America's finest symphonist
Ever since the 7th of April, 1805, when the opening pistol-shot chords of Beethoven's "Eroica" proclaimed a new era in composition, the symphony has occupied an exalted place among classical music genres. In parallel with the orchestra, the symphony grew from humble origins, developed through the 18th century, and emerged as the music equivalent of the novel: long, complex, ambitious, important. And as with the novel for writers, so with the symphony for composers. Everyone, seemingly, want to write one, few have what it takes to write a great one. Think about it: Looking back over 200+ years of symphonic composition, can you name two dozen great symphonists? It's not easy, even if you include a few arguably-greats, near-greats, and probably-not-greats-but-I-really-like-their-music-anyway.
So, in our week-long series of Great American Symphonies, let us pause to ask this question: Who is or was America's greatest symphonist? What composer, in our nation's relatively brief classical music history, made the contribution to symphonic form that best stands alongside the finest European models? We've already heard in this week's WFCR series of Great American Symphonies from a couple of contenders, Roy Harris and Charles Ives. Others would include Howard Hanson, Walter Piston and David Diamond. Alan Hovhaness, who wrote over 60 works in the form, is an interesting outlier. John Harbison, whose five symphonies have been featured recently by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, is probably the most important living adherent of the form. But symphony for symphony, my vote would be for the composer whose best-known work in the form comes up at about 1:00 Thursday afternoon on WFCR.
Not that anything in his first twenty years would have forecast William Schuman's immense later importance to the American classical scene as composer, teacher and administrator. Oh, he was musically oriented all right, precocious and ambitious enough to play weddings and bar mitzvahs in his teens under the banner of "Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra," and later to write dozens of popular songs with a young lyricist named Frank Loesser. But music took a back seat to his vocation, business, and his passion, baseball, until older sister Audrey dragged her 19-year old brother to Carnegie Hall for a concert by Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic. The very next day, William Schuman became a classical composer. Several years of study followed, including five under Roy Harris (more about whom later). The godfather of many important American composers, Serge Koussevitzky conducted Schuman's Symphony No. 2 in 1939, and followed that premiere in 1941 with that of Schuman's best-known symphony.
Strongly influenced by another Third Symphony, that of his teacher Roy Harris, Schumann eschews normal symphonic forms in his Symphony No. 3, employing instead the Baroque concepts of passacaglia, fugue, chorale and toccata. Rather than go in depth into what these concepts mean, let's just say they create a sense of unity and organic flow, the music emerging inevitably and inexorably from the opening low string theme (another nod to Harris) to the exciting culminations of its two large movements. Unlike Ives in his Symphony No. 2, Schuman neither quotes tunes nor invokes specific American scenes in his Third, yet the rhythmic energy, as well as the sense of yearning and striving, lends the work a recognizably American character. Indeed, as I listen to this and other works by Schuman, I get the feeling that this music defines better than any other, even better than Copland's gallicized vision, the sound of American classical music. No other American demonstrated such complete mastery of the symphonic concept, with its inherent drama, conflict, unity and inevitability. This is grand music on a grand scale, serious, profound, confident and exalted. There's more where this comes from, too, in Schuman's official canon of eight symphonies (Nos. 3 through 10, the composer having rejected his first two). But for today, let us rejoice in William Schuman's craggy, majestic, magnificent Third, as brilliant played by the Springfield Symphony Orchestra under its Schuman-loving conductor Kevin Rhodes.