The year 2010 is the centennial of the birth of the American composer William Schuman (1910 -- 1992). In celebration of the occasion, Gerard Schwartz and the Seattle Symphony Orchestra have completed their cycle of Schuman's eight published symphonies (he declined to publish the first two) on the budget-priced Naxos label. This CD, the fourth of the series, includes Schuman's sixth symphony, while the final CD of the set includes Schuman's eighth.
Schuman had a full public life, serving as the president of the Juilliard School of Music and of the Lincoln Center; but his heart remained with composition. His music tends to be dissonant and brassy with a distinctly American and patriotic character, similar to Charles Ives. Aaron Copland made the following perceptive comment on Schuman's work.
"In Schuman's pieces you have the feeling that only an American could have written them. You hear it in his orchestration which is full of snap and brilliance. You hear it in the kind of American optimism which is at the basis of his music."
Schuman's Sixth Symphony dates from 1948 and was first performed the following year by the Dallas Symphony Orchestra conducted by Antal Dorati. Not well received at its premier, the sixth is a granitic, difficult work in a single movement that takes about 28 minutes to play. The work is full of shifts of tempo. The outer two sections, marked Largo and Larghissimo, frame four sections marked Moderato con moto, Leggieramente, Adagio, and Allegro-risoluto-Presto. The work maintains a unity for all the diversity of tempo and musical material. It is of a dense texture with a great deal of contrapuntal writing. Large-scale brass chorales and fanfares and percussion are featured, as is the case with much of Schuman. The symphony also includes extensive solo passages for violin, flute, oboe, and bassoon. The sixth has received mixed critical reviews, but I found it well worth hearing.
The remaining two works on this CD are more popular in character, and show the composer writing ceremonial, patriotic music. The "Prayer in a Time of War" dates from 1943. It is a composition of about fifteen minutes which meditates upon United States' participation in WW II. The two outer portions of the work are slow, reflective, somber, and prayerful. They frame a middle section which is lively with brass fanfares and with American themes of hope and optimism. The meditative, quiet portions of the work feature solo passages for the orchestra's inner voices, including the viola, cello, and horns. The work ends with a solemn battlefield commemoration featuring extended drum rolls. Schuman's commemoration of wartime suffering and sacrifice remains timely and moving.
The CD concludes on a lighter tone with Schuman's most famous composition. The New England Triptych dates from 1956 and adopts musical material from the American composer of the Revolutionary era, the self-taught and eccentric William Billings (1746 - 1800). The work opens with Schuman's brassy, percussive development of Billings' hymn "Be glad then America" which celebrates the United States' attainment of independence. The second movement is a beautiful slow setting of Billing's hymn "When Jesus Wept" which uses a reduced orchestra and places heavy emphasis on themes in the oboe. It also makes uses of a relatively unfamiliar percussion instrument, the tenor drum. The finale sets Billings' most famous work "Chester" to bring the piece to a patriotically brilliant conclusion:"Let tyrants shake their iron rod,/And Slav'ry clank her galling chains,/We fear them not, we trust in God,/New England's God forever reigns."
This CD features detailed descriptive liner notes by Joseph Polisi, the president of Juilliard and the author of a biography of William Schuman American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman (Amadeus) . The recording of the sixth symphony dates from 2008. The Prayer in Time of War was recorded in 2005 and the New England Triptych still earlier in 1990. The CD and its companions are deserved tributes to William Schuman and to American achievement in art music.