Monthly Archives: August 2017

The Stealth Populism of William Schuman and Jaromir Weinberger

We heard Charles Ives by way of William Schuman last month on Discoveries, so it’s appropriate that we should hear Schuman on his own this month. You may remember that Ives had composed Variations on “America” for organ in 1891; William Schuman orchestrated it in 1964 and it’s been in the repertory ever since.

Ives is the epitome of an American-ness flowing through American music, but we could go back another century to a composer who is really the fountainhead, William Billings (1746–1800). Schuman’s 1956 homage to the shape-note composer, New England Triptych, uses three Billings tunes, “Be Glad then, America,” “When Jesus Wept,” and the hymn-turned-marching-song, “Chester.” These are strong and beautiful melodies, fresh with the spirit of a new country. Schuman’s treatment of them is brilliant.

But William Schuman was also a symphonist of great originality. His Seventh out of ten (he withdrew the first two) is from 1960, a commission for the 75th anniversary of the Boston Symphony. Here Schuman is at the height of his power, composing music that is both aggressively rhythmic and deeply romantic. It is a large-hearted American symphony.

There is an irony: William Schuman is known mostly as a composer for his Billings and Ives forays into Americana. But this president of Juilliard, this president of Lincoln Center, this winner of Pulitzers and multiple awards also composed music inspired by the Sears-Roebuck catalog, wrote dozens of pop songs, and as a teenager played bass in his own wedding and bar mitzvah band, Billy Schuman and his Alamo Society Orchestra. And he was, like Ives, a huge fan of baseball, even writing an opera called The Mighty Casey.

Prague-born Jaromir Weinberger studied composition with Vítězslav Novák and counterpoint with Max Reger, but his many works overflow with a love for folk music. His opera Schwanda the Bagpiper was an immediate and huge hit in 1926; the Polka and Fugue from it was introduced in concert four years later. The opera and the concert piece are still played today and are why most know Weinberger’s name. He taught at Cornell and at what is now Ithaca College, returned to Czecho-slovakia, then fled the Nazis after they started banning his music. He came back to the U.S. and received American citizenship in 1948.

Schwanda and its Polka and Fugue were something of a curse for Weinberger, haunting him with the fact that nothing else rose to that level of popularity. Weinberger’s music, like Schuman’s, could be as strict and sober as might be expected of honored composers. As exciting and profound as their output could be, though, it was the populism that stuck. That bothers some composers more than others. For us listeners at this remove (Schuman died 25 years ago; Weinberger, 50), we’re happy that they were here to produce all they did. Be glad then, America.

PROGRAM:

William Schuman (1910–1992). New England Triptych: Three Pieces for Orchestra after William Billings (1956)

Schuman. Symphony No. 7 (1960)

Jaromir Weinberger (1896–1967). Polka and Fugue from Schwanda the Bagpiper (1926)

 

Hitting a Brick Wall

[First published in Broad Street Review, 1 Aug 2017]

Bricks.jpg

This is the part they don’t tell you when they’re telling you about composing. This is the part where every start to your piece is wrong, every note is wrong, every page you’re disbelievingly staring at is false and mocking and hateful and you don’t know how to fix it. Two weeks and 26 pages go by—and all you need are three pages, maybe, because all you need is one minute, max—and not any of it is good. They came to you because it’s the big Reformation anniversary, and they wanted a fanfare to A Mighty Fortress, and you’re a Lutheran and you’ve done this Lutheran stuff before and oh, You’re perfect for this, they said, This’ll be great, they said, and you said, It’ll be great. A minute of music, and you are further away than when you started, further away because you have nothing, and now everyone will realize, finally, that you’re not a composer at all and you never were.

No, they never tell you this part about composing.

Sick of it, you slink out of your composing room and into the yard. Maybe you’ll move some bricks, there are always bricks to move. You made a patio out of old bricks once, you know bricks well. Hitting together, they make a clock sound, deeper than click. And always a double-hit. A flam, drummers call it. They sound higher when someone else is moving them and you’re farther away—they almost ping—but when you’re right on top of them, it’s clock.

From the front and side porches you’d removed all the bricks that held up the half-length wood columns when years ago you had full columns installed like what the porch originally had. All those bricks you carried to the backyard, stacking them into a low wall to hide the compost pile, then moving and re-stacking them later when you expanded to two piles. You bordered garden beds with them, and moved them again when you rejiggered the beds. You made brick holding areas for loose stone. You stacked extras next to the tottering old shed and when you tore that down stacked them behind the new shed. You know the sound.

Chunks of cement sound lower than bricks. You broke up a sidewalk once and tossed the chunks onto a pile: thud for the first chunk, then tuckle for all the others as they hit each other.

Oh stop it, you’re wasting time. You should be composing. But… you’ve always loved the personality of sounds. Maybe loved is too strong. You’ve always noted it. The hard susurration of an extension ladder, somehow cold and warm at the same time, like swimming in a lake. The finch’s peep and the cardinal’s liquid pip and the difference between the adult sparrow’s cheep and the young, fuzzy, fledgling sparrow’s chreef-chreef-chreef.

George Crumb once told you at a formal dinner about how when he was a boy growing up in West Virginia he would hear a dog bark at night, way down and across the hollow. There’s nothing in the world like that sound, he said, and you looked into his smiling eyes and in an instant you understood the music of George Crumb.

When you were a boy you remember saying the Lord’s Prayer in church but you were embarrassed because you loved—yes, loved is the right word—the s sounds. You waited for the s’s in the Lord’s Prayer in your church, a new one, built after you were born, one of those churches built in the ’60s, concrete and glass and acute and new, cold and bright and metal and modern because nobody wanted in the 1960s to be old. Those s’s rang with white and sharp echoes. They hit your face like a message, like a dive into water.

The s’s take a long time to show up in the Lord’s Prayer. It isn’t until “as it is in heaven” that you get one. But then they pelt, more and faster—give us this day, forgive us our trespasses—trespasses, a triple, what a delicious word to say out loud, and even then, even as a boy, you caught the curve of enjoying that word while praying it out of you. Each s caromed off concrete angles and bounced off glass and sizzled in your ears, as everyone prayed and you prayed, saying each s a little louder than the word around it.

As… we forgive those… who tres… pass… against… us…, each s springboarding, vaulting into the air. You could not write a prayer better than this, you’d think, ashamed at arrogating that place to yourself. The s’s slapped your face and you felt the tres… pass… against… us…: Sometimes you felt those trespasses more than your own, yes, yes, you did.

And then it came. Lead us not into—here came the only sh in the whole prayer; all this time you waited for the sh; and here it came—temptation, the sh, the shun, from you and from everyone, exploding into the walls.

A forgive us is left and a thine is is left, and that is it.

You carry that with you still. The s’s are unexpected signals, barks across the hollow for you, barlines in the music of the Lord’s Prayer. The irregularity as much as the sound is what you loved. It was like chant to you—you fell in love with chant in the same way, music in unlikely two-beat chunks and three-beat chunks tuckling over each other. Like chant and like, yes, those chorales from the Reformation, those original, word-driven, non-smoothed-out versions of chorales like… oh, wait, yes…

A Mighty Fortress.

Ein feste Burg. Da-dahhhdahhhdahhh. Yes—one-Two three Four five Six sev’n, one-Two three Four five Six sev’n. That could work. That could be a fanfare.

A day later, three pages and one minute later, you have it. This is the part they don’t tell you. You were so worried about composing and all you had to do was listen.