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A true American original

William Schuman never achieved the kind of name recognition that was enjoyed by his friends and colleagues Leonard Bernstein and Aaron Copland, but he probably had a stronger and more durable effect on American musical life. In a life that remained active and productive until very near its end last weekend, he had become something like a national monument, but he remained one of the most accessible composers on the scene _ in person as in his music.

You might see him, occasionally, at the intermission of a concert in Lincoln Center. In that incredible performing arts complex, he had the status of a founding father, but he would be standing in the lobby, incognito, mingling with the music lovers to whom he had dedicated an energetic, multifaceted life. His conversation was always relaxed, alert, tinged with a dry, slightly self-deprecating humor. He was modest with the special humility of men who have accomplished much but feel they could and probably should have done more.

Schuman was essentially a conservative in his composing style, a melodist fond of counterpoint and traditional tonality who persevered through the postwar infatuation with serialism and atonality and fortunately lived long enough to see his artistic ideals come back into favor. "It feels strange to be an old Romantic thrown in with all these new Romantics," he observed casually at a New York Philharmonic intermission in the mid-'80s.

A whole cycle of music history was implied in that offhand comment in a crowded lobby. History was also enshrined in the photos on a wall of his spacious Park Avenue apartment, near the piano that he insisted he really couldn't play: friends such as Copland and Bernstein; performers such as Martha Graham, for whom he composed several ballet scores; Roy Harris, who was his teacher; Serge Koussevitzky, who encouraged him early in his career and conducted some crucial premieres.

Schuman died last Saturday in New York, where he had been born on Aug. 4, 1910. He had led a double life, as composer and arts administrator, through most of a musical career that began when he was in his teens, playing the violin and leading a dance band called Billy Schuman and His Alamo Society Orchestra, writing popular songs and dance numbers.

His legacy as a composer includes some of the most notable American symphonies, ballets, cantatas and chamber compositions of the last half-century, as well as two operas: The Mighty Casey (1953), which he also reworked into the cantata Casey at the Bat; and A Question of Taste, based on a story by Roald Dahl, which had its first performance in 1989. His symphonies are works of complex texture, high energy, exuberant melodic invention and expert orchestration. He completed 10 of them, making him the only major composer since Beethoven in the Central European-American tradition to go beyond Beethoven's nine.

Two of his best-loved compositions employ his extraordinary skill as an orchestral composer with themes from earlier American composers: his orchestration of the Variations on America composed for organ by Charles Ives and his New England Triptych, using hymn tunes by the Revolutionary-era composer William Billings.

When he began to establish his reputation in the 1930s and early '40s, with his Piano Concerto (1938), American Festival Overture (1939) and Symphonies No. 3 and 4 (both 1941), Schuman was the youngest American composer to gain wide recognition. He won two Pulitzer Prizes, including the first ever awarded for music _ in 1943, for his cantata A Free Song with text by Walt Whitman. Two years earlier, he had won the first New York Music Critics' Circle Award for his Symphony No. 3. Among two dozen other awards, medals and honorary degrees, he was a Kennedy Center honoree in 1989.

These achievements are all the more remarkable in view of the fact that he had not become interested in classical music until April 1930, when he was 19 and his mother and sister lured him to a New York Philharmonic Concert. "It absolutely changed my life," he recalled later. "The next day, I withdrew from college. Walking through Manhattan, I passed a school called the Malkin Conservatory of Music. I walked in and told them, "I want to be a composer. What do I have to do?'


Amid all this artistic productivity, plus work as a teacher and a consultant to the music publisher G. Schirmer, Schuman also found time for some pioneering work in arts administration. He was president of the Juilliard School of Music (raising it to its present level of recognized excellence) from 1945 to 1962, then the first president of the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts from 1962 to 1969. In both these positions, he founded chamber music ensembles that were soon ranked with the world's best: the Juilliard String Quartet and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center.

His work to develop places and institutions responsible for teaching and performing music at the highest level may turn out to be even more important, in the long run, than his own creations.