Sounds Heard: William Schuman—A Free Song, Finally!
Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus
conducted by Carlos Kalmar
For decades, one of the great lacunae of recorded music has been William Schuman’s 1942 Secular Cantata No. 2 – A Free Song, a setting for baritone, chorus, and orchestra of excerpts from Civil War poems by Walt Whitman. That this less than 14-minute piece was the very first work ever to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music (back in 1943) should have been reason enough for someone to issue it commercially. So the mind boggles that it has taken nearly 70 years—and a year after Schuman’s centenary in 2010—yet this summer has seen the release of not one, but two “world premiere recordings” of A Free Song, both from groups based in Illinois. Given how diffuse the new music community remains despite high speed internet connections, they can both probably be forgiven for not knowing of each other’s recording. And both recordings offer merits not only in terms of the dedicated performance of the work in question, but in the programming of the remaining material on each respective disc.
Conductor Ian Hobson leads the Sinfonia da Camera and the University of Illinois Chorale and Oratorio Society in a recording of A Free Song on Albany Records. It’s part of an all-Schuman disc mostly devoted to his choral music rarities but also including the justly famous and frequently recorded American Festival Overture from 1939 which serves as a rousing opener. Prelude for Full Chorus of Mixed Voices with Soprano, also originally completed in 1939 in a version for female chorus but reworked for mixed chorus (as it is heard here) in 1942, is a relatively austere and introspective setting of words by another great American writer, Thomas Wolfe—a passage from the novel Look Homeward, Angel. The remainder of the disc is devoted to one of Schuman’s final major works, the 40-minute cantata On Freedom’s Ground, which was commissioned for the 1986 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty by a consortium involving eight American orchestras. Hearing these works from both the beginning and end of Schuman’s career back to back reveals a remarkably consistent compositional voice throughout and begs the question of why this music has still not entered the repertoire of orchestras in this country.
The other recording of A Free Song takes a very different but equally appropriate programmatic approach. For conductor Carlos Kalmar’s recording on Cedille with the Chicago-based Grant Park Orchestra and Chorus, A Free Song is placed alongside two other works which were awarded Pulitzer Prizes in the first decade of the award—Aaron Copland’s celebrated Appalachian Spring and Leo Sowerby’s largely forgotten The Canticle of the Sun, which is another world premiere recording. While the performance here of Copland’s signature work is thoroughly satisfying, it seemed like a lost opportunity. This recording features the familiar full orchestral suite, which was first performed in October 1945, rather than the original 1944 version of the score (the full ballet arranged for 13 instruments), which is the version of the piece that actually received the Pulitzer—a detail that even the disc’s booklet notes acknowledge. Aside from a fascinating historic re-issue of Copland’s own recording of this more fragile and intimate version (which includes out-takes from rehearsals as well) released by Sony in 2000, the only other account of it I know is a wonderful self-produced LP pairing it with Ives’s Three Places in New England released back in the 1980s by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (and which, to be best of my knowledge, has never been re-issued in a digital format). The Canticle of the Sun, on the other hand, is another total revelation. Though his music is rarely performed today, Sowerby, a long-time resident of Chicago, was once one of America’s most widely performed composers. Ironically this powerful work, a half-hour long setting of Malcolm Arnold’s translation of the “Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi” for chorus and orchestra, has only been performed about a dozen times since its premiere and mostly in a reduced orchestration of organ, two pianos, brass, and percussion.
As for A Free Song, although William Schuman thought of himself primarily a composer of instrumental music and considered his choral output less consequential, his setting here reveals him to be a deeply moving and sensitive interpreter of important American poetry. At the time this work was initially composed, the United States had just entered the Second World War. During this almost impossible to imagine period of American unity and determination, a disappointed Schuman, who himself was unable to enlist due to a degenerative muscle disease, wrote this composition as a patriotic call to arms. While it might be too optimistic to assume that this long-overdue revival of it could take us out of our own extremely divisive times, A Free Song is a stirring and powerful celebration of liberty that Americans should listen to with pride and appreciation.
As for which recording to listen to, one which summarizes Schuman’s achievement as a choral composer or one which groups his music with contemporaneous works by other major American composers, why not listen to both? Better yet, round up a chorus and orchestra and head down to Washington, D.C. to perform it live outside of the nation’s Capitol; those folks should listen to it, too!