Composer/Administrator  William  Schuman
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie



Born in New York on 4 August 1910, William Schuman began composing in high school, forming a jazz ensemble in which he played violin and banjo. He earned bachelor's and master's degrees from Columbia University Teachers College, and he studied at Juilliard with Roy Harris, who exercised a strong influence on the young composer and brought him to the attention of Serge Koussevitzky, who championed many early works.

Schuman wrote a plethora of works in virtually every musical genre, each mirroring his strong personality in their sharply defined sense of structure, line, and dynamism. He incorporated American jazz and folk traditions into works which ranged from a harmonically conservative early style to later excursions into dissonance and polytonality. The secular cantata A Free Song received the first Pulitzer Prize in music in 1943.

Schuman was also a vital force in American musical life as an administrator. By the age of 35, he had been director of publications for G. Schirmer, Inc., and appointed President of the Juilliard School. As Juilliard's President, Schuman reoriented the entire music education process, and it was under his aegis that the world-renowned Juilliard Quartet was formed. In 1962, he was appointed first president of the newly-founded Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts.

In the course of his career Schuman was Director of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, National Educational Television, and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. In addition to his election to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Royal Academy of Music, Schuman received the National Medal of Arts in 1987 and in 1989 was honored by the Kennedy Center in Washington.  Schuman died in New York City on February 15, 1992.

A more detailed biography and a list of his awards is presented at the end of this webpage.

During my quarter-century as Announcer/Producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago (from 1975 until the station
s Final Broadcast in 2001), it was my pleasure and privilege to interview many of the musicians who came to the Windy City.  Besides their use on the air, many were transcribed and published in various magazines and journals. 

Very soon after starting these series, I realized that there were quite a few noteworthy individuals who were not coming this way, so I began to arrange a few conversations on the telephone.  Mostly older composers, these important figures usually agreed to my request, and were included wherever possible
in print and on the air, and now on the internet.  Some guests were easy to find, and others were more elusiveespecially in the days before e-mail and personal websites with links!  For many of them, my friend Barbara Petersen of BMI was most helpful in providing contact information and an introduction.  It is her biography of this guest which appears at the end of this webpage.

The interview you are now reading with William Schuman is one of those special cases.  In April of 1986, arrangements were made and I was able to call him for a chat.  He was pleased that I called, and responded to my questions with frankness and understanding. 

Our half-hour together was a delight, and here is what transpired . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:    It seems that you have done, perhaps, more different things than any other composer, being both administrator and teacher, as well as a successful composer.  Is this something that you relish, or is it something that was forced on you?

William Schuman:    No, and I’m delighted to speak to that point because I love the administrative posts that I held.  I did them because I wanted to do them.  I could have remained a teacher, or done something else
taken on more commercial work or anything else — and people always felt sorry for me, but they never should, because I loved every minute of it.  I did it up ‘til about 1969, when I felt that I wanted to change and devote more time to composition.  So that’s when I left Lincoln Center.  But I had seventeen marvelous years at Julliard and seven at Lincoln Centerofficiallyplus about five that weren’t official.  Since I’ve left all of that in 1969, I still do it, but on a voluntary basis for the various organizations that continue to intrigue me.  In other words, what I’m saying is that composition has been the continuum of my life’s work, but it’s been by no matter of means my sole pursuit.  I would never be happy just being a composer.  I’ve always wanted and needed to do other things of a general societal nature.

BD:    Does having the rest of those things make you a better composer?

schumanWS:    I don’t think it has anything to do with the quality or the quantity of the composition.  I think you write; you have your own standards.  When I was younger, of course, I had much more energy, so that I would write for very, very long hours, and I would keep track.  My system was a very simple one — any approach to writing music works except neglect.  So early on I said to myself,
You can do anything else that you want to do, but you have to find between six hundred hours and a thousand hours to be alone in a room.  That’s a sine qua non of the conditions for composing, as far as I’m concerned.  So I used to keep a little diary of time.  I’d go to the school maybe at 8:30 in the morning, having worked for an hour first, so I’d put down one hour.  Or, if I went at 11:23, I’d put down two hours and twenty-three minutes.  By the end of the week I’d add up the hours and the minutes that I actually worked, and by the summer time I would usually have about three hundred hours chalked up.  Then, of course, in the summer time I had more time to work.  I rarely reached a thousand, but it was never less than six hundred.  It sounds like a very cold way of going about it, but it was the only practical way that I could devise of assuring myself the time; the reason being that everything else you do is so much easier than writing music.

BD:    Really?

WS:    Oh, sure!  [Laughs]  You go to an office and you make a decision.  If fifty-one per cent are correct, you’re in pretty good shape!

BD:    Are fifty-one per cent of your compositional decisions correct?

WS:    One of the things I don’t have to do is evaluate my work as a composer.  I don’t lack for people who do that.  I write it; I don’t have to worry about evaluating it.

BD:    When you write a piece of music, for whom do you write?

WS:    That’s a perfectly good question.  Objectively, I write it for the commissioning organization.  I’ve written on commission since I was twenty-five years old.  I rarely write anything that hasn’t been commissioned, with occasional exceptions.  So I write the work, and it has to be the best music that I can write in terms of my own evaluation.  I can’t write it for anybody else but for my own standards.  Anything else would be impossible.

BD:    Then once it is finished and performed, what do you expect of the public that comes to hear your music for the first time?

WS:    What I would like to hope is that they lend me their ears without prejudice.  That’s much more than one usually gets.  The nature of an audience affects the reception of a piece very, very much.  I need hardly tell you.  If you have a sophisticated audience, you get one reaction, and if you have an audience that has less experience, sometimes you get a better one, or one that is less good.  I think that that’s the reason I answered your other question the way I did; you can only write in terms of your own standards, and after it leaves your studio it’s no longer your work.  It belongs to somebody else; it belongs to your publisher, who can exploit it in any way he wants to.  I’ve observed that some pieces go very, very well; over fifty years they’re still played.  Others haven’t gone so well.  That doesn’t mean that the popular ones are the best or the ones that are performed less are not as good; not at all.  It’s another world.  It’s the world of evaluation, and that’s the one I consciously stay out of.

BD:    Do performers or conductors find things in your music that even you did not know were there?

WS:    No, I can’t say that, but I can say that the difference between the routine conductor and an inspired conductor is enormous.  Within the confines of the printed page, there is room for an extreme latitude of performing possibilities!  There is not as much as a director has with a printed word in a play, because music is more clearly defined in terms of its time span, but a good conductor or good interpreter or performer — it doesn’t have to be a conductor — brings his own creative and re-creative energy to the piece.  That makes all the difference in the world!  You could have a piece that is played in a routine manner, and the same piece played in an inspired manner!  I always prefer the conductor or the performer that brings his own personality and his own insight into the music.  They do things as an interpreter that I could never do as a composer!

BD:    Are you generally pleased with the performances you hear of your works?

WS:    Very often.  Not always.

BD:    How about the recordings?  Are you, on the whole, pleased with the recordings that have been made, because those have a more permanent, lasting quality about them?

WS:    I’m glad you say
permanent, because the record companies are very little interested in contemporary music in general and American contemporary music in particular.  So many of the recordings that have been issued are promptly dropped!  For example, Leonard Bernstein did a superb recording of a work of mine called Concerto on Old English Rounds.  Even though that recording was subsidized, it was soon dropped from the catalogue.  I’ve had some wonderful performances by Bernstein and Ormandy and Maazel and Reiner, all sorts of people I could mention that were absolutely wonderful, and only very occasionally have I had recordings that I didn’t think were up to par.  Mostly they’ve been splendid.  [See my Interview with Lorin Maazel.]  But in today’s world, if you’re not recorded, you’re really not published because there is no longer such a thing as printed music that’s for household pursuit anymore.  People don’t play Haydn symphonies of four hands in contemporary music, because the music is too complicated.  So it has to be through recording.

BD:    The phonograph has replaced Hausmusik?

WS:    I think it has, indeed.  That’s a good point.

BD:    Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

WS:    It’s a thing.  [Both laugh]  It’s here.  You can’t play The Rite of Spring in a four-hand arrangement in an average home.  It wouldn’t make a great deal of sense.  All the colors would be missing, and even less complicated scores can’t really be reduced very favorably to the piano.  Whereas when you have the earlier classical works, the materials were simpler and the colors were less pronounced, let’s say, or less varied; certainly less complex.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    You bring up the point that the public, the publishers and the recording industry do not seem to cater as much to contemporary American music.

WS:    I didn’t say the publishing; I said the recording.

BD:    OK, the recording and performing then.

schumanWS:    Yes.  The most important thing for the composer is to get the music out and performed, and if possible, recorded.  In my own case, I know from my mail over the years — much of which is from young people all over the country — that many of them have never heard a live performance of my music, but they know the records.  They write about the records and they ask the most intelligent questions and make the most remarkable comments.  The only avenue that we really have to the interested listening public is the recording, because the average symphonic audience is not particularly interested.  They might like the work very much, but it would never occur to them to ask to have it played again.  Even composers of my age, who have long since passed their voting age, are not known necessarily.  Even their most successful works might go ten years in one city before they’re played again.

BD:    This is the point of my question.  Is there any way that you know of to encourage more performances of more new pieces of music?

WS:    No.  There is no way unless you have conductors of conviction and managers of conviction and boards of directors of conviction.  T
hat’s the only way that it happens.  You have some conductors that are absolutely marvelous, who really care, the way that Koussevitzky used to care in the great Boston Symphony days.  We have such people today, but they don’t grow on trees nor come in bunches, I can tell you that.  Occasionally you have progressive management, and occasionally you even have a board of directors that care, but mostly it’s the music director who is in charge, and as far as American music is concerned, we have a whole influx of foreign-born conductors who have no knowledge of the American repertory.  So you start from scratch, from point zero.

BD:    But the complaint from management always is that they’re looking to the box office.  They say that the box office falls off when they load up the concerts with too much contemporary music.

WS:    Yes, but the point is that that doesn’t apply when you have someone — I’ll refer to Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony again, because Koussevitzky played more new music than any orchestra in the history of this country, and you couldn’t get a seat for the BSO because he knew how to program it.  He would juxtapose war horses with the new pieces and know how to program them.  An interesting case is Albany, New York where Peter Kermani happens to be the President of that Board of Directors.  He is also Chairman of the American Symphony Orchestra League, and he is a nut on the subject of American Music.  He plays it on every single program, and a consequence is his attendance has increased by sixty-seven per cent!  The whole Albany audience has grown accustomed to his programming policies and endorses it.

BD:    So then the public is trusting the symphony board and the conductors?

WS:    They have nothing else to do, but they can stay away in droves if they want to, as is sometimes the case.  I wrote an article on this which was published in Symphony Magazine about five years ago, in which I gave what I thought were the logical proportions of new music and old music, and it can work.  When people talk about box office failure or this and that and the other thing, they’re only giving excuses.  People of conviction find ways of doing things, rather than telling you why they can’t do them.  So I never take those arguments very seriously.  I’ve lived too long.  [Both laugh]

BD:    Very good!  Let me pursue this just one more step.  Do you feel that it’s better to have one of your pieces on a program with war horses, or on a program of all contemporary music, or a program of only your music?

WS:    Except for special occasions where they’ll give a whole program of your music or of contemporary music, it’s better to mix, as a general rule.  If you’re highlighting the work of a composer for a special event, that’s very different because that’s a special event and that’s not found on a usual concert.  There have been a lot of those and they sometimes go very, very well.  But normally speaking, I like a varied menu.  I think it’s exactly like a meal.  A varied menu, I think, is the most nutritional approach for music as well.

BD:    You don’t feel that that’s intimidating to the new composer to have to stand up to a Haydn symphony and a Beethoven concerto?

WS:    No, you’re not comparing them.  You’re just putting on somebody who is writing today.  The presumption is that this is a fine piece of music, or the conductor would not have chosen it.

BD:    Is it a mistake for critics, and perhaps audiences, to expect all new pieces to be masterworks?

WS:    One of the problems is that America will never come of age musically.  You can’t become a musically cultured country just because you have wonderful performers.  American performers are the wonder of the world, and that’s all we’ve been in the last forty or fifty years.  We used to import all our artists; now we even export them.  But you don’t have a truly indigenous culture unless you have native music that’s established in the repertory.  There are two problems.  One is, of course, the orchestras must continue to play music of the best young people that come along.  But of even greater importance is to take those works that have shown the test of time and have pleased audiences over a period of twenty-five, thirty, forty, fifty years, and make sure that there’s a true American repertory that’s emerging.  That’s the big problem, to pay attention to those works that have proved themselves, and that’s what only a few of our conductors do.

BD:    Do you feel that there’s any competition among composers?

WS:    How do you mean competition?

BD:    In the way there’s a certain amount of competition among performers.

WS:    I’ve never noticed it.  Composers have a quite nice, collegial attitude, and composers are always helping other composers.  It’s rather the tradition of composition, just as I was discovered and helped by Aaron Copland and Roy Harris.  I have been able to help younger composers.  Young composers bring you their scores, and you have colleagues with whom you have most cordial relationships.  I’ve never found a competiton.  There’s an old Arabic saying that two vinegar salesmen can’t be friends, and I don’t think that’s true of composers.


BD:    Are there enough young composers today, or perhaps too many young composers today?

WS:    When I was growing up — and this is a terrible pun coming — we used to number the composers by the score.  Now, they are not only numbered by the hundreds, but by the thousands.  Someone told me that there’s something like thirty thousand people who claim they’re composers.  [Note: This idea is usually attributed to Gunther Schuller.  See my Interview with Gunther Schuller, who, like Schuman, was also a highly-respected music administrator.]  When you come down to professional composers, again referring to recent decades, you would always only have five or six or seven, perhaps eight or even ten who were
name composers of the day.  The same thing is true today, although you have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of composers at work, because it has always been this way historically.  There have always been very few outstanding composers at a given moment, compared with the number of outstanding authors or painters, certainly.  Composers have always been smaller in number proportionately, and despite the great outpouring of numbers, I think that the star composers, the really recognized ones, are still very few.  One of the problems is that we do have thousands of adequately trained composers in an academic sense, but you’re only really a composer if you have a profile that’s recognizably your own, and there’s still very few people who have such a profile.  Wouldn’t you agree with that?

BD:    I think so.  This was part of my point with the question about too many composers.  Superstar composers get performed all the time, but then the list peters out.  There seems to be a huge amount of unknown names with some music that is great and some music that is not great, and yet it should all be performed.

WS:    You can’t perform it all because just numerically it’s impossible, with the hundreds of scores that are produced each year.  They can’t all be performed by symphony orchestras, but a surprising amount is performed.  The problem is that novelty often takes precedence over merit.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Where is music going today?

WS:    I’m not a prophet.

BD:    [With a gentle nudge]  Oh, gaze into your crystal ball!

schumanWS:    In my crystal ball, I will say that the problems of being a composer are impossible, and thank God they’re going on just that way into the future.  No red-blooded American boy would choose the career of composing symphonic music.  Nobody’s interested in it; you can’t make much money doing it.  The only point about it is that it’s just about as great a calling as I can possibly imagine, in idealistic terms.  In practical terms, it’s an absurdity.

BD:    So then it’s just then for the chosen few?

WS:     don’t mean for this to sound fancy, but it’s a calling.  It’s nothing less than a calling, and the composers that I know all feel that way.  Although they wouldn’t say it in such a pretentious way as I have just done, that’s really what it is.  It’s something that you feel you must do.  It is not something that you can do because you can do it, it’s something you do because you feel you have to do it.  That’s the big difference.  Many young composers can do it, but aren’t really compelled inwardly to do it, and that’s the big difference.

BD:    You’ve watched young composers growing over the last thirty, forty, fifty years.  How have they changed over that time?

WS:    I think it’s always the same.  Mostly, they turn away from the previous generation, which is what young composers and young artists have done traditionally.  Then as they get a little older, they re-discover their immediate elders and the attitude sort of changes.  One of the things that’s true of the arts in general, and certainly among composers, is that there’s no such thing as age differences.  You meet with your colleagues and you discuss music.  Obviously there are different aesthetic predilections depending on age and experience and a number of other factors, but I don’t see the young composers emerging and developing in any way that’s different from their forebears
except that they’re so numerous now that that creates a certain problem of using up time and achievements of rather dubious merit, compared to the few works that are really outstanding.

BD:    That goes back to my question
are there too many composers?

WS:    Yes.  But you can’t shoot them!  [Both laugh]

BD:    Do you wait for them to shoot themselves?

WS:    No.  I just think that each person is entitled to do whatever he can.  I’ll tell you that the great, wonderful thing about the world of composition is
it’s a world of truth in the sense that you can have a billion dollars and you can hire a symphony orchestra and you can have your music played every day and you can make recordings of it and you can broadcast it.  You can do anything you want to it, but the public will soon tell you what the quality of that music is.  That’s one of the wonderful things about being a composer — you can’t fake it.  Doors can be opened for you, but the real, professional composerand the only composers that are really professionalare the ones whose music is recognized as being of true quality by listeners in general.  I dont know what that alchemy is that causes this general knowledge on the part of all audiences, but in the long pull I have absolute confidence that the public makes just decisions.

BD:    So you feel then, the public is always right?

WS:    Not always right, but given time
a long time, not short time...

BD:    Does that mean some composers go in and out of favor?

WS:    Yes, but someone once asked me whether I felt that I was out of fashion.  I said it’s impossible for me to be out of fashion because I was never in fashion.  Fashion implies somebody who’s riding the crest of a particular kind of aesthetic gimmick of some kind or another, and fashion in composition is something that I find very uninteresting.

BD:    Would you object to being the most popular composer in America today?

WS:     I don’t think that has anything to do with it.  You write the pieces that you write, and if they’re played a lot, that’s fine.  If they’re not played a lot, it doesn’t mean that they aren’t as effective as those that are.  That has nothing to do with my reasoning.  I don’t think about it.  It’s impossible to think about it.  I think about what I’m writing and what I’m going to write next, and I don’t think about the number of performances.  However, I’m not an idiot.  I’m aware of who’s playing my music, and I’m aware of when it is played well.  I hear about it, and sometimes I attend the concerts.  And of course, you write to be heard!  You don’t write in a vacuum.  No writer writes because he wants to remain quiet.  It’s like writing a diary.  Everyone who writes a diary wants it to be read one day.  The only difference with a composer is that he says out loud, “I want to be performed.”  There’s no such thing as false modesty with a composer.  If a man writes a symphony and says, “Oh, please don’t play it,” [laughs] that’s nothing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Years ago you worked as a jazz performer and composer, and then you turned away from the jazz and pop field to concentrate completely on the so-called
classical field.  What is the relationship today between jazz music and popular music, and the serious concert music?

schumanWS:    I really don’t know.  I know that Gunther Schuller and a few of my other friends are very much interested in combining these disparate worlds. I don’t think there’s a great connection, myself.  There’s a lot of movement these days to equate the value of all music, and in some newspapers you’ll see as much space given to review of a rock star or the latest performer, as the latest performance of a Beethoven symphony.  I believe that there’s no such thing as a bad kind of music.  I think there are better and poorer examples of various kinds of music.  On the other hand, some music is meant to be listened to with complete concentration of heart and mind, and other music is entertainment music.  The entertainment music should be valued for its entertainment purposes, and not be confused with art that is meant for contemplation.  They are very different kinds of things, and I’ve always found that difference.  I still find that difference.

BD:    In a symphony concert, is there a balance between art and entertainment?

WS:    In the very deep sense of the word, you could say that Beethoven is entertaining, but you don’t go to hear a Beethoven symphony because you want to be entertained.  You hear it because you know that it is going to stir you to the depths of your soul, and that it will also challenge you intellectually.  Even after all of these years you are always hearing new things.  With the so-called
classical music, to use a vernacular term meaning serious music, you hope that the audiences will hear something that’s rewarding time after time after time in the works that you write.  If it’s entertainment, it must be all available immediately, and that’s a big difference.  It’s not a criticism of entertainment music.  Entertainment music, by definition, must succeed or fail immediately on whether it appeals or doesn’t appeal.  There’s no such thing as a second chance.  A show opens, and it either goes or it doesn’t.  But in serious music, you have time on your side.  You don’t necessarily expect it to be appreciated all at once, and that’s what history has always been, and continues to be.

BD:    When you’re composing, how much is inspiration and how much is technique?

WS:    That’s a tough question.  To me, composing music is a matter of going to your desk and trying to work.  Sometimes you have a wonderful day in which you think you’ve done well, and other times you tear up that day’s work.  You’re no better a composer than what you put in your wastebasket.

BD:    Yet today, especially from composers of the past, we are looking for original versions, and we’re even digging through the composers’ wastebaskets and performing these discards.  Is this a mistake?

WS:    There are people who are always interested in novelty, so they dust these things off, and they’re played once and nothing much happens.  It’s a perfectly harmless pursuit, and there’s nothing you can do about that.

BD:    Have you revised some of your works?

WS:    I’ve withdrawn a couple.  Several I’ve withdrawn because I felt they weren’t up to the standard I wanted to leave in my permanent catalogue.  Occasionally I’ve revised works, but not usually.

BD:    Then what do you say to a performer a hundred years from now who goes back and performs a work that you have purposely withdrawn?

WS:    Well, I hope that he won’t have access to it.  I’ve marked all over the scores
withdrawn, but I didn’t destroy them because I think they’re of interest to scholars and others who want to see what you were doing when you were very young.  And then I always think that one day I might revise them.  I don’t know.

BD:    Is composing music fun?

WS:    It’s not a word that I would use.  It’s tortuous labor, the same as any intellectual pursuit, and as an intellectual pursuit, it’s enervating and exhausting.  Naturally it has its rewards, but to say it’s
fun is never a word that I would use.  It’s joyous when you’ve finished a page that you think is okay, and when you finally put down a double bar and you think the work is okay; that’s a great joy and a great satisfaction, but sometimes only until you hear it.  Then it might not be everything that you wanted it to be, or it might even be better.  But the act of composing?  Others may answer it differently, but to me it’s very, very hard work.

BD:    In the end, is it very rewarding?

WS:    If it turns out well, it’s rewarding.  It’s not always rewarding because it doesn’t always turn out well.

BD:    So then there really is a bit of experimentation in everything that you write?

WS:    Let me put it this way...  I’ve done a big work for the Statue of Liberty celebration that’s commissioned by a consortium of orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic and Chicago, a total of nine symphony orchestras altogether.  It sets a wonderful poem that was written for me for the work by Richard Wilbur.  I finished it way, way ahead of time because I was so hot on it, and the first performance will be next October 28th.  I was just reading it through today, getting ready to go over it with the soloists, and I think it’s going to be just wonderful, but I don’t know.  No matter how many years of experience you have, even though I know precisely what it will sound like, the surprise will not be what it will sound like.  I know the continuity; I know all the sounds.  I won’t be surprised by a single note.  What I don’t know is what the audience reaction will be, and that’s something that you absolutely cannot predict!  So in that sense, I don’t know what the effect of the work will be.  I only know that it exists on paper, and the only person who has heard it is the composer who hears it in his mind.  So it’s important to emphasize that the surprise will not be in the sound.  I know precisely what that’ll be, but what I don’t know is how the audience will react.

BD:    So you have a hope, but that’s all?

WS:    Especially given the nature of this work, I hope that it’ll be a worthy celebration for a great event.  But I don’t know that until we see how people react to it.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:    Let me throw you one last curve and ask you about your baseball opera.  Tell me a bit about Casey at the Bat.

schumanWS:    It’s being done at the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown this summer.

BD:    As a cantata or as an opera?

WS:    As an opera.  It’s sort of a passion play for Cooperstown, I would think sort of an Oberammergau of America.  [Both laugh]  I wrote it in the early fifties, and it’s had a cult following.  It’s performed enough so that a whole new score was issued just this past year by G. Schirmer.  Greg Smith, with his choral singers, did it sixty-seven times on tour a couple of years ago, and audiences love it!  But it’s very difficult because when they say Casey at the Bat, or The Mighty Casey, as I call the opera, they think that the level of it is going to be Take Me Out to the Ballgame.  That isn’t true at all; it’s on a very serious musical level, but it’s also highly satirical, and it just goes very well when it’s done.  But it’s never been taken up in the way, say, Amahl and the Night Visitors has been taken up.  [See my Interviews with Gian Carlo Menotti.]  It hasn’t had any kind of a vogue like that at all.  But it has its following, and that following continues to build.  So I’ll be most curious to see how it goes this summer at Cooperstown.

BD:    If it goes well, might that encourage you to write another opera?

WS:    I don’t think so.  I don’t have a book in mind.  It’s always nice to speculate about what one might have done, but mostly in this world, given the extrinsic or extraneous circumstances, we do what we want to do.  If Brahms had wanted to write an opera, he would have, but he was probably smart enough to know that that wasn’t his métier.  Similarly, wasn’t it wonderful for the world that Chopin recognized early on that he was not a writer for orchestra, but a great writer for piano?  I think part of being a composer is the intuitive knowledge of what you can do and what you can do best.  That’s what leads composers to write mainly in a single medium, although there are many composers who write in many genres.  You can’t talk about Mozart because there’s only one Mozart.  There I’m talking about the immortals!  [Both laugh]  Most composers write a variety of things, but they usually specialize, when all is said and done.  So I have no thoughts for another opera.  Even if I had a very exciting book, I don’t think that’s in the cards.  I have commissions lined up now for five years which I’m going to try to take care of first.  Then we’ll see where we go.

BD:    I wish you luck on all of the things that are coming up, and I want to thank you for being a composer.

WS:    Well, aren’t you nice?  That’s the nicest thing you could possibly say.

BD:    And thank you also for spending the time with me this afternoon.

WS:    Oh, I’ve loved it.  Thanks so much. 

William Howard Schuman was born in New York City on August 4, 1910, the second child of Samuel and Rachel Schuman. He began to study the violin as a young boy and later played a number of other instruments as well. His broad musical interests ranged from his own jazz band and the school orchestra to family evenings singing operettas and musical comedy excerpts as well as "semiclassics." On his own, he wrote some original popular songs. But music definitely took second place to Schuman's all-consuming passion, baseball. Looking back on his youth, he would later claim that baseball was the main focus of his early years.

In 1928 Schuman entered New York University to prepare for a business degree at the School of Commerce, while at the same time working for an advertising agency. He continued to collaborate on pop songs with E. B. Marks, Jr., an old friend from summer camp, and also created some forty songs with lyricist Frank Loesser, a neighbor who was also at the beginning of his career. Loesser's first publication, in fact, was a song with music by Schuman. Together they wrote many songs for radio, vaudeville, and nightclub acts. In April 1930, having attended (albeit unwillingly) his first professional symphony orchestra concert, Schuman suddenly realized that baseball, business, and popular music must be relegated to subsidiary positions (but never forgotten) in favor of composing "classical" or concert music.

Realizing that extensive training would be necessary to reach his goals, Schuman withdrew from New York University to study harmony with Max Persin and to hear as many concerts and operas as he could. He began counterpoint lessons with Charles Haubiel at The Juilliard School and attended summer courses in orchestration with Adolf Schmid and harmony with Bernard Wagenaar. At Teachers College of Columbia University, Schuman earned a B.S. in music education (1935), and set him thinking about the need to reform and improve music education.

In the fall of 1935, Schuman settled into his first teaching position, at Sarah Lawrence College, Bronxville, N.Y., where he remained on the faculty for a decade. Highlights of his life during these years were his marriage to Frances ("Frankie") Prince on March 27, 1936, composition studies with Roy Harris, earning an M.A. from Columbia (1937), and the first successful public performances of his music. Although Schuman had now withdrawn from several of his earliest efforts, it was these orchestral and chamber compositions that generated his first prizes and commissions. His Symphony No. 2 came to the attention of Aaron Copland, who wrote in Modern Music (May 1938): "Schuman is, as far as I am concerned, the musical find of the year. There is nothing puny or miniature about this young man's talent."

In 1944 G. Schirmer, Inc., appointed Schuman Director of Publications. He began work there even before leaving the Sarah Lawrence faculty and continued to serve Schirmer as Special Publications Consultant after moving in 1945 to his next post, the presidency of The Juilliard School. During the 1940s he received his first of many honorary doctorates, became the father of a son and a daughter, and was awarded the first Pulitzer Prize ever given in the field of musical composition. In spite of the heavy demands of his Juilliard presidency – into which he threw himself wholeheartedly, making essential and lasting improvements in the school – he remained first and foremost a composer.

As Juilliard president, Schuman convinced the planners of Lincoln Center that the School should become one of its constituent organizations. It was not long before the Lincoln Center board of directors named him to preside over the entire complex. Schuman's tenure as president of Lincoln Center began in January 1962, months before the official opening of Philharmonic Hall (as Avery Fisher Hall was then known), the first completed building. He guided the growth of Lincoln Center, establishing both the Chamber Music Society and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. During this time, he continued to add to his own catalogue of compositions. In 1968 Schuman suffered a heart attack and while recuperating took stock of his personal and professional priorities. His ultimate decision was that he would forgo major administrative posts, and resign from Lincoln Center. Effective January 1, 1969, he was named President Emeritus, as he had earlier been designated by The Juilliard School.

This change was far from a retirement, but not having a full-time position allowed Schuman more freedom to compose and still participate in the dozens of organizations he served as consultant, officer, board member or advisor. He provided invaluable direction to the BMI Student Composer Awards. First as founder, then as chairman of the judging panel, and later as chairman emeritus, Schuman was a guiding light and an inspiration for over 350 student composer award winners; his interest in their training, accomplishments, and styles of composition never waned.

Amid all Schuman's awards, honors, prizes, and glowing reviews, perhaps what he treasured most were the strongly supportive opinions of his colleagues. Aaron Copland, when presenting Schuman with the MacDowell Colony Medal in 1971, said

    . . . 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 impressive catalogue of works is especially rich in orchestral, band, and choral music. He continued the strong American symphonic tradition of such predecessors as Roy Harris and Walter Piston and had always been particularly recognized for his mastery of orchestration. One of – if not the – most popular of Schuman's works is the orchestration of Charles Ives's Variations on "America." Created in response to a twentieth-anniversary commission from BMI and first performed in 1964, this brilliant orchestration enjoyed extraordinary popularity during the U.S. Bicentennial year. Along with New England Triptych and American Festival Overture, it remains one of his most frequently performed works.

In his orchestral compositions Schuman was fond of differentiating the various sections of the orchestra by creating distinct blocks of color; he used a large orchestra, but used it wisely and with great clarity. Long spun-out melodies and majestic arcs of sound characterize many of Schuman's orchestral works. The rhythmic style is vital, full of variety, and intense – but never nervously so. Whether in simple ostinati, in complex rhythmic counterpoint, or in his characteristic cross rhythms, Schuman revealed his strong rhythmic foundations, undoubtedly gained in part from his early days with jazz and popular music.

In Schuman's works based on pre-existing music, he absorbed elements of the source into his own style, while still maintaining the integrity of the original. In New England Triptych and the Concerto on Old English Rounds, the approach ranges from almost literal quotation to a wide range of juxtapositions and transformations with extensive melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic alterations, as well as wholly new concepts of form and orchestration. The great variety and skill with which he handled his materials are demonstrated particularly well in the group of three works based on the old English round "Amaryllis": the "Amaryllis" Variations for string trio, Concerto on Old English Rounds (using "Amaryllis" as the basis for the first and final movements), and Amaryllis (Variations on an Old English Round), a brief version for string orchestra.

Along with Schuman's re-use of pre-existing music should be mentioned his reworking of several of his own compositions. Among the most performed important works available in more than one version are the Variations on "America," American Hymn, and New England Triptych. Others include The Mighty Casey (opera), Casey at the Bat (cantata), and the separately published Choruses from the Mighty Casey: The Orchestra Song and The Band Song; choral and solo versions of Holiday Song; and In Sweet Music and A Song of Orpheus, both derived from his early song Orpheus with His Lute.

In the world of choral music, Schuman is known as a master of both a cappella and accompanied styles, of both extended cantatas and short pieces, including some written for amateurs. With a special emphasis on American poetry, he was been particularly discriminating in his choice of texts. The poetry of Walt Whitman, Archibald MacLeish, Genevieve Taggard, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and Thomas Wolfe, among others, inspired him. It is difficult to imagine anything more American than Casey at the Bat or the Mail Order Madrigals, which are settings of texts from the Sears Roebuck catalog.

After writing many pop songs in his youth (estimated to be a hundred or more, but, alas, not a hit among them), Schuman evinced a marked preference for orchestral and choral music during most of his career. In the late 1970s, he began adding more music with voice to his catalog, including In Sweet Music, The Young Dead Soldiers, and Time to the Old. Significantly, his two major works of the 1980s featured solo voice(s): On Freedom's Ground and A Question of Taste.

On Freedom's Ground, with a text by Richard Wilbur (a Pulitzer Prize winner who was named U.S. Poet Laureate in 1987), celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Statue of Liberty. The work received some two dozen performances in the two years following its premiere (October 28, 1986, the very day of the statue's rededication). Other works of the 1980's also proved that Schuman's outlook remained young and his creative energies retained their usual vitality. Indeed, he continued to compose new works as he entered his eighties. Schuman received a 1989 Kennedy Center Honor "for an extraordinary lifetime of contributions to American culture." Schuman always enjoyed the highest esteem of his colleagues in the arts. Leonard Bernstein penned an enthusiastic introductory note to the William Schuman Documentary (1980) by Christopher Rouse. Written just before Schuman's seventieth birthday, it is an equally appropriate salute to this master of American music on his eightieth:

. . . I have rarely met a composer who is so faithfully mirrored in his music; the man is the music. We are all familiar with the attributes generally ascribed to his compositions: vitality, optimism, enthusiasm, long lyrical line, rhythmic impetuosity, bristling counterpoint, brilliant textures, dynamic tension. 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 . . .

William Schuman died in New York City on February 15, 1992, but his music will long endure.

Revised and used with the permission of Broadcast Music, Inc.
Barbara A. Petersen
Assistant Vice President, Classical Administration


1989: American Eagle Award, National Music Council
1989: Kennedy Center Honors "for an extraordinary lifetime of contributions to American culture through the performing arts"
1987: National Medal of Arts
1986: Chamber Music America Award
1986: First Alfred I. DuPont Award
1985: George Peabody Medal "for outstanding contribution to music in America," Peabody Conservatory of Music
1985: Gold Baton Award, American Symphony Orchestra League
1985: Pulitzer Prize Special Citation "for more than half a century of contribution to American music as composer and educational leader"
1982: Gold Medal, American Academy of Arts and Letters
1981: First winner of the Columbia University William Schuman Award for "Lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance"
1980: Horblit Award of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
1975: Distinguished Alumni, Teachers College, Columbia University
1971: Edward MacDowell Medal "for exceptional contributions to the arts"
1968: Findley Award of the City University of New York
1967: American Music Center Letter of Distinction
1967: Certificate of Merit, Sigma Alpha Iota
1967: Concert Artists Guild Award
1967: Handel Medallion of the City of New York
1965: Brandeis Medal for Distinguished Service to Higher Education
1965: Composer’s Award, Lancaster (Pennsylvania) Symphony Orchestra
1964: Gold Medal of Honor, National Arts Club, New York City
1963: Citation of Merit, State University of New York at Buffalo
1957: Columbia University Bicentennial Anniversary Award
1957: First Brandeis University Creative Arts Award in Music
1951: New York Music Critics Circle Award (for "Judith")
1943: First Pulitzer Prize given for music (for "A Free Song")

Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) bequested $2 million in his will to establish a graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University (currently the site where the Pulitzer announcements are made each April). The Pulitzer Prizes were created with part of this money and were first awarded in 1917.

The first Pulitzer Prize in music was awarded in 1943. Although he had a passion for music, his will did not call for a prize in that area, but only a scholarship for a music student. Instead, he bequeathed $500,000 to the New York Philharmonic Society--an amount equal to the entire Pulitzer Prize bequest. In 1943 the Pulitzer Board converted the scholarship to a prize. The requirements were stated:

"For distinguished musical composition in the larger forms of chamber, orchestral, or choral work, or for an operatic work (including ballet), first performed or published by a composer of established residence in the United States, Five hundred dollars ($500)."

The first recipient was William Schuman for his "Secular Cantata No. 2: A Free Song" for full chorus of mixed voices, with accompaniment of orchestra.
1943: National Institute of Arts and Letters award
1942: Award of Merit, National Association of American Composers and Conductors
1942: New York Music Critics Circle Award (for "Symphony No. 3")
1940: First Town Hall League of Composers Award (for "String Quartet No. 3")
1939-1941: Guggenheim Fellowships

© 1986 Bruce Duffie

This interview was recorded on the telephone on April 2, 1986.  Portions (along with recordings) were used on WNIB the next day, and again in 1988, 1989, 1990, 1992, 1995, and 2000.  This transcription was made and posted on this website in 2011.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.

Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.