In last week’s Dr. Bob Prescribes post, I asserted that the composers Roy Harris (1898-1979) and his student William Schuman (1910-1992)
“are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.”
I have received no evidence in the intervening week that that statement isn’t as true today as it was on April 9. Accordingly, I will (and not for the first time) repeat myself even as I flesh that statement out just a bit:
“Roy Harris (1898-1979), who composed 13 numbered symphonies between 1933 and 1974 and his student William Schuman (1910-1992), who composed 10 numbered symphonies between 1935 and 1976, are generally considered to be the two greatest American composers of symphonies to have yet graced our planet.”
Does anyone want to argue with that
William Howard Schuman, known to everyone as “Bill”, was born on the upper West Side of Manhattan Island, New York, New York (a.k.a. “the Big Apple”, “the city so big they had to name it twice”) on August 4, 1910. He grew up in a middle-class Jewish household; by his own account, a happy, regular kid.
He taught himself to play the violin by ear at the age of twelve in order to be able to play in the school dance band. Through his teens, his musical interest continued to be in popular music: dance music and jazz. Like the rock & roll wannabes of my generation (the late 1960s), who learned to strum the very few chords necessary to play Proud Mary and Indagadavida; who played air guitar while lying in bed dreaming of glory and girls; who organized garage bands with idiotic names like “The Scammers” and “Cold Sun” (I kid you not; I played in both of those bands); who played hackneyed versions of top forty songs as well as their own, usually awful “originals”; like the rock & rollers of my generation, Bill Schuman was a musical hobbyist: a kid who organized the Washington High School dance band which was appropriately called “Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra”, who created melodies for songs (over 200 of them), but was, for all intents and purposes, a musical illiterate.
After high school graduation, Schuman enrolled at the School of Commerce at New York University, which he attended for two years. Had he completed his course of study, he would almost certainly have followed his father into a career in business. However, he did not complete his degree at NYU’s School of Commerce because of a single event that – according to Schumann family legend – forever changed his life.
For years, Schuman’s mother had been trying to get him to listen to some “real” music, “legitimate” music, something other than that “horrible, noisy, dance music.” Finally, according to Schuman, she put it to him as a challenge:
“I can’t imagine anyone so lacking in curiosity as to not be willing to listen, at least once, to some serious music!”
If only to shut his mother up, Schuman allowed himself to be dragged to Carnegie Hall, where he heard Arturo Toscanini conduct the New York Philharmonic in a program of music by the other Schumann (Robert), Richard Wagner, and Zoltan Kodály. He was enthralled; by his own admission, he was totally impressed by the way the strings all bowed in the same direction and by the fact that the drums didn’t play continuously through an entire piece, as they did in dance bands.
The concert was, for Schumann, a life-changing epiphany. Within a day or two, according to Michael Steinberg:
“He stopped in at the Malkin School of Music and said, ‘I want to be a composer. What do I have to do?’ He was told he would have to study harmony, which would be $1.00 per class or $3.00 for a private lesson. Next thing, he was a pupil of Max Persin, who had studied with [Anton] Arensky at the Moscow Conservatory and whom Schuman described as ‘something of a visionary, a wonderful influence and a marvelous teacher.”
According to Schumann himself, for the next five years he “ate, slept, and lived” at Carnegie Hall and Town Hall, typically attending both matinee and evening concerts on the same day. Schuman quickly figured out how to attend two concerts for the price of one. He would buy a ticket to an afternoon show and then, armed with a book and a sandwich, retire undisturbed to a stall in the men’s room, there to await the next concert, at which he would take whatever seat was available. …
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