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Reviewed by:
  • American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman
  • Andrea Olmstead
American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman. By Joseph W. Polisi. New York: Amadeus Press, 2008. [xvii, 595 p. ISBN 9781574671735. $32.95.] Illustrations, music examples, bibliography, index.

To start at the beginning: Does the title American Muse: The Life and Times of William Schuman reflect its content? “American Muse” is the subtitle of Schuman’s Tenth Symphony. As president of the Juilliard School of Music (1945–61) and of Lincoln Center (1962–68), Schuman never taught composition. His biographer makes no attempt to show him as a muse in the sense of an inspirational influence on younger composers. Copland was a muse in part because he left his considerable estate to a fund to promote American music. The William Schuman Music Trust, overseen by Joseph Polisi and Schuman’s two children and whose address is Juilliard, exists solely to promote Schuman’s music. In any case, the author doubtless sees Schuman as his own arts-administrator muse, because Schuman had campaigned to obtain for Polisi the presidency of the (by then renamed) Juilliard School. Second, the term Times in the title overstates the case. A biography of a witty, energetic, and charmed man, the book also looks at the music. It does not, however, cover sufficient cultural or general history to qualify as a “Times of William Schuman.”

Two previous books on William Schuman have been hagiographies. The Flora Rheta Schreiber and Vincent Persichetti biography William Schuman (New York: G. Schirmer, 1954) was commissioned by its publisher when Schuman served as editor there. Not a musicologist, Schreiber relied on as fact what the forty-three-year-old Schuman told her about his life. Christopher Rouse, an early fan of Schuman’s music, wrote a pamphlet, William Schuman Documentary, also published by Schirmer (in 1980), where Schuman had gotten Rouse a job. It, too, is a case of Schuman, originally an advertising man, polishing his image. Both lack documentation. My own book, Juilliard: A History (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999) devotes a chapter to Schuman.

Polisi had originally tried to please Schuman’s widow Frankie by writing—or finding someone to write—a biography that would rely solely on Schuman’s own words, collected in five oral histories. She did “not want a musicological study that would analyze her husband’s life through a revisionist or psychological lens, nor did she want a theoretical analysis of his music such as she had read in recent biographies of composers she had known” (p. ix). Not surprisingly, Polisi could find no musicologist willing to take so one-sided a view of the subject. His book is best described as an “authorized biography.”

We have not yet had a definitive biography, an unbiased appraisal of the composer’s life, his music, and his impact as an administrator. Polisi’s documented book attempts “an honest and complete biography” (p. ix), but he, too, presents the composer’s version of events. Investigation of these events reveals Schuman’s considerable distortions to show him in the best possible and most dramatic light. Polisi does report negative reviews of the music—alas, there are many—but these are counteracted by the author’s assertions of Schuman’s greatness.

Efforts at control of legacy and image by a composer’s widow, estate, or an institution need to be addressed formally by musicologists. A set of guidelines drawn up and endorsed by the American Musicological [End Page 311] Society, although not legally binding, might perhaps serve as an ethical guidepost to influence estates to allow access to all scholars. For example: Sidney Cowell outlived her husband by thirty years, and her will had the effect of extending her restrictions on primary sources an additional five years. She allowed access to her husband’s materials, at the New York Public Library (NYPL), to one authorized biographer, Joel Sachs (whose book has yet to appear). Michael Hicks nevertheless managed to publish an unauthorized, but excellent, biography of Henry Cowell, Henry Cowell: Bohemian (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002).

Has a consensus formed in which Schuman is now seen as a major composer? His “most popular...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-150X
Print ISSN
0027-4380
Pages
pp. 311-313
Launched on MUSE
2009-12-05
Open Access
No
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