Operating System

I just finished reading American Muse, Juilliard President Joseph W. Polisi’s lavishly detailed biography of his one-time predecessor, William Schuman. (Peter Mennin served between Schuman and Polisi.) Schuman (1910-1992) was a remarkable figure who, in addition to running Juilliard and subsequently Lincoln Center (and previously G. Schirmer), found time to compose music for at least 600 hours per year. Stay tuned for more about Polisi’s book in the near future. (It is our next scheduled InPrint selection.) But in the meanwhile, given our ongoing debates about the conservative vs. progressive tendencies of younger composers as well the economics that fuel such music, I thought it would be interesting here to ponder a couple of Schuman’s remarks about such matters, as well as a paraphrase of an observation made by Virgil Thomson, one of Schuman’s nemeses, all of which are cited in the book.

First Schuman:

“Systems do not create composers, composers create systems.”

The primary goal and obligation of a composer, as I see it, is to write the best music he or she can write. . . You have to decide what you are willing to put under your signature.

Then Thomson, as paraphrased by Edward Rothstein in a New York Times column assessing Schuman’s legacy that was published a month after Schuman’s death (the words in quotes are Thomson’s original words):

[E]very composition’s style is influenced by the source of the composer’s income. A composer who earns a living outside music writes pieces marked by a naïve quality that can give “a useful kick to the profession,” the way Mussorgsky, Satie and Ives did. Composers who depend on commissions display an “international” style good for “prestige value.” A teaching composer combines the business and pomposity of a schoolmaster with timidity and overscrupulousness.

During the course of reading American Muse, I spent many hours listening to LPs and CDs of Schuman’s output: eight of his ten symphonies (Schuman withdrew the first two), four of five string quartets (Schuman withdrew the first), two ballets, two one-act operas, concertos and/or concerto-like works for piano, violin, cello, and French horn, plus an assortment of works for unaccompanied chorus, wind band, and brass quintet, as well as a few songs he wrote in his teens with his friend Frank Loesser. There was a remarkable consistency to this music, but it defies easy pigeon-holing which might explain why it isn’t getting performed as often these days as it did during his life—among Schuman’s most virulent champions were Martha Graham, Eugene Ormandy, and Leonard Bernstein who even recorded Schuman’s Third Symphony twice!

Schuman’s music defies the binaries we still seem obsessed with setting up. Neither conservative nor progressive, it continually made enemies in both camps. A music critic once belittled Schuman’s music as “blissfully old-fashioned” while a radio listener wrote a complaint to the station that aired it claiming that three days of aspirin couldn’t make the pain of listening to the dissonances go away. Ironically, William Schuman was the first composer ever to receive a commission from a department of the United States government, which actually might be the biggest history lesson in all of this.

One thought on “Operating System

  1. rtanaka

    Thompson is definitely right about a lot of things, especially about issues of economic allocation influencing the result of composers’ outputs. I think it’s good for musicians to think about these sorts of things once in a while if only to get a better understanding of where they stand in the world because it really does make a difference. The problem is if you take his word to be gospel, in the end you’re left with a very cynical point of view that art exists only to serve the political special interests and/or as an accessory towards bourgeois society. It can be pretty dismal.

    Of course, these things do happen and sometimes that’s just the way things are. But I’d like to think that there are some out there who’re striving for something bigger — some kind of truth, or at least something that serves a purpose beyond exchanges of capital and power, using style and novelty as means of meeting those ends. There’s a nice quote by Bernstien talking about Schuman on his bio page:

    But what is not so often remarked is what I treasure most: the human qualities that flow directly from the man into the works — compassion, fidelity, insight, and total honesty…

    If people are beginning to appreciate Schuman’s works a more, it might be a sign that things are getting somewhat better.

    Reply

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