William Schuman, New England Triptych

by Richard Wilson

Written for the concert American Variations: Perle at 100, performed on May 29, 2015 at Carnegie Hall.

Born August 4, 1910, in New York City
Died February 15, 1992, in New York City
Composed in 1956, commissioned by André Kostelanetz
Premiered October 26, 1956, in Miami by the Miami University Symphony Orchestra conducted by André Kostelanetz
Performance Time: Approximately 15 minutes
Instruments for this performance: 3 flutes, 1 piccolo, 2 oboes, 1 English horn, 2 clarinets, 1 E-flat clarinet, 1 bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, 1 tuba, timpani, percussion (snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, tenor drum), 22 violins, 8 violas, 8 cellos, and 6 double basses

William Billings (1746–1800), friend of Sam Adams and Paul Revere, may be deemed America’s first composer. Despite a missing eye, a withered arm, a short leg, and an addiction to snuff, he wrote over 300 anthems, fuguing tunes, rounds, and hymns, many of which became popular during the Revolutionary era. It is from Billings that William Schuman derived the melodic materials for his New England Triptych. The beginning movement, “Be Glad Then, America,” understandably popular with players of the timpani, draws its themes from Billings’ anthem of that title and much of its texture from the block-chord style of church hymns. The exuberant, celebratory tone turns mournful in “When Jesus Wept,” an expressive arch framed by dirge-like oboe, drum, and bassoon. The symmetrical shape mirrors Billings’ original round, but Schuman employs triadic harmonies in relationships that would have puzzled the eighteenth century. Billings’ patriotic anthem, “Chester,” the text of which is “Let tyrants shake their iron rod/And Slav’ry clank her galling chains/We fear them not, we trust in God/New England’s God for ever reigns,” became a marching song for Patriot soldiers during the war, a fact not lost on William Schuman as he elevates the level of exuberance to make a triumphant ending.

Following its premiere, André Kostelanetz led the New York Philharmonic in the work on November 8, 1956.

Richard Wilson is ASO’s Composer in Residence and the Mary Conover Mellon Professor of Music at Vassar College.