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‘No man gets to finish everything that he starts in life. Schuman finished more than most dare dream,’ writes Swayne. While Schuman’s childhood dreams may have been of baseball – he ended up a lifelong fan – events took a decisive turn in 1930 at a New York Philharmonic concert. Such was the effect of hearing symphonic music for the first time that he resolved to become a composer, immediately withdrawing from his university business course to begin composition classes.

That is the myth of this particular Orpheus, anyway (Swayne gently suggests that Schuman misremembered events). In any case, Schuman’s is an almost stereotypically American story. A high-spirited adolescent and lover of outdoor activity, he starts to dabble in writing light jazz, eventually moving as a student to New York where he begins making his mark on Tin Pan Alley. Then comes the decision to study composition – fortunately he turns out to be a natural. Five years later he lands a job organising the musical activities at Sarah Lawrence College and makes such an impact that within 15 years of that first concert he finds himself president of the Juilliard School (his desire to shake things up there will ultimately see him ousted, but not before he has handled the move of the school to the new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts). His symphonies are being conducted by Serge Koussevitsky, he is writing music for Martha Graham, is pals with Aaron Copland, has won the first Pulitzer prize for music and is considered ‘the most powerful man in musical America’. Not just a powerful administrator, either, but also one of the country’s most pre-eminent composers.

Yet there is an irony that, for all his legacy as an administrator and fervent advocate of US music generally, his own music – serious despite Schuman’s early show tune days, with an upfront style that divided critics throughout his career – has been eclipsed in a way that Copland’s, say, has not. This book, a detailed but not laborious chronicle and a useful resource (there’s a thorough index, list of works and plenty of information about their creation, first performances and reception), bangs the drum for it well.

TOBY DELLER Read the full review on Agora Classica


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