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American Muse. The Life and Times of William Schuman
By the late 1940s William Schuman, a born-and-bred New Yorker from a German Jewish family, had risen from simple beginnings to become one of the most respected American composers and administrators of his day. A contemporary of David Tudor, Martha Graham, Leonard Bernstein and John D. Rockefeller, he served as president of both the Juilliard School and later - between 1962 and 1968 - of Lincoln Center itself. The New York Post said that his competence was 'cloaked in spontaneity'. New York Times magazine described him as a man who 'hobnobs with nabobs, and shakes big ideas out of his sleeve with the nonchalance of The Great Trimetragon producing elephant after elephant from his silk hat.'
Author Joseph Polisi is the sixth president of Juilliard. He was close enough to Schuman to have been a speaker at the composer's funeral. Yet Polisi's book is no hagiography. Virgil Thomson said that Schuman's serious works: 'Have shown a respectable seriousness of attitude without much private or particular passion, while his gayer ones have expressed either a standard American cheerfulness or the comforting bumptiousness of middle-quality comic-strip humour.' An anonymous musician said: 'Let's face it, if he was a great composer, then he would have been Stravinsky and not president of Lincoln Center.'
Schuman composed for about 800 hours per year (he kept a log), producing ten symphonies, two operas, five quartets, five ballets and numerous other works. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts, with a Kennedy Center Honor in 1989.
Schuman was an excellent public speaker, one of the great orators of his day. When defending the questionable acoustics of Philharmonic Hall at Lincoln Center his favourite line was: 'Acoustics is only hearsay'. Strangely, though Schuman liked scat singing, he liked neither jazz nor minimalism. And we are told that Schuman had 'particular disdain' for Pierre Boulez, the French intellectual, composer and conductor.
Included in this superb book are descriptive analyses of ten of Schuman's best compositions, with a generous 126 pages of notated music examples.
John Robert Brown
Published in Classical Music, June 2009. Reproduced by kind permission.
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