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William Schuman [1910-1992]


If you lived in Chicago in the late 1950s and early ’60s, the chances are very good that you’ll recall WFMT radio, the classical station at 98.7 on your FM dial. I grew up musically on the broadcasts of Marty Robinson and especially Norm Pellegrini (1929-2009) each of whom elevated my musical taste far above where it ought to have been for a fifteen-year-old. Saturday afternoons were particularly weird, because I worked at my dad’s gas station and listened to WFMT between pumping gas, wiping windows, checking oil and ATF fluid, and, when I was old enough, actually greasing cars. Yes, I know how to give a lube job.

I recall one particular Saturday when Norm programmed William Schuman’s Symphony #3, a 1941 work commissioned by the BSO and premiered by Serge Koussevitsky himself. It may very well have been that recording I heard. Bill Schuman, by the way, is not the German “Romantic” composer you may be thinking of; that would be Robert Schumann, with two N’s; wife Clara. No, Bill Schuman (I’m given to understand he preferred to be called “Bill”) was an American composer of the 20th century who grew to be among my most favored. Somehow I came to associate the 1941-ishness of his third symphonic work with my own 1945-ishness. In other words, I gradually identified with a work that was my near contemporary. That particular Saturday afternoon—in about 1961, I suspect—I probably played the radio a bit too loud in the station for any other sort of actual conversation to take place: the end is particularly raucous. Schuman is on my mind this afternoon for two related reasons: #1) there is a recent recording of a work that had never been released previously (“The Witch of Endor”) and #2) I almost wrote him to commission a work.

Most of you will have graduated from a typical American high school and on the way out the door your class is very likely to have made a “Senior Class” gift to the school, some useless piece of flotsam with a brass plaque proudly claiming it as a benefaction financially underwritten by car washes, bake sales, and other such low-yield find-raising activities. There came an afternoon when my class, the Class of 1963, met to determine what we would leave behind. And I recall hesitantly raising my hand to offer a modest suggestion—about as modest in retrospect as Jonathan Swift’s proposition for dealing with the excess Irish population. “Why don’t we,” I intoned in my richest baritone (I’ve since become a tenor), “find a living American composer and commission from them a graduation march: The Argo Community High School Class of ’63 Graduation March. A piece of music that would enter the repertoire and be forever identified with our graduating class; a work that might actually be played by other schools for their graduation launch into the adult world. The reaction of my classmates was, in hindsight, precisely what I should have anticipated: There was a collective gasp and an aghast chorus of “BUT ‘POMP & CIRCUMSTANCE’ IS TRADITIONAL!”

“Tradition” is an odd concept, because there has to have been a time when tradition was new; “B.T.” = Before Tradition. What, I wondered aloud to my classmates, was played at high school graduations before Sir Edward Elgar wrote ‘Pomp & Circumstance” in 1901 (actually a group of six marches identified as Opus 39; it’s the No. 1 that we hear most often). What had been “traditional” before then? When did the Elgar piece itself attain the status of “tradition”? Arguments that fell flat before a hostile crowd. They would hear nothing of such heresy. We would march into our high school gymnasium to the tune of Sir Edward and that was all there was to it. Which we did, indeed, do. What, you ask, was the graduation gift that we eventually settled on? A score board for the swimming pool, which must have shorted out after a couple years’ service and been consigned to the scrap heap of electronic progress.

That desire to commission a work of music had to wait. Forty-four years, in fact, until I mustered the courage to approach another American composer, Daron Hagen, and propose a sesqui-centennial march for the fictional town of Agincourt, Iowa. I don’t think that Bill Schuman would have turned us down and I had faith that Daron Hagen would be equally intrigued by such an exotic proposition. William Schuman died in 1992, so we’ll never know. But I’ll bet it would have been a show stopper and put our high school on the map for at least a week or two.

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