William Schuman

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William Howard Schuman (August 4, 1910 – February 15, 1992) was a prominent twentieth-century American composer and music administrator. In addition to a highly successful career as a composer, he also served as President of the Juilliard School of Music and Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City.

He was among a number of notable American composers, including Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber, Walter Piston and Leonard Bernstein who achieved prominence in the international music scene. Although he was influenced by the compositional trends of the early twentieth century, his highly original harmonic syntax, sonorous orchestrations and vibrant rhythms remained fairly conventional in relation to the more abstract and atonal utterances of the Second Viennese School.

Commenting on the art of composing, he remarked, "A composition must have two fundamental ingredients—emotional vitality and intellectual vigor. Techniques constitute the objective working methods of art. In the mature artist they are distinguishable from the creative act...The only test of a work of art is, of course, in the finished product and not in the process of its making."

Many of his important works are influenced by Americana.


Born in the Bronx in New York City to Samuel and Rachel Schuman, Schuman was named after the twenty-seventh U.S. president, William Howard Taft (although his family preferred to call him Bill). Schuman began studies on the violin at age 11 and banjo as a child, but his overwhelming passion was baseball. While still in high school, he formed a dance band, "Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra," that played local weddings and bar mitzvahs (Schuman played string bass in the band). In 1925 he attended George Washington High School, in New York and began to play the double-bass in the school orchestra. It was in the Alamo Society Band that he began composing music.

In 1928 he entered New York University's School of Commerce to pursue a business degree, at the same time working for an advertising agency. He also wrote popular songs with E. B. Marks, Jr., a friend he had met long before at summer camp. About then Schuman met lyricist Frank Loesser and wrote some forty songs with him. (Indeed, Loesser's first published song, "In Love with a Memory of You," credits the music to William H. Schuman.)

On April 4, 1930, Schuman went with his older sister, Audrey, to a Carnegie Hall concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Arturo Toscanini. The program included works by Wagner, Kodály, and Schumann. Of this experience, Schuman later said, "I was astounded at seeing the sea of stringed instruments, and everybody bowing together. The visual thing alone was astonishing. But the sound! I was overwhelmed. I had never heard anything like it. The very next day, I decided to become a composer."

Schuman dropped out of school to study music, finding private tutors in classical composition. One of his teachers was Roy Harris. Harris brought Schuman to the attention of the conductor Serge Koussevitsky, who championed many of his works. In 1933 Schuman attended Teachers College at Columbia University and earned a bachelors degree in science in 1935. It was also at that time that he traveled to Salzburg, Austria to study conducting at the famed Salzburg Mozarteum.


William Schuman composed his Symphony No. 1 in 1936 and his Symphony No. 2 in 1937. His Second Symphony so impressed Aaron Copland, that Copland persuaded Serge Koussevitsky to perform it with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1939. Though Boston audiences found the work to be difficult, one Boston music critic praised Koussevitsky for having discovered "a genuine American talent." Koussevitsky later conducted the premiere of Schuman's brilliant American Festival Overture with the BSO, this time to great acclaim and it marked the first serious success for the young composer.

Schuman received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1939 and this spawned several new works including his Third String Quartet on a commission from the League of Composers. With the premiere of his Third Symphony in 1941, again, under Koussevitsky with the BSO, Schuman began to develop what would become his mature style and to be regarded as one of America's important symphonists. The symphony received the New York Music Critics Award and became a staple of the American orchestral repertory. The work was subsequently recorded by the New York Philharmonic (with Bernstein conducting) and the Philadelphia Orchestra (with Ormandy conducting). His Symphony No.4 was presented by Artur Rodzinski and the Cleveland Orchestra in 1942.

In 1943 Schuman won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for Music for his cantata, A Free Song, adapted from poems by Walt Whitman. His composition, Prayer in Timer of War was premiered that same year by the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Fritz Reiner.

After World War II Schuman was commission to write several ballet scores in collaboration with the American Ballet Theater, the Louisville Symphony and the Martha Graham Ballet Company. His ballet score Judith won him a second New York Music Circle award in 1949. Isaac Stern was the soloist in the premiere of his Violin Concerto of 1947 and he continued to write symphonies into the early 1950s. His Symphony No. 7 was commissioned by the Koussevitsky Foundation for the 75th Anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Another commission from Martha Graham led to his ballet score, The Witch of Endor in 1965.

His New England Triptych for Orchestra (1956) was commissioned and presented by Andre Kostelanetz. From 1962 to 1969 he served as president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts in New York City and he presided over the opening of that renowned arts campus. His first major work as president was his Eighth Symphony which was presented by Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic. The Eighth Symphony carries the title Le fosse ardeatine, the name of a cave in Rome where hundreds of Christian and Jewish resistance fighters were executed by the Nazis in 1944.

His tenth and final symphony, entitled, American Muse, was composed in 1975 as a commission from the National Symphony Orchestra to celebrate the American Bicentennial. Schuman dedicated it to the country's creative artists. The premiere was conducted by Antal Dorati.

On a commission from the friends of artist Ben Shahn, he composed his canticle for orchestra, In Praise of Shahn, which was premiered by New York Philharmonic in 1969.

Administrator and Teacher

From 1935 to 1945, he taught composition at Sarah Lawrence College. In 1945, he became president of the Juilliard School of Music, founding the Juilliard String Quartet while there. He left in 1961 to take up the directorship of Lincoln Center. After his seven year tenure at Lincoln Center he became the director of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center as well as the director of the Koussevitsky Foundation and the Naumberg Foundation. He also served on the music panel of the National Endowment of the Arts and was vice-chairman of the U.S. delegation of UNESCO International Conference of Creative Artists.

Musical Legacy

Schuman left a substantial body of work. His "eight symphonies, numbered Three through Ten," as he himself put it (the first two were withdrawn), continue to grow in stature. His concerto for violin (1947, rev. 1959) has been hailed as among his "most powerful works...it could almost be considered a symphony for violin and orchestra." Other works include the New England Triptych (1956, based on melodies by William Billings), the American Festival Overture (1939), the ballets Undertow (1945) and Judith (1949) (the latter written for Martha Graham), the Mail Order Madrigals (1972) to texts from the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog, and two operas, The Mighty Casey (1953, based on Ernest L. Thayer's Casey at the Bat), which reflected his lifelong love of baseball, and A Question of Taste (1989, after a short story by Roald Dahl). He also arranged Charles Ives' organ piece Variations on "America" for orchestra in 1963, in which version it is better known. Two other popular works by for concert band were George Washington Bridge and Chester for concert band.

Though William Schuman was a modernist in many ways, he nonetheless believed in the importance of the communicative aspect of music. When a great deal of modern music resulted in the alienation of the public at large, Schuman remained an advocate for the emotive aspect of music, eschewing the purely formulaic or serial modes of composing in favor of a more "accessible" syntax.

In a typically insightful analogy on the importance of the conjugaton between composer and the public, he compared the contemporary atonal composer to a great orator who had an important message to share, but uses a language that was so specialized and complex that the message is rendered meaningless due to the inability for real communication to occur. For Schuman, composing music of affirmation and optimism was of great importance for him. Commenting on his Symphony No. 10, he stated, "I trust that the music emerges as an expression of affirmation."

Much of William Schuman's music reflects his advocacy of the communicative aspect of the artistic experience between the artist and his/her audience.

Important Works


  • The Mighty Casey (1953, based on Ernest L. Thayer's Casey at the Bat)
  • A Question of Taste (1989, after a short story by Roald Dahl)



  • Symphonies
    • Symphony No. 1 (1935, withdrawn)
    • Symphony No. 2 (1937, withdrawn)
    • Symphony No. 3 (1941)
    • Symphony No. 4 (1942)
    • Symphony for Strings (Symphony No. 5) (1943)
    • Symphony No. 6 (1948)
    • Symphony No. 7 (1960)
    • Symphony No. 8 (1962)
    • Symphony No. 9 (1968)
    • Symphony No. 10 The American Muse (1975)
  • American Festival Overture (1939)
  • Credendum (1955, commissioned by UNESCO)
  • New England Triptych (1956, based on melodies by William Billings)
  • In Praise of Shahn (1969)
  • American Hymn (1980)


  • Piano Concerto (1943)
  • Violin Concerto (1947, rev. 1959)
  • A Song of Orpheus, for cello and orchestra (1962)
  • To Thee Old Cause, for oboe and orchestra (1968)
  • Concerto on Old English Rounds, for viola, female chorus and orchestra (1974)
  • Three Colloquies, for horn and orchestra (1979)


  • Three Carols of Death (1958, to texts by Walt Whitman)
  • Mail Order Madrigals (1972, to texts from the 1897 Sears Roebuck catalog)
  • Perceptions (1982, to texts by Walt Whitman)



Newsreel, in Five Shots (1941)

  • George Washington Bridge (1950)

Chester Overture (1956) from New England Triptych

When Jesus Wept (1958) from New England Triptych

Philharmonic Fanfare (1965), unpubd [withdrawn]

Dedication Fanfare (1968)

Be Glad then, America (1975) from New England Triptych


  • Variations on "America", for orchestra (1963, arranged from Ives' organ piece with the same name)

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Adams, K. Gary. William Schuman: a bio-bibliography. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1998. ISBN 0-313-27359-6
  • Ewen, David. American Composers: A Biographical Dictionary. G.P. Putnam's Sons, New York, 1982. ISBN 0-399-12626-0
  • Rouse, Christopher, William Schuman, documentary: biographical essay, catalogue of works, discography, and bibliography, S.I.: Theodore Presser Co., 1980. OCLC 8729868


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