all his singularity, the Yankee maverick Charles Ives is among the most representative of American artists. Optimistic, idealistic, fiercely democratic, he unified the voice of the American people with the forms and traditions of European classical music. The result, in his most far-reaching work, is like nothing ever imagined before him: music at once unique and as familiar as a tune whistled in childhood, music that can conjure up the pandemonium of a small-town Fourth of July or the quiet of a New England church, music of visionary spirituality built from the humblest materials–an old gospel hymn, a patriotic tune, a sentimental parlor song. The way in which Ives pursued his goal of a democratic art, and his career of creating at the highest level of ambition while making a fortune in the life insurance business, perhaps could only have happened in the United States. And perhaps only there could such an isolated, paradoxical figure make himself into a major artist.

This is just the beginning of Swafford’s fabulous short biographical essay on Ives, which can be found here.

Swafford’s essay is just a taste of the treasure trove of information available at the Charles Ives Society website.

More on Ives from Wikipedia.

Biography with a link to an essay about the influence of Ives’s father, George, a local bandmaster.

One more biographical essay from essentialsofmusic.com

Ives wrote Variations on America at age 17 when he was the organist for a local church.  Despite its early origin, it still contains many characteristics of the Ives sound: unapologetic bitonality, themes of patriotism, some sense of playfulness and optimism.  American composer and Lincoln Center president William Schuman transcribed the original organ work for orchestra in 1962, after which it was transcribed for band in short order by William Rhoads.

A concise program note on the orchestral version.

The University of Michigan Concert Band plays Variations on America.

The original organ version performed by flamboyant organ virtuoso Virgil Fox: