Episode 5 of Bughouse Square is out! Read the Story

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William Schuman discusses his career as a composer

BROADCAST: Apr. 10, 1986 | DURATION: 00:23:28

Synopsis

American composer William Schuman discusses his career as a composer and music educator at the Juilliard School.

Transcript

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Studs Terkel William Schuman. Mr. Schuman was the first winner, the first composer to win the Pulitzer Prize, Pulitzer Prize for music. And since then all sorts of awards--more than that, it's his life and his work. He's the head emeritus of the Juilliard School at Lincoln Center. I'm delighted that he's a guest too. Congratulations first of all.

William Schuman Thanks ever so much, Studs.

Studs Terkel On everything. On survival but mostly on your giftedness and so, suppose even before you start reflecting about the music and yourself and American poets whom you celebrate in song and the ballet works that you've written for too. Perhaps here, "Variations on America." This, just a word about that.

William Schuman Well, I have to tell you, but I have to tell you in three words rather than just one. Some years ago the organ was being dedicated at Philharmonic Hall in New York at Lincoln Center, which is now called Avery Fisher Hall, and E. Power Biggs was playing a work of ours called "Variations on America," and it was lumbering along, the pedals couldn't move so fast to make the piece successful. And I said to the man to my left, whose identity I will not reveal for a second for the purposes of this story I said, "That would make the most wonderful orchestra piece." Of course, I said that whoever did it would have to write percussion parts since they're missing in the orchestra. I said to him, "Now remember, it's my idea, not yours. I've got to do it." I called my publisher the next day and told them of this idea and he said, "Let me get back to you" and he said, "Well, the first person you have to get to is the musical executor of the Cowell estate-- of the Ives estate and that happens to be Henry Cowell the composer." I said, "He was sitting to me, next to me yesterday." So I call Henry and said, "Bless you." And that's how it started.

Studs Terkel And so this is your orchestral arrangement.

William Schuman This is my orchestral version of the Ives organ piece. [content removed, see catalog record]

Studs Terkel I was thinking, William Schuman, Bill, you asked if I can call you, I'm delighted. Because we've met a couple of times--

William Schuman Yes.

Studs Terkel Before. And once you were--you were a guest on this program, I remember.

William Schuman Oh yes.

Studs Terkel Long, long ago.

William Schuman A long time ago.

Studs Terkel And I'm thinking and listening to "Variations on America." You're, in a way it's you're tribute to Ives. One of the things about you, and this is not soft soaping you, is you know it's your generosity of spirit as well as your talents, whether you celebrate the poets long gone or contemporary. And so composers too. It's a celebration of America, really.

William Schuman Well, I feel very much an American composer. And if you'll forgive me for saying this in this wonderful city I also feel a New York composer, a very much a New York American composer.

Studs Terkel When you say a "New York American composer" does that have a certain significance to it?

William Schuman Well, only because people tell me that. So it is easier to believe them than to argue with them. I have a very close identity with my native city as well as of course my country.

Studs Terkel You know, as I look at you and hear your music, I think of a certain moment in my theatrical experience and I say "theatrical," it involved the ballet theater, which we know is a combination of drama and dance. And the one ballet I remember best, "Undertow," and it's your music. It didn't occur to me [really?]. It was William Schuman's music and Anthony [sic] Tudor's choreography. I never forgot how dramatic it was seeing it at the Civic Theater. You tell me it was back in '45.

William Schuman Yes, it was a remarkable work. I'm not--I'm now referring to Tudor's choreography obviously, not to my score. And he sent me a telegram--I had never met him--and the telegram said, "I understand you've never gone to the ballet. Will you write a ballet with me?" And it's true. I was brought up looking at modern dance. Martha Graham was very natural to me and as I like to say when I first saw ballet I was astonished at the dissonance of the curve after I'd known the consonance of the angle. It sort of worked the other way around and I worked this--Tudor gave me some of the ideas he had in mind for this libretto, if that's the proper thing to call it. And we really wrote the thing by telephone and by mail and I got the general outline and the story is all about a transgressor--we don't have time to go into what his transgressions were--but it ended up in a long, sustained, section which led to the murder of the protagonist and then a going away, a flight and Tudor said to me, he said, "Now Bill, what I really need here is a four minute musical essay on fear," which must be the greatest direction a composer ever had because it started my juices flowing immediately. So, if you're going to play some of it, it'll be the part leading up to the murder and then a little section on the fear, the running away.

Studs Terkel Yeah. So let me get that. He said a little musical essay or something on, on fear.

William Schuman Fear.

Studs Terkel And so, what do you--you don't mind if I probe just little. How do you work? When, so--do you recall what you did? Something that would make the audience feel fear.

William Schuman Well, it just, it just set me right off because I'm a composer and working up to this slow build up as you'll hear to the climax where there's the murder, and then the running away and it's just that. You're a composer so you respond to that kind of stimulus.

Studs Terkel I never forgot it. [content removed, see catalog record] Even as I listened to that passage, Mr. Schuman, that passage. In my mind's eye I see Michael Kidd. He was the boy in the Chicago production--

William Schuman Yes, oh, right.

Studs Terkel Of the Civic theater. Alicia Alonso I was the girl who was--

William Schuman Oh they were tremendous performers.

Studs Terkel Who was brutally raped, I remember. Attacked. But he was--it was a Studs Lonigan theme.

William Schuman Exactly, you put your finger right on it. Even those Studs would be far removed from Tudor's conscious world, it had the similar characteristics. I quite agree with you.

Studs Terkel And also--you know, as you're talking and I hear that the contemporary chor--you think of gangs, street gangs. There it was.

William Schuman And he had a marvelous vision of putting all this on the stage even though he used Greek names. It's all about the things you were just mentioning, it's all the same thing.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

William Schuman With the same human qualities regardless of period, time, or place.

Studs Terkel So it's you, William Schuman, ballet, symphonic works, choral works, the world is really your oyster. Band works.

William Schuman Well, I think most composers write in lots of different media and it's always interested me to write for schools. I'll tell you how it works. I always thought that the best composers should to try to write for schools because they don't write down. So I've written a lot of band music and a lot of choral music and the most interesting thing to me is when I come to whether Chicago, or the New York Philharmonic, or any other orchestra, the men and nowadays women too and the brass sections always say to me, "Well, I first played your music in high school." That's where they first knew about it. And that's, it makes you feel like a citizen. Because a symphonic world is not dying to get new music. But what the school world, the choral world, the band world--they want new music. They make you feel like a welcome citizen which is very [difficult?].

Studs Terkel I'm gonna ask you about that, your work as a music educator. We can't neglect that. You actually were the head of the Juilliard School for so long and the Lincoln Center, in a moment, after this message. Resuming with American composer William Schuman. You're known also as one of the best of music educators too. So what did you look for as a teacher?

William Schuman Well, I'll tell you, when I started teaching as a very young man--I taught--I was 24 I guess when I started teaching at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville,a progressive school for young women. Now it's co-ed and I was free to develop my own way and I found out that there was this quite specific subject that could be taught and that was the subject of listening.

Studs Terkel Listening?

William Schuman You could teach people how to listen just the way you could teach them to do any other special skill. And I developed that at great length and I developed the idea that music was not made up of lots of separate little things that you discovered. You didn't worry about the kidney or the wrist or the nose, you worried about the whole body. So I developed something, and I always thought of the fancy title as the Literature and Materials of Music. What are the compositions of music starting today and going back to antiquity? So some years later when I was asked to head the Juilliard School, I put that into practice and discontinued the entire theory department where you teach harmony as a separate thing from rhythm or orchestration or counterpoint and put everything together and just engaged composers. So we had a whole group of eight or ten wonderful composers who taught this. And I'm pleased to say that it has revolutionized the approach to the teaching of music. Because music is one, and the performers never had any identification with the so-called theoretical aspects of music, and through that program, they did. And while I was doing that I wanted to found a string quartet. There had been no resident string quartets and I got the board to agree with me to start a Juilliard string quartet and I got Bobby Mann and others to form it and that's still going strong today.

Studs Terkel Oh he's one of the best--one of the best in the world.

William Schuman Well, and the idea was that they would play new music with the reverence that you should have for masterpieces and they should play masterpieces with the excitement you should have for new music.

Studs Terkel So there it is. And, you know, it's the opposite of carp--compartmentalization.

William Schuman Exactly. Exactly the opposite of it. You take the whole. You go from the general to the particular, but it's the general that you must first understand.

Studs Terkel I like that phrase, you play contemporary music with the reverence you have for the established classes.

William Schuman Should have, at any rate.

Studs Terkel But you play the established classics with the exuberance of discovering something new.

William Schuman That's exactly right and that's what that quartet does and they've trained about 350 other string quartets in the last 40 years and it's revolutionized chamber music. So, years later when I went to Lincoln Center I was able to establish a Chamber Music Society to try to--

Studs Terkel Yeah.

William Schuman Embody these principles.

Studs Terkel So, in a way this is not, again I'm not--in a way, we know there's a resurgence of interest in chamber music. There is.

William Schuman Oh enormous.

Studs Terkel The Juilliard String Quartet in New York has played no small role on that.

William Schuman No, they have, they've been wonderful in that, absolutely wonderful.

Studs Terkel You then, and, and American literature and theater--the interests-- so the poets, the American poets, to whom you--whose lyrics become the--I suppose the inspiration for some of these pieces.

William Schuman Well, I've said a lot of American poets--especially Whitman--I've set yards and yards of Whitman but this coming year I'm, I've written a very big work which is going to be done in Chicago also, is, is a celebration of the Statue of Liberty and it's called "On Freedom's Ground." But I asked Richard Wilbur, the American poet, to write a special text. He's written the most magnificent text. So if the work doesn't go it's because I didn't do my part well because his words are wonderful. I think it's--they're not doing it here next season, I think it's the season after because they're doing something else next year.

Studs Terkel And your choice of poets too. Wilbur of course who's, talk about a salubrious style but also Wilbur's way of--

William Schuman Oh he's extraordinary. We had the most wonderful collaboration, it was a real collaboration. Never a harsh word but it was a result of two minds working together.

Studs Terkel You know, Langston Hughes. I think Langston Hughes, the Lord is a [unintelligible] and Langston [Hughes? used?] poetry of course and use of the idiom and Black life. And his, some of his lyrics become part of "American Hymn." In America.

William Schuman Actually--and actually that, that project started in Chicago. That was to be a publication called "American Hymns Old and New" as too have been published by The Chicago University Press. And I set that text of Langston Hughes actually years later something happened so it was eventually published by Columbia University Press, but it doesn't matter. It was a Langston Hughes text that started me off. I set it as a simple song, and then used that song for a big series of orchestral variations and a work that I call "American Hymn."

Studs Terkel So should we hear part of this? This is--this is where the--let's see who's playing this now?

William Schuman Leonard Slatkin.

Studs Terkel Oh this is Leonard Slatkin of course in that very fine St. Louis Symphony.

William Schuman Oh wonderful. And this is, the section we're going to hear as one of the variations, which is a very fast one, but I just wanted you to have the excitement of that section of it. [content removed, see catalog record]

Studs Terkel Boy that's exciting. That's got a surge to it.

William Schuman I love, I love that section. Now it sounds funny to say over a radio program that you love the section of the piece of music you've written, but there's lots of sections of music that I've written I don't love so I'm entitled to say that I love one if I do. I just get a kick out of that section.

Studs Terkel It's got a--and you know now I think of Langston Hughes, I think of blues of course too. That has a jazz quality to it. Particularly one particular section near the last part we heard.

William Schuman Yes it does.

Studs Terkel And it--but mostly it's got that surge.

William Schuman I remember when I was a young composer I was in Louisville and a student said to me in a very formal way, he said, "Dr. Schuman, do I detect the influence of jazz in that music?" I said, "That's no influence, that's jazz."

Studs Terkel At it's, yeah.

William Schuman Because that's born in you as an American composer. Not necessarily every American composer feels that way, but so many do.

Studs Terkel Was there one or two overwhelming influences of certain composers at the very beginning when you were quite young?

William Schuman Well I didn't hear any serious music until I was 19. Up to that time I'd written mostly popular songs with Frank Loesser incidentally. His first published song had my music. It's one of the first only, only flops he ever wrote as far as I know. No, I was influenced by all the music that I heard and popular music really springing for American speech is very much in my blood as it is with other American composers. It's not unique to me, of course.

Studs Terkel We'll come to that then after this message. Resuming with composer William Schuman. You said American themes and American speech. Your not yet recorded, I guess cantata, is it about "Casey at the Bat?"

William Schuman Well, "Casey at the Bat," the opera based on the famous doggerel--a poem called "The Mighty Casey" was first produced in the mid '50s and over the years it developed a cult following. So much so that that Schirmer's reissued a new score of it last year, and this summer it's going to be done at Cooperstown New York, which is a logical place for it, I think. It's like the "Passion Play of Oberammergau," only being done at Cooperstown. And I also published a cantata version called "Casey at the Bat" which Leonard Bernstein suggested that I do, so that orchestras who don't have the staging facilities can do it that way. But it's a, it's, it's a very profound treatment. And I say profound not in an egotistical sense but to indicate my attitude towards baseball, which is so much more than a game. Jacques Barzun has written if you'd understand--you cannot understand the American character unless you understand baseball.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

William Schuman And the whole choreography of baseball is so captivating to me. And baseball was the great passion of my youth.

Studs Terkel Of course DeWolf Hopper.

William Schuman DeWolf Hopper, yes.

Studs Terkel "Somewhere the sun is shining."

William Schuman That's right.

Studs Terkel And William Schuman "And somewhere children shout but there is no joy in Mudville--mighty Casey has struck out."

William Schuman He was famous for that.

Studs Terkel He does with that, that [pear-shaped?] [unintelligible].

William Schuman That's the basis of this whole opera--

Studs Terkel Yeah, yeah.

William Schuman And they're going to do some choruses from the opera tonight.

Studs Terkel I was about to say, so we'll hear the words of that poem.

William Schuman Yes you will. You will.

Studs Terkel We'll gotta hear that. "Strike one. Casey, you mighty Casey." You know--

William Schuman "That ain't my style, said Casey"

Studs Terkel "That ain't my style, said Casey."

William Schuman "Strike one, the umpire said."

Studs Terkel "And the crowd and the almighty roar."

William Schuman [laughing]

Studs Terkel This is wonderful. William Schuman--

William Schuman We ought to do this together, Studs, I think we make a good team.

Studs Terkel Oh, I'd love to do "Casey at the Bat." It's the ham in me. So Whitman of course you celebrate a great deal.

William Schuman Yes, yes.

Studs Terkel And you have Edna St. Vincent Millay and Sandburg.

William Schuman Oh, all of those, yes.

Studs Terkel This one, "The Carols of Death:" "To each to all, to each come lovely and soothing death. Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving. In the day, in the night, to all, to each, sooner or later delicate death." I suppose the word here is delicate. Delicate.

William Schuman Oh, you'll hear. [content removed, see catalog record]

Studs Terkel Delicate is the word deeply moving. These are your--so, your repertoire as a [broad--?]--coming back, not unrelated to your approach to education overall, not something specialized but everything related.

William Schuman Well I think it's--

Studs Terkel And so you compose in all forms.

William Schuman I think it's like one's nature. You read a magazine article and you read a great book. You have different appetites, different things that appeal for different times. And I would find it uninteresting just to stick to one thing. I couldn't do that.

Studs Terkel I haven't asked about your symphonies, and there too your symphonies [unintelligible] sometimes reflect also a mood of a country.

William Schuman Well that's the bulk of my output of the symphonies but there are lots of other orchestral works and choral works and band works that as you've pointed out that are very different. I have a lot of concertos and I'm doing chamber music work now more than ever before. I find I'm drawn to that very much at this particular time of my life.

Studs Terkel A while ago, we spoke of the resurgence of interest in chamber music. That is so isn't it?

William Schuman Oh it's absolutely popular now. Thirty-five years ago, you couldn't give it away. The halls are empty, now they're full. It's the most exciting development. The same has happened with opera, of course. My only disappointment, at all, is that the ballet companies no longer really use the contemporary composers. The exciting days of the ballet theater that we talked about earlier, you have this enormous variety of works, not just the old chestnuts. I'm afraid that's--a little disap--that'll all change. These things go in cycles.

Studs Terkel But, speaking of the ballet theater, I was saying that it's theater. You say the word theater. It's ballet alright, but it was like seeing a play--

William Schuman Of course.

Studs Terkel But the actors are a foot or two above the pavement. Yeah.

William Schuman I love that description.

Studs Terkel And that's true, seeing--I'll never forget--come back to "Undertow" again. It's funny how something has a certain memory of a play, or an opera--in this case a ballet--that sticks in your mind. And it's William Schuman's music and Tudor's choreography of "Undertow." Also I know you pay tribute to some of your colleagues who work in different art form--one to Ben Shahn the painter.

William Schuman Oh yes, that was a privilege to write. I wrote, I wrote a work that was commissioned after his death and it's a very powerful and uplifting piece. It's not a mournful piece in any way because that wasn't his nature. And I tried to capture that in the music.

Studs Terkel Ives in your mind too, we think Charles Ives--but you--so you do a New England. There's one work called the "New England Triptych," that you did.

William Schuman Yes. And that, that has an interesting history. I was enamored of the music of William Billings, as some think was the first professional composer in America. He was certainly one of the first public advertising men--he was a great promoter of his own music--and I like Billings' music and I used to perform it when I conducted choruses and it occurred to me that an overture based on some of his music might be very interesting. So I put out something called "William Billings Overture" and it didn't go at all--I didn't like it. I wasn't sure what was wrong with it. Thor Johnson, when he conducted in Cincinnati, I used to love that work and played it all the time. I finally said, "Thor, you know, please don't play it anymore. There's something wrong with it and I can't figure it out." And one day it occurred to me when Andre Kostelanetz had asked for work, that the trouble with the "William Billings Overture" is I tried to put three or four things into the single overture and it went by too swiftly. So I rethought the whole thing and put out this music called "New England Triptych," which is not so much based on music of William Billings as taking his music and bringing it into my own bloodstream and casting it into three movements, the first spending--coming from--loosely from an anthem of his called, "Be Glad, America," the second that magnificent round of his called "When Jesus Wept," and the third, "Chester," which was both a hymn and a marching song of the American Revolution. And my hope was to create music that used Billings as a starting-off point, but nevertheless was my own music. And I have to tell you with the greatest pleasure that is the most successful piece I've ever written--but it wasn't in the original form.

Studs Terkel So this--this is interesting. You're dissatisfied with what originally came out.

William Schuman Yes.

Studs Terkel This has happened on occa--you did--

William Schuman Oh yes. I've withdrawn my first and second symphonies. I hope to revise them and I've withdrawn other works. You're no better composer than what you've thrown to the waste--paste basket. You're a critic.

Studs Terkel When you withdraw it, now you're, you judge it. You--something. You are the critic.

William Schuman Well, no one else can be for you. And, and if--well, you know this as a writer yourself. If you're lenient with yourself, your best work doesn't get put out. You have to be ruthless. I remember a cartoon many years ago--I think it was in "The New Yorker" or some similar magazine if there was a similar one: it showed a man in a room full of paper--overflowing waste paper baskets. And he was saying to his wife, "You know, I've rewritten this chapter fifteen times and it still doesn't sound spontaneous."

Studs Terkel [laughter]

William Schuman Which is it of course.

Studs Terkel Yeah. It had to have that fresh quality to you. So "Chester"--what will your Ches--I guess "Chester," some call that the "Marseillaise" of the American Revolution.

William Schuman Could have been. And that's a very short piece that comes at the end of these long ones and that would be lovely one to play.

Studs Terkel I was saying, before we hear "Chester," and [back? perhaps?] before that, "When Jesus Wept" and a word about that before we resume. We'll have this pause. William Schuman is my guest and after this message we'll resume for the last lap with William Schuman. And so resuming where we left off with composer William Schuman, And this is the triptych--the last--"When Jesus Wept" will go into "Chester." A word about "When Jesus Wept." You said it's round.

William Schuman "When Jesus Wept" is a beautiful, simple round--one of the most beautiful melodies I think I've ever heard. And I took that melody and I started it with a free introduction--which you'll hear. You'll hear a drum, a rather foreboding drum--a tenor drum and a duet between an oboe and a bassoon. And then it will go into the round which is more or less played in its original form, but then developed, and then it goes far afield from its original form and becomes much more complicated. But I think the spirit of that round is always there and it's a very quiet and contemplative piece and it ends quietly and it leads quite naturally to the rigorous statement that follows and with "Chester" and with those, with those two movements to work is brought to a close.

Studs Terkel And suppose we end the program with that--as we listen to the music--the last two movements of the "New England Triptych" of William Schuman, my guest by way of--any, a postscript you have to have before we hear the music?

William Schuman I think you've been so generous in all the time you've given me I'd be gluttonous if I were to add anything more. Not another word, Studs. I've enjoyed it immensely.

Studs Terkel Thank you very much, and congratulations.

William Schuman Thank you. [content removed, see catalog record]