New England Triptych

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            It’s hard to decide if William Schuman made a greater impact upon American musical life as a composer or as a music administrator, for he enjoyed a most distinguished career as both.  Born in the Bronx, his early musical life revolved around popular music; he composed a tango as his first effort and formed his own dance band. As a very young man he collaborated with the great Frank Loesser and Edward B. Marks.  But his career in publishing popular songs gradually was brought to an end when he went to his first symphony concert at the age of twenty, hearing Toscanini and the New York Philharmonic.   He thereupon dropped out of business school and started music studies at the Juilliard School and the Salzburg Mozarteum, and ultimately earned bachelors and masters degrees from Columbia.  His early mentor was Roy Harris, and the latter remained an important musical influence upon him.  His compositions—especially his second symphony---came to the notice of such luminaries as Copland and Koussevitzky, and by the early nineteen forties, the commissions and honors came rolling in.

            In 1945, after teaching at Sarah Lawrence for ten years, he became president of the Juilliard School.  During his tenure there he made a profound impact upon the organization of the school, initiating too many changes to list.  In 1962 he became president of Lincoln Center in New York City, locating the Juilliard School as part of the complex, and founding such programs as the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and the Film Society.  After he retired from Lincoln Center he went on to other distinguished positions in musical leadership.  No wonder that in 1962 he was the first guest on the CBS game show, “What’s My Line?”!

            While he composed in many genres, his nine symphonies, other orchestral works, and his vocal music are his most significant.  New England Triptych is a setting of three hymns by the important New England composer of the time of the American Revolution, William Billings (1846-1800).  Schuman wrote: “His works capture the spirit of sinewy ruggedness, deep religiosity, and patriotic fervor that we associate with the Revolutionary period in American history.”  The first movement skillfully weaves together different parts of Billings’ hymn, showing Schuman’s preference for clear separation of orchestral colors.   The second movement features solo bassoon, and then accompanying oboe, in a kind of round, following Billings’ original.  The last movement is a spirited evocation of the hymn that became the Colonial Army’s marching song:


Let tyrants shake their iron rod,

And slavery clank her galling chains,

We fear them not, we trust in God,

New England’s God forever reigns.


--Wm. E. Runyan

© 2015 William E. Runyan