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About this Piece

Composed: 1940-1941
Length: c. 30 minutes
Orchestration: 4 flutes (2nd and 3rd = piccolo), 3 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, contrabassoon, 8 horns, 4 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (bass drum, cymbals, snare drum, and xylophone), piano, and strings
First Los Angeles Philharmonic performance: August 29, 1963, Leonard Bernstein conducting

Institutionally at least, Schuman was the American composer at the middle of the 20th century. In 1941 he won the first New York Music Critics’ Circle Award for his Symphony No. 3, in 1943 he won the first Pulitzer Prize in music for A Free Song (with another Pulitzer to come in 1985), and in 1955 he became the first composer commissioned by the United States government (Credendum). A professor at Sarah Lawrence College and director of publications at G. Schirmer, he also became president of Juilliard and Lincoln Center, among many other foundation and festival positions.

The Third Symphony was his breakthrough work. Commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky after Aaron Copland introduced the conductor to Schuman’s music, the Third Symphony had its highly successful premiere in October 1941 from Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Widespread performances quickly followed, winning glowing reviews, including one from a Harvard undergraduate, Leonard Bernstein. Gramophone labeled it “one of the masterpieces of the 20th century” and it remains the most frequently played of Schuman’s nine symphonies (including the First and Second Symphonies, which the composer withdrew).

It is not hard to understand the impact and popularity of this boldly constructed and vividly colored work. In Leonard Bernstein’s 1960 recording of the piece, Leonard Slatkin identified “rhythmic vitality, melodic lyricism, and harmonic intensity, all hallmarks of this composer.” Written for a large orchestra, the work is cast in two bipartite movements: Passacaglia and Fugue, and Chorale and Toccata.

A passacaglia is a Baroque form of continuous variation over a repeating bass line, a form also beloved by Brahms, among later composers. Schuman’s Passacaglia is an ingenious tour-de-force, with the repeating line rising by half steps each time, while a new part is added canonically to each variation. It crests in a free, deeply serious episode before the trombones restore the original bass line with maximum sonority.

That introduces the Fugue, which has an edgy first subject heard in the horns and pizzicato violas and cellos. Picking up on the Passacaglia’s procedures, the four voices of the Fugue enter in rising half-step increments and Schuman creates a variation movement out of the fugue episodes. A cadenza for the timpani diverts the fugal process into an aggressive, massive orchestral display, with heroic trumpet writing that presages the John Williams of Star Wars and Indiana Jones.

Predictably perhaps, the Chorale is almost as contrapuntal as the Passacaglia and Fugue, opening with a dark, soft hymn for divided violas and cellos. The Chorale has its own swell to rhapsodic fervor, before dwindling to muted brass. But Schuman still has the ultimate climactic crescendo left, capping the quick and muscular Toccata.

— John Henken is Director of Publications for the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.