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William Schuman and the “New England Tryptich”

     William Howard Schuman (August 4, 1910 – February 15, 1992) was an American composer and music administrator who was born in Manhattan in New York City to Jewish parents Samuel and Rachel Schuman and  named after the twenty-seventh U.S. president, William Howard Taft, though his family preferred to call him Bill. Schuman played the violin and banjo as a child and while still in high school formed a dance band, “Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra”, that played local weddings and bar mitzvahs in which Schuman played string bass.

     In 1928 he entered New York University’s School of Commerce to pursue a business degree, at the same time working for an advertising agency but also wrote popular songs with E. B. Marks, Jr., a friend he had met long before at summer camp. About then Schuman met lyricist Frank Loesser and wrote some forty songs with him. Loesser’s first published song, “In Love with a Memory of You”, credits the music to William H. Schuman.  On April 13, 1930, Schuman went with his older sister, Audrey, to a Carnegie Hall concert of the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.

     Schuman dropped out of school and quit his part-time job to study music at the Malkin Conservatory with Max Persin and Charles Haubiel. From 1933 to 1938 he studied privately with Roy Harris. In 1935, Schuman received his B.S. degree in Music Education from Teachers College at Columbia University. Harris brought Schuman to the attention of the conductor Serge Koussevitzky, who championed many of his works. Koussevitzky conducted Schuman’s Symphony No. 2 in 1939. Possibly Schuman’s best known symphony, the Symphony for Strings, was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky, and was first performed under Koussevitzky on November 12, 1943.

     In 1943 Schuman won the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for Music for his cantata A Free Song, adapted from poems by Walt Whitman. From 1935 to 1945, he taught composition at Sarah Lawrence College. In 1945, he became president of the Juilliard School, founding the Juilliard String Quartet while there. He left in 1961 to become the first president of Lincoln Center, a position he held until 1969. In 1987, he was awarded the National Medal of Arts.   He died in New York City at age 81, leaving a substantial body of work including eight symphonies, a concerto for violin (1947, rev. 1959) , the New England Triptych (1956, based on melodies by William Billings), the American Festival Overture (1939), the ballets Undertow (1945) and Judith (1949), the Mail Order Madrigals (1972), George Washington Bridge (1950) for concert band, and two operas, The Mighty Casey (1953, based on Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”), and A Question of Taste (1989, after a short story by Roald Dahl).

     Perhaps his best-known works are as follows:

                New England Tryptich: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings. 

                Symphony No. 3 (1941).

                Violin Concerto (1959).


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