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American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman
by Dr. Joseph W. Polisi
595 pp
Over 50 B&W and color photos and illustrations
6" x 9"
22.95; $32.95


Experience Classicsonline

This is the first complete biography of Schuman and does not leave any yawning gap nor does it invite a successor.

I once referred to William Schuman as something of a ‘suit’. It was to make a point that he was much more than that. But he was a ‘suit’ - at least that was one facet of his life’s achievement. Some composers have that administrative streak that makes them invaluable if sometimes uncomfortable administrative artistic leaders. Such people drive forward establishments and institutions through adept use of the bureaucratic paraphernalia. We somehow expect ‘our’ composers to be aesthetic lions who disdain committee meetings and salaries. At the same time we ignore their need to make a living – to exist. We idolise the unpractical, inspirational and spontaneous driven by the falling spark of inspiration. We think of composers’ partners, long-suffering and self-effacing who run the composer’s life, act as social and professional secretaries, facilitate everything from the washing to the next contract and appointment and commission. Some composers however combine that practical professional aspect with the unleashing of the wilder reaches of inspiration. One thinks of Bantock and of Dyson. In the USA one thinks of Mennin and of William Schuman.

Schuman (1910-1992) was President of The Juilliard School and then of the Lincoln Center from 1945 to 1968. He was for the most part a doughty man in committee meetings and out. This superb book embraces that world as well as its intermingling with artistic inspiration. He began his administrative work later in the morning and allocated his work as composer to the period from dawn to his arrival in the office. His work as a man with vision about artistic education of which music was only part is fully grappled with. His run-ins with millionaires, beneficiaries calling the shots, chairpersons and chief executives are addressed. It was as much part of his life as the cut and thrust of his music. When it was suggested to him that he should not feel under duty to write music he made it clear that he wrote music as a matter of internal compulsion; even so there were more than a few commissions. The narrative ark created by Polisi mixes that world of minutes, strategies, policies, committees, memoranda, letters, press statements and plans with the world of Schumann’s inscape – the realm that boiled into existence ten symphonies, orchestral pieces, concertos, his string quartets and choral works.

This masterly composer wrote two, for me, iconic works - the gloriously kinetic Third Symphony and the blackly and scorchingly dramatic Violin Concerto. He was one the pre-eminent movers and shakers of the artistic scene leaving his decisive mark on music, dance and drama in the USA in the second half of the twentieth century. His music has sensational power in so many ways and if you have not already heard his Third Symphony or Violin Concerto then make it your business to track them down in any version but preferably the Bernstein (Sony) and Zukofsky (DG) discs respectively. I have known the Concerto since I played the 1971 DG LP to scratchy death and the Third since ordering the Columbia Masterworks Bernstein LP from Crotchet in 1979 just after qualifying. Schuman’s work is dramatically exciting and is lit with a filament that is part furnace and part neon. These two works are not isolated flashes in the pan either but do start there.

Criticisms of the book? I didn’t warm to the extracting of detailed analysis of ten select works into a separate section after the biographical account. In isolation these seem to a non-musician quite difficult going. There should have been yet more of a compact flavour of the music at relevant points in the biography. I also regretted the lack of a detailed list of works and performance details.

For more information about the book please visit

For more information about Schuman do search MusicWeb International but also have a look at

This handsome and eminently readable book will appeal to both actual and incipient fans of this composer’s music. It informs and encourages further exploration. It also reaches out to the constituency of those interested in the workings of great institutions and the part played in them by passionate and larger than life characters like William Schuman.

Rob Barnett



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