William Schuman Interview

  • PDF: https://www.jstor.org/stable/40374275


The circumstances surrounding the William Schuman Interview are fascinating when I look back over events that took place almost thirty years ago. In December 1965 I wrote William Schuman at Lincoln Center inviting him to contribute an essay on his orchestral works for a collection that I was gathering for publication under the title The Orchestral Composer's Point of View: Essays On Twentieth-Century Music By Those Who Wrote It. A year earlier a collection dealing with twentieth-century choral music was published by the University of Oklahoma Press (now in reprint by Greenwood Press) with essays by leading American and European composers. I had invited William Schuman to contribute to this first book, but his commitments were such that he had to decline. So I was delighted when he agreed to write about his music for the orchestral collection. These essays would also deal with the hotly debated question at that time: Is the symphony orchestra a museum, functioning as it does in our society dedicated to the preservation of symphonic works of the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or is the orchestra still capable of new musical expression in the skillful hands of composers who comprehend and have affection for large musical forces?

The deadline for contributors' essays was set for May 1967. When that date came and passed with no essay from Schuman, I wrote him at Lincoln Center. He called immediately to say he was extremely busy with duties at the Center and that he had not had time to write the essay. But he suggested an alternative: would I consider writing more detailed information about the general format of the essays including questions that I wanted discussed and answered in composers' essays, send them on to him, and fly to New York to tape his answers in an interview? Then, later over the summer, I would revise the interview into an essay for his additions, deletions and final approval. I readily agreed because as a student at the Juilliard School and numerous times since graduation I had seen and heard firsthand what a brilliant, analytical and creative mind he possessed when engaged in discourse on a subject that intrigued him.

On July 6, 1967, we met in his Lincoln Center office and taped his comments. That summer I edited his thoughts into essay format (quite different in form from this Interview) and forwarded the manuscript to New York. In the fall, he called to apologize because he had reluctantly decided that the essay was too revealing in comments about the current scene and the music of other composers which might be misinterpreted in view of his highly visible role as president of Lincoln Center.

Doubtless, Schuman was more open with me in his discussion of his compositions, the music of other composers and the current scene because of personal ties dating back to my student days at the Juilliard School (1946-52). I recall him commenting on his unusual frankness in the interview immediately after we had completed our taping session. Juilliard alumni and alumnae will attest that William Schuman had a remarkable memory and great affection for students that attended Juilliard during his years as president. And, after graduation, he followed our careers with much pride and we his.

In retrospect I remember having little difficulty understanding Schuman's decision not to allow publication. However, knowing that I would be disappointed, he had thought of and proposed an alternative—that he write an introduction to the collection. I liked the suggestion; he was an obvious choice in view of his post at Lincoln Center where he had an overview of past and current twentieth-century compositional practices. In December, I received his "Introduction" which was both a wonderful opening to the collection and an insightful discussion of the future of the orchestra and its forms.

Although I had never entirely forgotten the original interview, it came back forcefully in June 1993 when my wife and I were in New York City and heard In Praise of Shahn (1970) performed by the New York Philharmonic and saw Undertow (1945, choreography by Anthony Tudor) danced by the American Ballet Theater. On the long plane ride back to Honolulu, I decided that I should restore the original interview and seek approval for publication from the composer's wife, Mrs. Frances Schuman. After reading the text of the interview and consulting family and colleagues of her husband, Mrs. Schuman graciously consented to publication.

I believe that most readers will find this 1967 interview as engrossing as I did after many years. Indeed, it is a valuable oral-history document which tells much about William Schuman the person, the composer, the observer of trends, the times and his opinions of the works of composers of the twentieth century and earlier periods of music history.


* * *


Hines: Recently there has been a great deal of discussion and controversy concerning the symphony orchestra and the symphonic genre. There are those who say that the symphony orchestra and the forms that evolved with it throughout history are obsolete and no longer valid. What is your reaction to such a statement?

Schuman: The symphony orchestra in its present form, plus the addition of instruments that may come along, including electronic sound, will be valid as long as there are people of imagination to write for it. I include electronic music since it is the inclusion of another instrument in the spectrum of musical possibilities. Our time has been an especially rich period in the creation of music for the symphony orchestra. The symphony orchestra is a unique medium, as are the string quartet—the most intimate form—the chorus, and, certainly, the opera. To me the symphony orchestra is the avenue by which or through which composers express themselves when they have ideas that require large forces of instrumentalists.

People have made Cassandra-like remarks about the demise of the symphony orchestra. The same thing has been written and said about the theater for years but the theater has never been in as healthy a condition in the United States as it is now. Even though the commercial theater has lost to a certain degree in New York in that fewer musicals are operating, and it is all the big blockbusters, the big musicals, the big hits, and not so much controversial drama that is produced. But, this is offset by the fantastic development of the theater throughout the United States which is going to be the theater of the future in this country. Similarly, if those who think the symphony orchestra is dying will take a look at the proliferation of orchestras in our country, there might be some statistical doubts to the contrary. But, getting back to the composer's point of view, which is really the purpose behind your question, it is hard to imagine that composers will not continue to be born who will wish to express themselves using large forces of instrumentalists.

Often people confuse the medium of large numbers of instrumentalists, how they are disposed and how they are juxtaposed with the musical form called the symphony. Here I come to the second part of your question. I think that the form of the symphony is no more invalid than that of the novel. For instance, the novel of today is a very different affair than it was in the time of Michael Fielding. Likewise, the symphonic form is a very different expression today in the hands of contemporary composers than it was in the hands of Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven. Yet the principles remain exactly the same. A composer writes for the symphony orchestra because he/she has a number of characters [themes] to present and develop in musical terms. In order to develop them in the terms that they indicate and demand, the composer needs large forces. It is absolutely false to argue whether you have symphonic music, electronic music or chamber music. This is all beside the point. So, I go back to my original statement: as long as composers of imagination wish to express themselves through large musical forces, the symphony orchestra will remain as viable a medium for the future as it has been in the past.

Hines: It occurs to me that perhaps there is confusion because some composers write music that would be best expressed with a chamber ensemble.

Schuman: Yes, I think that is true. Many composers today, not all by any means, but many, do not exploit the resources of the symphony orchestra. They will have a full orchestra on stage and only use a few instruments here and there, a pointillistic kind of treatment. This has not worked too well, although it can for shorter pieces. Another problem is that many of the melodic lines in certain kinds of modern music seem to point only to a note here and a note there. This is an interesting device, but the symphony orchestra is basically a large ensemble which requires line and form, comprehension of line and form by the listener. The use of the symphony orchestra is fundamentally the unfolding of a drama, and the unfolding of that drama is as clear as the exposition of a play. Just last week I was reminding some teachers that listening to a symphony is an exercise, it is a discipline—an exercise in attention and memory. I made the analogy that in baseball if the man at bat bunts and is thrown out at first, this play has no significance to the person who witnesses it unless he/she knows that the batter bunted to sacrifice so that the runner on first could advance to second. The arts too are filled with myriad points which must be appreciated, discovered, understood in order to appreciate the range from the most subtle to the most complex. I keep stressing this point because I think that the composer has many different media for expression. Therefore, it is inconceivable to me that perhaps the most dramatic of instrumental combinations, the greatest force of instrumental performers, will not be attractive to composers of the future.

Hines: When you look back over your life as a composer, what were the things that attracted you to the symphonic medium as a young man?

Schuman: It is always difficult to do that. I am not very good at looking back, I prefer to look ahead. This summer I expect to start my Ninth Symphony (1967), which is evidence in my own work that I believe very much in the validity of the symphonic form and orchestra. It was never a conscious decision. When I was very young and knew that I wanted to write music, the first thing I did was to try to write a symphony. I had never written any piece over a minute-and-a-half or two minutes long, but I decided I would write a symphony. And, I did. My First Symphony (1936), wisely, I believe, has been withdrawn. Maybe some day I will want to rewrite it. I don't know. But it seemed to me just as natural to compose a symphony as a writer would want to write a novel or a poet would want to write an epic poem. To this day, the excitement of being able to create musical materials for the symphony orchestra remains as thrilling and meaningful as always.

This does not imply that when I am writing a string quartet or choral work that I am not completely absorbed. Actually, there is nothing in the world that I would rather be doing. Likewise, when I am absorbed in composing a symphony, this medium is absolutely special because it relates to the ideas I have on my mind that I want to express orchestrally. The things that I am thinking about this summer as I begin work on the Ninth Symphony I could not possibly conceive of being located, if I may use that word, in any other medium except large instrumental forces.

Hines: When you say located, do you mean that when you think of musical ideas, that you hear them in a context?

Schuman: I begin in many different ways. The pervading element of any piece that I begin is my own desire to come to some conclusion with myself as to the emotional climate that I am striving for. By this is meant every kind of musical possibility that one could attach to it: will this work be a half hour in duration, will it begin softly, will it start with a trombone solo, or will it open with the strings playing frantically. Some conclusion must be reached in my mind, and I do this together with the inventing of musical materials. This process is accomplished by taking long walks and singing, sometimes out loud, if not within earshot of anyone, because that is always embarrassing—perhaps even more for them than for me. I do it by singing. Everything is singing; however I have never consciously in my whole life "assigned" a melody to an instrument. I always think of the melody in terms of the instrument, never separately. When I stop to sing a theme in my mind, I am singing the sounds of an instrument, not an abstract sound. So, as I go into the labor of composing my Ninth Symphony in two weeks, I am not quite certain yet what I have in mind but, each day as I think about the work, it is becoming clearer. Then, when I have the emotional climate quite firmly in mind, at least how I want to begin, then I make tentative plans as to how I think this work is going to proceed. However, these tentative plans can all be junked as I go along writing because I retain flexibility. The reason I retain flexibility is that as I invent each character I listen to the qualities of that character, and it must tell me where it goes from there. I do not like to superimpose my own judgments. Now this sounds a bit peculiar, and I am stating it in a rather complicated way, so let me make an analogy to literature. Sometimes you feel when you read a novel that is not entirely successful, that the author has created a character which is not developed logically from the character invented. The author has superimposed his/her own ideas as to where that character should go. The same thing applies to music. You develop a series of ideas, maybe two or three that are stated simultaneously. In my creative process, everything works together—instrumentation, song, harmony, form and orchestration are all bound up.

I am also terribly conscious of time. If I listen to a piece of music that I have never heard in the concert hall, I always look at my watch before it begins. When the piece is over, I say to myself, 12 minutes and 20 seconds. If I am off by a few seconds, I am unhappy with myself. Consequently, when I am composing a new work, I tend to think of it in sections that will take 4 or 5 minutes to develop fully, then it is clear how the transition should proceed, whether it will be sudden or gradual.

All of the elements of symphonic form are endlessly fascinating to me if I can continue to develop them in a natural way and continue to develop greater simplicity out of the increasing complexity of what I write. Simplicity is something that a composer must master, yet this does not always come across to listeners. People tell me that the best work that I have written is the Sixth Symphony (1949). I do not know whether it is or is not; I hope that I have no stepchildren, therefore I would not want to cite one work. But the Sixth Symphony, contrapuntally speaking, is a very complex work to listen to, people tell me. Yet to me it is as clear as A B C, and I cannot understand what they are saying. I have taught enough years to know that they speak the truth, but I still do not understand. So when I say simple, it has to be simple to me as the composer in that the architecture is clear. If I were to choose one word to describe my preoccupation, my objective preoccupation, it is the word clarity—clarity of architecture. At any single moment, I must know, and I hope the listener knows too, the forces at work: what are their comparative strengths, what complicated things are happening in the brass, how are these things weighted against the statements being made simultaneously in the strings, and which sections are to the fore. Now these thoughts are certainly not original to me, but my process of composition is as personal as every other composer's must be. I cannot fully explain it. Only the objective part can be discussed and I cannot explain how a melody is invented. This is done in a natural way.

When I was in my late twenties and wrote the Third Symphony (1941), someone pointed out to me years later that the passacaglia theme was twelve-tone. I do not remember, and I have not counted the notes. Perhaps it is, perhaps it is not, or maybe almost. But, that would never occur to me because writing a twelve-tone melody is an ancient concept of melodic writing in which tones are saved to make them sound fresh. For example, if a melody is written in the Dorian mode (the white notes on the piano keyboard beginning on D) with recurring E-natural and B-natural, then the composer suddenly switches to Phrygian mode and introduces B-flat and E-flat, those notes will sound like heaven because they are fresh. This is an instinct composers have always had. Some save pitches in a conscious way by never stating them, or as I do, in an intuitive way. Successful form is where the listener expects something to happen and it happens to satisfy, but in a different way. If it is exactly as the listener anticipates, then it is pedestrian. But, if it pleases the listener in a unique manner, then it becomes inventive.

This is not directly related to our conversation, but I think that the greatest music written in the world has not been in the works of the so-called perfect works. For instance, I would say that the Violin Concerto in e minor of Felix Mendelssohn is a perfect work. Many people have said that it is a perfect work, and I concur. However, I believe that the Third Symphony of Robert Schumann is a much greater work, although it is obviously imperfect, and filled with spots that do not quite come off. He is the greater of the two composers even though he never wrote a symphonic masterpiece in the sense that Mendelssohn did.

Hines: Could we return to our discussion of form? You said that the basic concept you start with dictates the form of a work.

Schuman: Yes, because it is dictating something that is inherent within its own destiny. Form is to realize the inherent destiny of materials, and these act upon one another. Form as it develops acts to influence the nature of the materials, and the materials act to influence the form. Of course, I speak about this in ideal terms as though it is always happening some other place. Obviously, the determining factor is in the composer's mind and inner ear. Form is basically what happens next. If what happens next does not have a basic human truth, it will not succeed in the long term. Human truth means the perception that human beings are able to bring to music, and I believe that this is why so many works take many years to be accepted by a large public. The greatest music that has been written, the last great string quartets of Beethoven, have extremely complex structures. The unconventional formal structures of some of these works have kept them from being understood and easily perceived even by chamber music lovers who are supposed to have esoteric achievements as listeners. Frankly, this music is far under-appreciated in the world, and I would conclude that Beethoven's late quartets are music for the future in terms of their acceptance. Bela Bartók's string quartets are much easier to perceive. I personally think that they will have a much shorter life because they use color devices as material. When a composer uses timbre in this way, he/she eventually ends up writing works that are exotic. This is an over-simplification, which sounds as if I am trying to belittle Bartók. Of course, I am not! He was a great master, but I contend that he will prove to be a secondary great master, and I am perfectly happy to go out on that limb.

Hines: What about Claude Debussy? Would he fall into that category?

Schuman: He would also. Please understand that calling a composer a secondary master is very high praise. When talking about the giants, you are talking about a very few people. The bulk of music is composed by great composers, not Beethoven, Mozart or Bach, per se. These are not the names that make up the literature of music, the three or the five greatest composers who lived. It is the larger company of great composers. Certainly, Bartók is one, Debussy another, whereas César Cui would not be. The greatest achievement that a composer can have in a lifetime is to somehow create works that enter the mainstream. Being a romantic, I think that the music that one writes eventually enters that stream at whatever level its materials entitle it to in the future, not right away. To be personal, a composer who is honest does not know if he/she is overrated or underrated—and will not be around to find out. Composers who feel that even without recognition they will enter the mainstream are probably indulging in dangerous day-dreaming. There are no examples of this happening in the history of music, Bach notwithstanding. He was certainly recognized in his time even though it took many years for his works to enter the mainstream. There are always people around who recognize the worth of composers.

Hines: What you are saying is that it is a romantic fantasy that talented composers starve in garrets.

Schuman: That's right! Because you have asked me to be personal in these comments, there is something that I would like to say. The one thing that I have disciplined myself about, not only now (I am 56 and will be 57 in August [1967]) but also in my twenties when composing my first symphonies, I have never permitted myself the luxury of being misunderstood. I have always just wanted to compose, and I have always taken the strict view that it is my job to write. Consequently, I have never taken my music around to be performed. If the performers want to know about it, it is their job to find out about it. I give it to a publisher. Fortunately, I have been lucky to have publishers who wanted to issue the music. The thing to do is to write music and not worry about its acceptance. This view is terribly important. So many composers are embittered because they feel that they have not been properly accepted. Well, any composer would like to be more, rather than less performed. That is not the issue. The issue is that the composer's job is to write music to the best of his/her ability. This is the composer's obligation. Sometimes composers spend a great deal of time pushing their own music. That is pathetic because it proves absolutely nothing. Another thing, it is impractical as an administrator. Someone called me when it was known that I was leaving the Juilliard School of Music and said, "How does one apply for the presidency of the Juilliard School." Well, I tactfully tried to explain that anybody who had to apply for the job would never get it or any similar position. The same thing applies to the composer. If the composer has to try to sell his/her music, then it is not very good. People know about it. And, the conductors who do not play your music, it is not because they do not know about it but usually because they do not admire it. Period! Of course, you can kid yourself by saying it is some other reason, but that is the reason. Or, they do not understand it, or they are afraid to play something that will not be a success. It is all of these things.

Hines: I was wondering if you see any particular path that your works have taken over the years. For instance, I noticed an eleven-year hiatus, which may or may not be important, between your Symphony No.6 (1949) and your Symphony No.7 (1960).

Schuman: Let me stop you there for a moment. I could have called Credendum a symphony.

Hines: I have wondered about that because for me as a listener, it is a three-movement symphony.

Schuman: Yes, I could have easily called it a symphony if I were trying to roll up the number of symphonies I had written, but it does not have as many complex elements in it as I have in my symphonies. The Fifth Symphony (1943) is more multi-character than the Credendum. It never occurred to me while writing Credendum to call it a symphony. As to your question why I wrote other works in between, I do not remember. Although I have no catalog here, I am sure that there were some large works written during those years.

Hines: Several that I recall: the choreographic poem Judith (1950), Credendum (1955), New England Triptych (1956) and the music for the film The Earth Is Born (1957). Then there was the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, composed in 1947, which you revised in 1950 and 1954.

Schuman: Yes, that was a large work and took a lot of time. I also wrote the "baseball" opera, The Mighty Casey (1954).

Hines: What interested me about your Credendum was the orchestration. I tried to recall from recordings of other works and from live performances that I had heard during student days at Juilliard when you had used the wind band and percussion for an entire movement, and I could not.

Schuman: When I began this work, which was commissioned by the U. S. Department of State for UNESCO, I had an extramusical idea, which I will call a declaration, and I sought a suitable musical environment for the materials. The wind band and percussion of the orchestra for the first movement was a natural choice. Strings would have spoiled it.

Hines: Your device of building thematic material from one or two notes in Credendum reminded me of a Beethoven-like approach to composition.

Schuman: It starts out with a ninth, as I remember. No, I just thought of that as a melody. That is what it is to me. It is origin-development of melodic materials which I do frequently.

Hines: Another device I have noticed is the major and minor of the same chord sounding simultaneously.

Schuman: Yes, I often do that, and in certain works I do it a great deal—the Fourth String Quartet (1950), for example. Writers on music have commented on my use of this device, but I was not conscious of using it. The reason you find this device goes back to my preoccupation with atmosphere, because I do not use harmony as a device for musical progression, but as an environmental factor for the kind of horizontal sounds that I am interested in at that particular moment. Sometimes contrapuntal lines will go through harmonic structures, but more often they will not. They will be independent contrapuntal lines, but always forming some specific kind of overall harmonic effect. However, it is not harmony of progression. If a harmonic progress is heard, it is incidental, not intentionally there.

Hines: Then you are saying that your compositional style is parallel to composers of the Renaissance period—horizontal rather than vertical in concept.

Schuman: That is absolutely true. I do not think of the bass line as being a line of production. I do not use harmony in that way and have not since student days. But the reason one finds certain kinds of devices is this: when I use certain figures, these figures will relate to harmony that is really one line that is harmonized. I try more often than not to keep a certain kind of harmony going during a section because it is the kind of feeling that I want. In other words, I do not wish to distract the listener from what I am saying by having harmony itself intrude as an element. The harmonic texture is to give a tonal palette to a particular section. That is its purpose—rhythm, melody, form and the orchestra carry the weight. I do not use harmony in that other sense at all.

Theorists and others who have commented on my music are always analyzing the harmonic element, and I think quite falsely. Maybe these people are analyzing it correctly. It is hard to know. I have read numerous articles sent to me in the post. I got one the other day, a doctoral thesis on my choral music, and I was astounded to read about some of the things I was doing as a composer. Maybe he was right, and maybe not, but he was objectifying things which were not part of an objective process. I guess it is like trying to judge your own paintings if you are an artist.

Hines: What you are saying is that all the elements of your art, the melodic, harmonic, rhythmic, color and orchestration are such an integrated process in your thinking that you are not aware of, "Well, I will use this device." What results musically happens because the materials interact and dictate the outcome.

Schuman: Correct! Aaron Copland was amazed when I told him about this method of working. Our conversation came about this way. I had asked him how he was progressing on composing a work commissioned in celebration of the opening of Lincoln Center. He said that he had completed writing the end of the movement. I said, "I did not realize that you had finished it." Aaron said, "No, I am not finished, I am just writing the ending." He was astonished when I told him that I never wrote a piece out of sequence, that it was impossible for me. I start at the beginning and work my way toward the end. I never could stop and write an ending. Now, this does not mean that I do not consider what the ending will eventually turn out to be, but I always compose chronologically.

Hines: Another work of yours that interests me is Song of Orpheus. When I listened to it again the other night, the idea passed through my mind: is this work a twentieth-century interpretation of the concerto, Schuman's idea of what a concerto should be, or simply a work that is an incidental composition somewhere between the two forms?

Schuman: My aim in writing the fantasy for cello and orchestra, Song of Orpheus (1962) was to compose a piece which exploited that instrument, yet a piece where the other instruments needed the cello, and a work in which the cello could be heard at every moment. It is not a bravura piece in the conventional sense of the concerto; however it certainly exploits the instrument and challenges the soloist. Leonard Rose, who has played it, will confirm that. Thanks to Vincent Persichetti, I fell upon the happy idea of using this solo song that I had composed many years ago as melodic inspiration. He had suggested that some day I should consider writing variations on it. At the time, I did not think the suggestion had merit. So, I never thought of it until I agreed to compose this piece, then Vincent's suggestion popped into my head again.

As I began to compose Song of Orpheus, I decided to open with a statement of the theme by the cello. I soon found myself enjoying the freedom to interrupt the song with harmonic statements, little things which gave atmosphere, and enjoying the business of interpreting the song in a different way than I had done before. As the variations unfolded, they evolved into very unconventional variations which centered around one or two segments of the melody. Certainly, Song of Orpheus is symphonic in form the same as Credendum. I did not call it a concerto because I think of it as a fantasy with a simpler approach.

Hines: Have there been changes over the years in your treatment of the orchestra?

Schuman: Yes, there have been some fundamental changes. In my early works, I tended toward a more isolated use of the choirs than I do now. Today, my orchestration is more mixed. This does not mean that I still do not separate choirs. The Third Symphony (1941) is an example of where the choirs are used separately quite extensively but also combined. What has happened is a natural growth and maturing. There are many things that I would never do again. The American Festival Overture (1939) is obviously a piece that could only have been composed by someone in his/her twenties or maybe thirties, but not an older person. This overture is a musical pep talk, brash and all those things. In my mind, the Third Symphony marks the beginning of my growing up process. The Song of Orpheus is a piece that I never could have written twenty years ago. After all, you are a different person in your fifties. Composers are no different from other people in this respect. I feel just as much enthusiasm as I have always felt for composing music, but things are not as black and white or exaggerated in mature years. Of course, it becomes more difficult to compose, to get works past your desk, because your standards are always higher. Contrary to general opinion, it is very difficult for young artists to reveal how they feel. This is one of the things people do best when they are mature. When one listens to the late compositions of the masters, these works are more revealing of their deeper feelings.

How and what a composer communicates to his listeners is an interesting question. A couple of weeks ago [June 1967], I was down in Washington giving a talk at the Kennedy Center. Afterwards, people came up to me who knew my music and talked to me about it. One of them said, "I never knew you had a sense of humor." I was astonished and said, "What do you mean?" He responded, "I know all of your music, and I never would have dreamt that you had a sense of humor." He is not the first person who has said that; other people find my music melancholy, much of it very melancholy. Certainly, I know that my exterior demeanor is not one of melancholy, and in my appearances as a speaker I am not known to be without wit. So, it absolutely floored me that this fellow could say that he never knew I had a sense of humor. Anyone who runs the Lincoln Center has to have a sense of humor. I can tell you that! But this question of communication between the composer and his listeners interests me because, apparently, you give out a certain feeling through your compositions which I am forced to believe does not reveal the whole gamut of your character. I suppose that a composer does not crack jokes with the symphony orchestra. You may look at the masterworks and say, "Look how funny Beethoven was in his musical utterances." Well, it is not a world of laughs. Maybe he had a sense of humor, but he has not been depicted to us as having a special one. Yet when looking at composers throughout the history of music, many have been depicted to us as having wonderful senses of humor. Sometimes it comes out in their music in obvious ways; however I am forced to the conclusion that a person's art, contrary to what psychologists tell us, probably does not reveal everything. It reveals things that the person is able or wishes to say in his/her art. So, returning to your first question, I guess that there are parts of your nature that you do not want to reveal, that you cannot reveal, or that are not germane to the medium. This, I feel, follows through in all the arts. I am fascinated by this topic because I was so shocked by this fellow in Washington commenting, "You have no sense of humor." Obviously, he was delighted to find that the audience was laughing at some of the things I was saying in my speech. When he went on to say, "I love your Third Symphony," I said, "Well, don't you think that the bass clarinet solo is funny? It is sort of amusing, not a joke, but not a ponderous moment either. It is a light statement." I asked the question of him because many people do not listen for these things in my music or that of other composers.

Hines: Actually, I do not think that it is important that people know everything about a composer. Sometimes it is just as well.

Schuman: They cannot anyway. But getting back to the other point, I do think that one of the signs of maturity is the willingness, desire and ability to show more of your deeper feelings than when you were younger. I do not like these generalizations, but I think that there is an awful lot of evidence to show that this is true in art.

Hines: In your dual role as composer and President of Lincoln Center, what significant trends in musical composition have you seen which seem promising and noteworthy?

Schuman: One trend I see that is promising for the future is that there are so many composers intrigued with trying to make new sounds. This is always important in music. We are in an exceedingly rich period of experimentation. On the other hand, I am hard pressed to think of any young composers who are really exciting in terms of their achievements. We have a situation in the United States now where it is virtually impossible for a composer of merit and personal profile to go unnoticed. This is a healthy situation. At Lincoln Center, I see audiences expanding. This summer at our festival we had wonderful audiences for contemporary opera and all the other events. The whole situation in the United States in the arts is one of great promise. In music, I cannot honestly say that I believe that the young composers today are as exciting as those we had in the 1930s and 1940s. Let me add that one has to have as much courage to make this statement as to say that they are exciting. But what I find encouraging is that they are all trying very hard. The debit side is that many young American composers have given up their heritage and are looking again to Europe for devices—electronic devices—and systems. Systems do not create composers, composers create systems. Yet composers create systems because theorists come along and extract systems from what they have done—distillations. The result of American composers turning away from their national heritage, or not even being aware of it, is that there is a great deal of grey music being written without real composers of profile emerging. But I have great confidence that this will change. The world of music does not give up talented composers by the dozens; it is very sparing. Before we reach the year 2000, I believe that we will have a rich period. Right now we are marking time.

Hines: What was there about the 1930s that saw so much creative activity in all the arts?

Schuman: The American composers that came out of that period are still the ranking composers. There has been no other group that has come along that is on the same level.

Hines: There was an impressive group of composers that you gathered at Juilliard during your presidency (1945-62). [William Bergsma, Vittorio Giannini, Peter Mennin, Vincent Persichetti, Robert Starer, Robert Ward.]

Schuman: Yes, and that is just about the last group as far as I can see.

Hines: Which composers do you feel had the most influence on your development as a composer?

Schuman: I have been influenced by every composer that I ever heard in my life. When I was very young and became interested in music, I was exposed mostly to popular music. But in our home my parents had recordings of Enrico Caruso and the violinist Efrem Zimbalist, and my father would play the William Tell Overture on the pianola every morning before he went to work. On Sunday evenings, the family would stand around the piano singing Victor Herbert songs and others of the day. As a teenager I had a dance band. During these years, Frank Loesser and I collaborated writing songs. His first published song had my music. Frank came from a very cultivated musical family. His father was a highly regarded piano teacher in New York City, and his brother Arthur, a brilliant pianist, had a successful career as a concert artist and writer of books on music [Humor in American Song; Men, Women and Pianos: A Social History]. To this day, Frank maintains that I ended up with the short end of the stick. He is in popular music and I am out.

It was not until I was nineteen that I heard my first live symphonic concert by the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. It fascinated me so much that I went to the Philharmonic not once but maybe four times a week, or every time the orchestra played the same program. This went on for a period of years, and eventually I became familiar with the standard repertoire. Of course, these works had a great influence on my development.

As I continued my studies at Columbia University, I heard that Roy Harris was teaching across the street at the Juilliard School of Music. His Third Symphony (1933) had made an enormous impression on me. I enrolled in his class, and it was through him that I was exposed to early music. He was the first one to introduce me to Orlando di Lasso, whose extraordinary music has had a great influence on my compositions and career.

In my mind, Roy Harris is one of the most original minds ever to appear in music. He is greatly underestimated as a composer even today. The reason for this is that his technique never advanced in terms equal to his fantastic talent. The music he has already given the world is quite exceptional. It is rather absurd that everybody discovers Charles Ives and lets Roy Harris wither on the vine. Ives was a great originator but he is vastly overrated in every way except as an originator. But his poor technical achievement will eventually do him in. At this time, these are very extreme views because there is an Ives vogue. Ives is remarkable, absolutely original, but originality does not make a composer. This is only one element of being an artist. Certain composers who did not have it at all, for example Georges Bizet, made a great contribution to the literature of music.

Let me digress a bit. In my life, I have rarely talked about my own music, and you have succeeded in getting me to talk about it. I have tried to be as objective as I can, and you probably observed that I have tried to switch from a direct question to a more objective observation of music in general. I would like to say this though: the thing that I dislike most in the world of personal characteristics is false modesty. This is the most pernicious form of exaggerated egotism, of conceit, there is. So, as far as my music is concerned, I try to take the most objective position. I would be saying something absolutely false if I did not believe that I was not writing music of merit, a fraud in obliging 110 musicians to play a single piece. Anyone who is writing music is making a claim, making a statement. My confidence in myself as a composer is entirely limited to the effort that I make as a composer. I am not the least bit self-centered or egotistical when it comes to evaluating that position. I prefer not to be put into that corner because I cannot evaluate it. I can only state that I believe in what I am doing. And, I do not feel abused, misunderstood or over-praised. None of these things!

Read 1354 times

Last modified on Monday, 22/10/2018

Go to top