A William Schuman Cycle -- Symphonies 3 and 5
The Seattle Symphony under the direction of Gerard Schwarz has recorded the ten symphonies of the American composer William Schuman (1910 -- 1992) for the "American Classics' series of Naxos. It is a laudable project indeed and an excellent way to get to know the works of a major American composer. William Schuman came to classical music at the relatively late age of 20 and had the rare ability to combine multiple careers as an administrator and teacher (he served as director of Schirmer music publications and as president of the Juiiliard School among other activities) with high achievement as a composer.
Schuman's music is tonal in character but frequently dissonant. Schuman frequently uses polytonality -- writing in several keys at the same time -- and unusual modes together with driving rhythms and counterpoint to produce a propulsive effect. The music is romantic and reminds me of the work of the later American composer George Rochberg after he abandoned the composition of atonal music.
Earlier CDs in the Seattle/Schwartz series include Schuman's fourth, seventh, ninth, and tenth symphonies. This CD includes Schuman's best-known symphonies, the third and the fifth, together with "Judith" a stunning setting of for dance and orchestra of the gory story of Judith and Holofernes.
Schuman's third symphony dates from 1941 and, together with works by Roy Harris and Aaron Copland, is a member of the great trilogy of third symphonies by twentieth-century American composers. Schuman's third is a learned and passionate work for large orchestra that received the first award from the New York Music Critics' Circle in 1942. The work is contrapuntal in character. It consists of two parts each of which has two sections using baroque rather than traditionally symphonic forms.
The opening movement is a passacaglia -- themes set over a repeated bass ground -- which grows in intensity as it progresses. The theme of the passacaglia forms the basis for the entire symphony. With each statement of the theme, Schuman raises the pitch and adds additional instruments, resulting in a great increase of musical tension and drama. Schuman's use of brass and winds is particularly effective. The second part of the opening movement is an angular theme which again reaches a feverish pitch, with important solos for English horn, tympani, trombone and horn.
The second movement consists of a chorale and a toccata. Schuman described the chorale as the portion of the work that "really represents the spirit of the composition." It is generally lyrical and reflective, with long blocked passages in the lower strings, following the driven character of the opening movement. The toccata finale follows seamlessly upon the chorale, introduced by a strongly rhythmical figure in the snare drum. The toccata ultimately works up to an extraordinarily frenzied conclusion with bold, loud passages for the entire orchestra featuring the brass and tympani. In its contrapuntal skill, incessant drive, and emotional intensity, Schuman's third remains his most popular symphony.
Schuman's fifth symphony is for strings alone and was composed in 1943, upon the success of the third. It is a short symphony in three movements of about 17 minutes, but it is full of emotional force. The fifth symphony, as did the third, attained immediate popularity and recognition. The opening movement is full of agitation and of a nervous energy as befits Schuman's marking, "molto agitato ed energico". As does the third symphony, the fifth makes extensive use of counterpoint and of themes appearing in canon. The slow movement, marked "largissimo" is the emotional centerpiece of the work as its two lengthy themes unfold slowly with increasing intensity. The themes in the upper strings are juxtaposed against pizzicato passages in the cellos and basses. The finale is a triumphal rondo which features a rapid, hushed main theme and an interlude with pizzicato passages for the entire string orchestra. The fifth remains one of Schuman's most popular symphonies.
Schuman composed the tone-poem "Judith", which concludes this CD, in 1949 at the request of Martha Graham. This is a visceral piece which captures the drama of the apocryphal biblical story. It opens with a somber passage characterizing the defeat of the Israelites and presents in graphic form Judith's seduction of Holofernes. A series of loud repeated hammerstrokes captures Judith's murder of her would-be seducer, following which she sings a hymn of thanks for victory. I could visualize Martha Graham dancing as I listened to Schuman's throbbing score.